3D modeling applications are notoriously complex and can take years to learn. Complicated modeling tools, infinite material setting variables, lighting radiance adjustments, multiple cameras, UVs, etc., it can all be quite daunting and frankly unnecessary for someone looking to create a quick mockup. Enter Google SketchUp, an amazing free application for creating professional (non photo-realistic) 3D models on the fly.
Though SketchUp is relatively simple compared to more robust 3D applications, it still has a ton of features… too many too enumerate here. This review will briefly cover some of the principal features and tools in SketchUp and offer a little insight into how you can create complex geometry in a jiffy.
Pretend You Can Draw
Imagine you’re a page layout guru hired to design a few POS pieces (that’s “point-of-sale” for you non-retail folks) for a major retail chain. You speak fluent InDesign and were born to make cool reflections in Photoshop so you’ve got the sign art covered. But what if the client asks you to mock-up a store environment showcasing your artwork for a presentation? Do you reveal your dirty little secret that you’re a “designer” who can’t draw? Or maybe outsource the project and take the cut in your profit margin?
The answer is neither. With SketchUp, no one ever need know you are functionally incompetent with a drawing pencil. True to it’s name, SketchUp is ideal for creating sketch-quality artwork. A plethora of one-click styles make it super simple to create an impressive presentation board that will amaze your clients. Here’s a quick peek at just a few of the styles that you can apply to a model:
The Interface and Palettes
The main window in SketchUp is very similar that of any other 3D application. It features a blank 3D canvas and horizon along with three axes: red, green and blue (in place of the typical x, y and z). The axis that a given shape will follow depends on your vantage point. Begin drawing from a top down view and you’ll draw a shape lying on the ground. Begin drawing from a front view and your shape will be standing in 3D space.
Along the top of the main window is a strip of basic 3D tools and buttons for quickly adjusting your camera angle and artwork style. Under View>Tool Palettes>Large Tool Set you can activate your full set of tools, many of which are redundant with the tools running along the top. Here’s a look at the full toolbar along with the keyboard shortcuts corresponding to each tool:
Most of the other tools, settings and features in SketchUp are contained in palettes. As you can see below, there are a ton of these. In fact there are way too many to keep on your screen at any given time. The SketchUp developers could definitely learn a thing or two about palette organization from Adobe. The palettes don’t connect like those you’ll find in Photoshop. Some of them seem to click into place below another palette while others just float free and refuse to dock properly. The content inside the palettes is fairly straightforward and easy to use. For instance, applying materials is as easy as dragging it to the surface you want it to be applied to.
3D Modeling for Dummies
A typical workflow in SketchUp will look like this: grab a shape tool, draw a plane (a flat piece of geometry) extrude the plane, and finally shape and customize the resulting 3D shape to resemble the item that you want. The way SketchUp makes this easy is through brilliantly simple implementation of the following items:
Simply click and drag a surface with the Push/Pull Tool to move it. If the surface is flat, this action will extrude it so that a 3D shape results (a square becomes a cube, a circle becomes a pillar, etc). If the surface is already part of 3D geometry, it will move the surface to make the 3D shape thinner or thicker.
This tool is also great for making holes in geometry. Draw a circle on a square plane and simply push it all the way through to make a hole. Another amazing feature of the Push/Pull tool is that it has a memory. Say you extrude a piece of geometry by three inches then you decide you want to do the exact same extrude on other surfaces. Simply double click those surfaces to automatically extrude them by three inches!
The offset tool makes it a snap to inset geometry. Click and drag a surface to create a perfectly inset version of the surface. Then Push/Pull to extrude and you’re making complex geometric shapes in seconds! Like the Push/Pull Tool, the Offset Tool can repeat the last action with a double click.
Follow Me Tool
The Follow Me Tool takes a minute to get the hang of, but once you figure it out it’s an invaluable time saver. First create a profile that you want to extrude and a path that you want to extrude it along. Follow me does the rest of the work and creates some really impressive geometry in no time at all.
When I use advanced 3D packages like Modo, this is the SketchUp feature that I miss the most. Similar in concept to smart guides in Adobe Illustrator, inferencing allows you to accomplish the tedious task of achieving perfect alignment in 3D space with ease. During an extrude, hover over a surface you want to align to and the geometry will snap into place. Inferencing works with moving, rotating, drawing lines, and pretty much every other tool. It sounds too basic to get excited about but trust me, this single feature can shave hours off of a large design project.
3D Warehouse & Google Earth
If you create something you’re proud of, you can upload it to the online 3D Warehouse to share with the SketchUp community. The 3D Warehouse provides users with a massive supply of prebuilt models that can be downloaded and inserted into a scene right from within SketchUp. Need to furnish that house you just built? Search the warehouse for a lamp and couch to fill the space. The warehouse also provides great insight into the kinds of things you can build with SketchUp. Here are a few examples:
You can also import your models into Google Earth to see them mapped onto a 3D terrain. How cool is that?
Yet another amazing feature of SketchUp is the ability to create impressive fly-through animations of your models in seconds. All you have to do is set a series of camera angles (or “scenes”) that you want to include. SketchUp fills in the gaps automatically with an animated transition that will leave your audience with the impression that you are a 3D movie master. Here’s a quick 3D text animation that I made in less than 5 minutes (including modeling time!).
Though Google provides SketchUp at the amazing price of $0, you can purchase SketchUp Pro for a whopping $495 (affordable student licensing is available). With SketchUp Pro you get more export features (including a sweet vector eps option), an additional app called Layout to create professional presentations with your models and a lot more freedom to customize styles and components within your models.
If you’re new to SketchUp, I highly recommend checking out the training videos on the SketchUp website. Watching these short videos will give you the knowledge base and skill set you need to create anything you can dream up. I’ve personally gone through most of them and it put me light years beyond what I knew from just fumbling around with the application on my own.
If you’re looking to create photorealistic 3D images, look elsewhere. SketchUp simply wasn’t created for that purpose (though third party render engines like Kerkythea and IDX Renditioner make it possible). SketchUp is intended to be more of a pencil sketch on steroids. If you need quality hand-drawn style three dimensional artwork, SketchUp is the way to go.
My main complaint with SketchUp lies in it’s poorly executed palettes that always seem to be in my way. Other than that I find some of the default textures to be quite poor and the soften edges feature to be abysmal. Creating rounded edges from scratch is easy enough but adjusting a hard edge with the soften edges command produces extremely poor results. I think introducing basic subdivision modeling into SketchUp would be among the best possible additions.
Overall, these complaints are extremely minor. I think SketchUp is a truly stellar application, amplified by the fact that you don’t have to fork out a single cent to get your hands on it. Go grab your free copy and start impressing clients and friends!
After trying SketchUp, be sure to check out the competition by downloading 3DVIA or Bonzai 3D. Let us know what you think of these or any other notable competitors you can find and how they stack up to SketchUp. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of each. Be sure to note that we don’t consider full fledged 3D modelers like Maya, Modo, or even the free application Blender to be direct competitors to SketchUp as they are more for heavy duty 3D modeling and rendering.