Getting Comfortable with the Blender UI: An In-Depth Tutorial

Getting to know a 3D program's interface can be a big challenge. Even if you're experienced in another 3D package, trying out a new one can be difficult for reasons like new naming systems, new shortcuts, new navigation controls and the list goes on. Getting up to speed can take some time. If Blender just happens to be the 3D application you want to learn, you've probably heard that the Blender UI takes awhile to get comfortable with, and can be unintuitive at times. When you first fire up Blender it can definitely appear that way, but as with any other 3D application, with a little practice and patience you'll realize the Blender UI isn't all that bad, and it's extremely customizable, allowing you to adjust it to fit your needs. In this post we'll take an in-depth look at the Blender UI and get you up to speed on the things you need to know. The video tutorial will walk you through the interface navigation and some of the ways you can customize your Blender UI. By the end of the article and video tutorial you'll be ready to tackle more complex projects in Blender without being held back by the UI.

Windows and Headers

Headers and Windows Blender's naming conventions are a little bit different than what you would find in some other 3D applications. The UI is made up of what is called headers and windows, the header is essentially a toolbar, and the window is the information associated with the header. Every header has a window, except the Info Header, which you'll learn about next. There are a total of 16 different window types, meaning there are is also a total of 16 different header types. Every window can be assigned to a different editor type. For example, the Outliner window can be changed to the Dope Sheet or any of the other 16 window types. Let's dive into the default window types you'll find as you first fire up Blender.

Info Header

Info header At the top of the Blender UI you have the Info Header. The Info Header displays some of the typical stuff you would expect in an application. You have File which lets you do things like save and open a new scene. Next to that there is the Render menu, which is a quick way to render a single image, or render an animation out. Next to that you have the Window panel. This lets you do things like duplicate a window, make Blender full screen as well as save a screenshot. Finally there is the Help menu. This gives you quick access to things like the Blender manual and the Blender forums. You'll also notice a couple different tabs right next to the Help menu. The first tab is the Current Screen. By clicking the little icon to the left it displays several different pre-composed UI layouts for you, like an animation and texturing layout. You can also save and name custom layouts here. Next to that is the Current Scene. This window allows you to select different scenes. Blender allows you to have multiple different scenes letting you work with separate environments in the same file. So in Blender, one .blend file may contain several different scenes within it. You can have a scene with completely different data, or have the scenes linked. Finally there is the Current Engine tab. This lets you select between different engines within Blender, like Blender Render engine, the Blender Game engine, or Cycles Render.

Outliner Window

Outliner To the right of the interface there is the Outliner. If you've used Maya before, the Outliner behaves in much the same way. You can see all the objects you have within your scene as well as see and adjust their hierarchy. You can also quickly hide any of these objects by clicking the eye icon. It's also possible to make it so you can't select that object within the viewport by clicking the cursor icon, and by selecting the camera icon you can make it so that particular object doesn't get included in the render.

Properties Window

properties panel Just below the Outliner is the Properties Panel. By default, the Properties Panel displays the render settings for your scene. You change things like the render frame size, as well as enable motion blur among many other things. If you notice at the top of the properties panel there are several different icons. These each display the different properties for many different tasks in Blender. For example, there is the Scene properties panel which lets you adjust things like the grid unit measurements. There is also the Object properties panel. This displays all the different properties for a selected object. You can enable things like wireframes as well as adjust the rotation and scale.

Timeline Window

Timeline At the bottom of the Blender UI there is the timeline. This is where you can set keyframes, adjust the amount of frames in the animation, and also use the regular timeline controls to play, stop and jump between frames and keyframes.

Tool Shelf

Tool shelf At the left of the Blender UI is the Tool Shelf. This is where you can place simple primitives like cubes, cylinders, etc. You can also place things like text and different lights. The Tool Shelf has several different tabs. For example, there is the Tools tab which lets you duplicate, smooth, undo and translate your object. There is also the Animation tab which lets you insert and remove keyframes as well as bake an animation. It's important to remember that what is displayed in the Tool Shelf changes depending on which mode you have set for your object, which you'll learn about next. The Tool Shelf is also part of the 3D View Window.

3D View Window

3D view In the middle of the UI you obviously have the 3D viewport, this is where you'll do any edits to your scene. At the bottom of the viewport, however, is the 3D view header. This header is part of the 3D viewport and is always visible. You have several different menus like View, which allows you to change the camera view as well as toggle the quad view, so you have four different viewports open at once. The Add menu lets you quickly drop in commonly used objects like lights, cameras, text, etc. You also have the Modes menu. By default Blender is set in the Object Mode. If you select the little arrow icon this will open up the menu revealing Edit Mode, Sculpt Mode, Vertex Paint Mode, Weight Paint Mode, and Texture Paint Mode. When Edit Mode is selected it lets you edit the objects vertex, faces, and edges. When this mode is selected it also changes the Tool Shelf. The tools tab now has things like extrude and subdivide, as well as UV editing tools. The Sculpt Mode changes the Tool Shelf to display different sculpting tools like brushes and stroke size. The vertex, weight, and texture paint modes also change the Tool Shelf to show the different tools available for that particular mode. Now that you've learned some of the basics of the Blender UI the video tutorial below will go a little more in-depth with each header as well as navigating the viewport and customizing the interface.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhxkJG-9r04?rel=0&vq=hd720&showinfo=0&autohide=1&theme=light&color=white&w=800&h=450]