Learn Arch Viz: What Is It, and How Do I Do It?
What is Arch Viz?
Arch viz is short for architectural visualization. It has been my profession for the last 10 years, and my passion for much longer than that, but it still remains a mystery to many people. I often find it hard to describe exactly what I do to people. Sometimes it is easiest to just say, "I work for an architect." Of course, next thing I know they are asking me to draw their house plans. The truth is, I used to do that, but I switched to visualization because I found it much more creative and enjoyable. So, if arch viz isn't drawing or drafting house plans, what is it exactly, and why am I drawn to it?
An example of an arch viz rendering
I find arch viz to be an intriguing mix of technical and creative skills. In my work, I use various different software packages, all of which are very powerful and quite complicated. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is challenging myself with the learning of new software and new tools. In addition to the technical part, the software always serves a creative purpose too. I constantly learn new tools in order to expand my toolbox, therefore giving myself the most creative freedom possible, but we'll talk more about the specifics later. For now, I want to focus on an overall view of the arch viz process.
In the most basic sense, my job involves taking a design concept and visualizing it using whatever means necessary, so that a client can better understand the product that they will receive. The concepts can come in various different forms, including: sketches, cad drawings, pdfs, a pinterest page, random photos from around the internet, sketchUp models, etc. It is my job to interpret all of this information and translate it into a pleasing experience that the client can fully understand.
Just as concepts can come to me in various different forms, they can also reach the client in various different forms.
Most frequently, I produce simply a photo-realistic artist's rendition of the future building. Other times I create a computer generated animation, an immersive virtual reality experience of the building, or even a 3d print or physical model. This, of course, all depends on the needs of individual needs of the client, the budget, and the time available. One of the most important parts of being an arch viz artist is properly diagnosing the clients needs and producing the right product for the job. This is particularly important when you consider that some renderings are needed for pure "wow factor," and others need to be an exactly accurate depiction of the finished building. Each project is different.
As I mentioned, the process of generating visualizations can be quite technical, and there are various different expensive tools needed. I won't focus on the specifics just yet, but rather I will will break down the 3d graphics process into the major steps, regardless of the tools you are using.
Modeling is the most basic element of any 3d or arch viz project. It is simply the geometry, created in a virtual 3d viewport, of the building you are trying to render. This geometry, of course, will vary from a basic box to an extremely complex tree or other object. Each piece of geometry is made up of individual faces, or polygons. A complicated scene can easily have 20,000,000 polygons in it, and the artist is in charge of where each of those faces go. Here is an example of a complicated piece of furniture in its "polygon" form.
A model like this one can now be used in various different ways, depending on which direction the project is going. For example, you could now take this chair and apply color and materials to it, or you could send it to a 3d printer, or you could import it into a game engine to be used in virtual reality. We'll talk about all that, though. Keep reading.
Below is a video from my course,"3ds Max: A Comprehensive Introduction to 3d Graphics." This video demonstrates what it looks like inside of the 3d world, and illustrates some basic 3d modeling skills. You will see some of the basic building blocks and basic tools used to eventually create some very complex models.
So, I lied a little bit about the chair image. It isn't JUST a model, it also has some lighting applied. You can see some nice soft shadows being cast onto the ground under the chair. This is another important element of any 3d project. Modeling programs, like 3ds Max, usually have lighting tools built into them (SketchUp is an exception to this rule). By adding virtual lights, and shining them onto 3d models, arch viz artists can create very realistic looking forms. Software has become very advanced and accurate in depicting light over the last two decades especially. The advancement of global illumination has been particularly important. Global Illumination, or GI, is process by which light is bounced around in the scene, mimicking the physics or real-world light. Here is a better definition from Wikipedia:
Global illumination (shortened as GI), or indirect illumination, is a general name for a group of algorithms used in 3D computer graphics that are meant to add more realistic lighting to 3D scenes. Such algorithms take into account not only the light that comes directly from a light source (direct illumination), but also subsequent cases in which light rays from the same source are reflected by other surfaces in the scene, whether reflective or not (indirect illumination).
Here is another video with some basic lighting tools inside of 3ds Max:
In the real world, how we perceive things is not just determined by form and light, but also how light bounces off of those forms. In 3d, we deal with this using materials. 3d materials are generally made up of different 2d maps, and also colors. The 2d maps are simply flat images (usually .jpgs) that tell a certain property of that material how to act when light hits it. For example, maps can determine the color, reflectivity, glosiness and texture of a material. Once create these materials and apply them to your models, and add light, you are getting pretty close to something that looks very realistic.
In this image you can see everything coming together to create a rendering that looks quite real. The materials are no small part of this effect. For reference, look at the lens extension on the camera. There you can see the tiny scratches letting you know that it is made of brushed metal. This is created using a simple black and white map that tells the computer to be slightly less shiny in some areas than others. When maps are executed properly to show off the tiniest of detail, they can fool the human eye quite effectively.
Here is an old video that shows more about materials in V-Ray, just to give you a better idea of what we're talking about:
Once all these elements are brought together, it is time to actually create the rendering. Interestingly, this is where the artist takes a step back a little bit, and lets the computer do the work. At this point, the computer will take all the parameters you have created -- your models, your lights, your materials -- and calculate how they will look based on math / physics. So, if you done everything well, you will have a nice rendering when the computer is done. Don't assume the artist has no responsibility here, though. This is where technical knowledge will have to come into play again, since the artist is in charge of controlling exactly how the computer will do its work. There can be A LOT of settings.
Your renderings don't have to remain static. The beauty of 3d is that animation has become a lot more practical in many ways. For example, in arch viz, once we have the building we can simple take a camera and animate it around the building to create a movie. Of course, that means we have to render each frame individually (really the computer does the heavy lifting), but that is better than having to draw each frame, right?
Animation in 3d is created using keyframes. Essentially, you (the artist) tell the camera to "be here at this time," and,"be HERE at THIS time." Those are the keyframes. The software can fill in everything in between, and the artist can also manipulate how it does that. It is a pretty fast process when compared to what traditional animators had to do to create motion. Again, here is an example video showing some animation in 3ds max:
Post-processing refers to the processes that take place, post-rendering (duh!). This usually means some working in Photoshop, or some kind of compositing software like After Effects if we are talking about video. In the image below you can see an example of post-processing:
You might be surprised to learn that a lot of this image is not 3d work at all. The cars, street, sidewalks and store facades are the main things that were rendered. In post, people were added, along with the shop interiors, the background buildings and a bunch of other elements. In addition, the colors and light levels were also manipulated using Photoshop. Needless to say, post-processing is a very important part of the arch viz workflow, just as your 3d software is.
Check out the Photoshop area of learnArchViz.com in order to see various different things that you can do with Photoshop and post-production. Also, check out the video below to see some fun things you can do with Photoshop to make your 3d graphics look more "hand-drawn," (called non-photorealistic or NPR):
Once you have all of the elements of 3d put together, you are not limited to a simple rendering, or even and animation. As I mentioned earlier, you can now take it to virtual reality, using a game engine like Unity or Unreal Engine. I wrote a more comprehensive article about these subjects here. These are complicated software packages on their own, so taking things to this level is a whole other process. Fortunately, there are many resources available for learning online. If you have already mastered the basics of 3d, and you are ready to dive into VR, you can start with these videos. There is a series there about how to export your 3d models into Unreal Engine. Also, I created an entire course about taking your 3d models and turning them into a virtual reality experience, so if you are ready for that, check it out.
If you have created a nice 3d model, there is no reason why it can't also be used to create 3d print. Afterall, 3d prints are created based on the exact same info you already have, just a bunch of polygons. Now, you do need to be very careful about how you create your models or the 3d printer will mess it up. An overall good rule of thumb is that 3d printers, regardless of what technology it uses, can only print solid objects. That means that things need thickness, and they need to be fully enclosed - no gaps, no holes. If your model is clean, go ahead and try exporting to and .stl or an .obj file, and test it out in some 3d printing software. It's fun. Below is a video that is a bit outdated now, but it was made to demonstrate exactly how to prepare something for print using the Makerbot Replicator 2x:
Becoming an Arch Viz Professional
One of the best things about arch viz is that there is no set path to arrive there. I have worked with people from various different backgrounds, and my own degree is in art history. In truth, I had a really strong background in architecture even before going to college, and that also helped me a lot. Ultimately, though, it came down to me doing what I needed to do to learn the software on my own, and developing my own portfolio. Portfolio is king in this industry. No one that is hiring you cares much about how you learned how to create awesome images, they just care that you can.
You are probably wondering now, "how do I learn the software?" Well, let's talk about that.
WHAT SOFTWARE SHOULD I LEARN AND USE?
Before you start digging into learning some super expensive software, you should make sure that you are learning the right one. Other things might come into play too, like how serious you want to get with your 3d skills, and also your budget.
One thing to get out of the way right now is that there is a clear cut industry standard for software in the high-end arch viz world. It is the combo of 3ds Max for modeling, V-Ray for rendering, lighting and materials, and Photoshop for post-processing still images. So, if you want to get serious right away, just jump right in to those software packages, but I have to warn you, the learning curve can be really steep, and they can also be a bit hard on the pocket book.
There are other options when it comes to modeling. A lot of people use SketchUp to model. The benefit of SketchUp is that it has a much less steep learning curve, but with simplicity also comes some major limitations. For example, SketchUp has no built-in rendering functionality, or any serious animation tools at all. I do, however, receive a lot of models out of SketchUp that I can then take and add professional materials and lighting to in 3ds Max + V-Ray. Also, V-Ray now comes as a plugin for SketchUp. With that combo, it is actually possible to create some pretty nice renderings, but it is still limited when compared to the true industry standard combination that I discussed above.
One final modeling software that gets used a lot is actually Revit. Revit is a actually a BIM software, meaning that you create models there, but they are generally used to generate construction documents, not so much renderings. However, they can also be imported into 3ds Max for professional looking renderings. People will tell you that Revit can do renderings, but when you see Revit renderings you will understand why I disagree. I have never seen one that matches the quality of the high-end renderings that 3ds Max + V-Ray can produce. They certainly have their purpose, though.
When it comes to render engines, V-Ray is king, but there are some good alternatives now. Corona is really coming on strong. It can basically do the same things that V-Ray can, but has better pricing options. It can also do some cool things that V-Ray doesn't have. Mental Ray is also not a terrible option, but it also isn't a very good one. The benefit of Mental Ray is that it ships free with 3ds Max.
When it comes to post-processing still images, don't bother with anything other than Photoshop. Some people will use something like Gimp, and you can try that if the price is right, but every single serious professional that I know is an expert in Photoshop. For video, you can use Adobe After Effects to composite your videos, and it will make a lot of sense if you are already familiar with Photoshop. There are higher end compositing software packages, namely Nuke. It is more along the lines of what you find at a movie studio.
BEST WAY TO LEARN SOFTWARE AND BUILD A PORTFOLIO
A lot of people will make the mistake of randomly searching the net for tutorials on these various different software. This can work to an extent, especially if you need to learn something specific, but it is WAY better to get a solid, structured foundation first, then head out on your own into the wild. Others might want to just read the software documentation and view the sample files in order to learn. This is a much better option, but still not perfect. The chances of any of the examples being specific to arch viz, or exactly what you want to learn, are pretty slim.
Personally, I learned by scouring the internet for years watching youTube videos and by tinkering in the software on my own. This took a long time, and when I finally got a job, I realized a lot of what I had learned was wrong (or at least really slow). This was mostly because I didn't even know what I didn't know, therefore, I didn't know what to search for. A much more efficient way is to just take an online course. There are so many available. If you keep an eye out, you might even be able to get in on mine for $10 each. If you wanted to learn the from the courses here on this site, I would suggest starting with this one:
You could then go deeper into really specific arch viz stuff with this one:
Then, you can easily start specializing more and taking classes that focus on modeling, materials, virtual reality, or post-processing. I have classes on all of that, and you can find them all here.
I have made a pretty nice path for becoming quite expert in arch viz, but it is not the only path. There are several other places you can learn out there. Lynda.com is a place where I have learned a lot of things in the past. It is very high quality. The only problem I have with their model is that once you cancel your subscription ($29 per month), you no longer have access to the course. My courses are lifetime access, and members of learnArchViz.com get them for much cheaper than a month of access to Lynda.com. So, it is up to you. There are lots of options out there, but I would definitely suggest taking a professional course of some kind. I will say that mine is one of the better ones for being very specific to the industry, since I am a current practicing professional, but I'll let you all be the judge of that. It's your money, and we all learn in different ways. Try to be more efficient in your learning than I was, though :)
Your daily tasks as an arch viz artist will usually involve interpreting architectural information of some sort and turning it into a work of art using various different tools. You will probably either work in-house at an architectural firm, or in a studio that creates imagery for a multitude of clients. I have worked in both. My studio job had a more interesting collection of projects, and had some really cool and unique challenges. My firm job can be repetitive sometimes, but I must say, they have given me a lot freedom to create cool things, so overall it has been great. As long as your company is willing to give you the tools necessary to let the creative juices flow, you'll be great.
Salaries for this kind of work can range widely, but I would say it is somewhere between 40k for juniors, and 80k at that senior level. Of course, that depends on where you live too. Also, if you own your own studio, the sky is the limit. This work does definitely lend itself to freelancing and contracting.
Well, hopefully that has been a pretty exhaustive explanation of the industry. I will add more as necessary. Feel free to ask questions at the bottom of the post if you want me to speak to something specific.
Overall, I hope you have seen that arch viz is a challenging and rewarding career, and I hope that this information here has given you a much better idea of your path forward in the industry.
P.S. If you are ready to start taking a professional course, you can get access to all my training for $9 / month by going HERE.