1.2 – First Steps – User interface

Learning a complex software like Blender necessarily starts with studying its graphical user interface (GUI), whose understanding will certainly facilitate the use of many of the functions covered in the whole book. Until version 2.49, Blender was known not only for its power and versatility, but also for its difficult and not particularly attractive GUI. The user interface still reflected the origins of the program, which was born in the mid-90s as an internal application of the NaN company, and was not designed to simplify its use or study by a wide audience; this did not prevent the subsequent spread of the software and the subsequent formation of a productive community capable of proposing appropriate GUI modifications over the years, which finally resulted in Blender’s “modern” turning point, first with the 2.5x beta versions (complete code rewrite) and then with the stable 2.6x and 2.7x releases enriched with further modifications to the GUI itself. From Blender 2.8 we can say that the GUI has finally become a strength of the software that can attract new users, without ever intimidating the beginner.

We consider the initial screen of Blender as the composition of some distinct regions (which we will call windows). The one with the largest dimensions is the 3D View where the preview of our work is displayed. The areas of the interface highlighted in red (dotted) are visible regardless of the layout adopted and inside them we find various information about the scene and the commands related to the tools in use.

The one at the top is the header with Blender’s main menus. From the file menu, in addition to the classic loading and saving functions, we can access some important import and export functions for 3D (including .3ds, wavefront .obj) and 2D vector (.svg) content.
At the top of the right side, we find the Outliner, which is the ordered list of all the elements present in the scene and divided into collections (by default we will find two, one of which with the three elements: camera, cube, lamp). By clicking on the icons to the right of the listed items, we can deactivate or activate them in order to make the object (or the entire collection) invisible in the 3D View (eye icon) or in the render (camera). We can increase these restrictions by clicking  at the top of the outliner, so that the filter menu appears with the various Restriction Toggles I recommend keeping the arrowhead icon always active, which makes the object selectable or not, and the camera icon to include or exclude the element from rendering. Objects selected in the outliner will also be selected in the 3D View.
Below the outliner is the set of Properties: up to fourteen contextual tabs to be selected by clicking on the icons on the side. Some of these tabs are dedicated to the properties of the selected object (active element), others relate to generic properties of the Blender scene, such as the Render context.
At the bottom of the screen is the Timeline for animation control, a topic covered in Chapter 6.
Going back to the main header, located at the top, we notice the presence of eleven tabs representing eleven workspaces, that is, predefined configurations of the GUI, designed for: modeling, 3D sculpting, UV mapping, texturing, shading, animation, rendering, and compositing (all topics that will be covered in the guide). Since Blender’s interface is fully customizable, we also find the + button to create new workspaces, for example by modifying the predefined ones.
Also on the main header we see on the right two different selectors: the first concerns the possibility of choosing one of the different scenes that Blender allows you to manage simultaneously in a single project. Initially, this possibility may seem unnecessary to you as it is very likely that your project will only need one scene. The real usefulness of being able to manage multiple scenes will become clear when you start managing more complex projects, or when we understand the concept of Compositing. For now we can peacefully work on one scene at a time without worrying about this selector. The second selector concerns the View Layers, a topic covered later.

The size of any window can be changed by bringing the mouse pointer to one of its edges, where it becomes a horizontal or vertical double arrow.

With the simultaneous press of the left button and the movements of the mouse, we will move the position of the edge by increasing or decreasing (up to canceling) the portions of the screen that this edge delimits. Instead, by bringing the pointer closer to one of the four round edges of any window, it changes to the shape of a cross:

at this point, by keeping the pressure on the left mouse button and moving it in the x and y directions within the window, we will create a new one (a copy of the original one).

For example, let’s look at the images at the top: in the first one I positioned the mouse on the top right corner of the 3D view, and then pressed the left mouse button dragging it towards the left. In this way I obtained a vertical division of the window. Conversely (second image), by dragging the mouse down, a horizontal division is obtained. What happens instead when we drag the mouse in one of the directions outside the window in use? In this case, we will remove the one next to it (but only if both windows have the same size along the edge that delimits them). As you can see from the image below, by doing this with the mouse pointer initially placed on the top left corner of the right window and dragging the mouse to the left, the pointer takes the form of an arrow within the area to be eliminated.

It is also possible to change the position of the header of each window (that is, the bar located at the bottom or top in the various windows and containing the main menu options) simply by clicking on it with the right mouse button and choosing from the menu that will appear:

  • Flip to Top
    (header at the top of the window)
  • Flip to Bottom
    (header at the bottom)
  • Show Menus (unchecking this will replace all menus with the icon )

Here at the bottom you can see the very important header of the 3D View.

To change the nature of any window, you need to click on the icon on the left in the header (the icon obviously changes depending on the window in use); the complete list of windows present in Blender will appear:

Properties, Timeline, and 3D View are already present in the Default layout. In the course of the guide, we will also delve into the windows: Compositing, UV/Image Editor, Dope Sheet, Graph Editor. Remember that of all the layout windows, the focus belongs to the one where the mouse pointer is positioned, and in it the header appears slightly lighter gray. You will find many options for customizing the GUI within the User Preferences, accessible from the main header’s Edit menu. The User Preferences panel is divided into 13 tabs full of options. We leave the default settings and go to the Themes tab where you can change the color combinations, choose between two presets (Dark and Light), or install different themes (XML). Personally, I find the default color combination (Blender Dark) optimal as it does not tire the eyes even after hours of work and the screen elements are always perfectly distinguishable.

Using a high native resolution monitor (2K or 4K) makes the Display -> Resolution Scale setting in the Interface tab very useful. Increasing the value (which is set to 1 by default) will allow you to increase the size of both the fonts and the icons of the graphical interface to your liking.

A choice that awaits you at the first startup of Blender concerns mouse and keyboard controls. You can choose whether to keep the default setting that involves selecting objects in the 3D View with the left mouse button, or opt for the old Blender system used until release 2.79, which focused on selection using the right mouse button. Using the left button is a new feature (introduced in releases 2.8x) that aligns Blender with various mainstream software and is particularly useful for those using a touchscreen device with a graphics pen. The book will use this setting. If you come from old releases of Blender, I recommend getting used to it, or alternatively you can go to the Keymap tab and choose Blender 2.7x as highlighted in the image.

An immediate example of the modern setting is the Ctrl-Spacebar combination, which will cause any window with active focus in Blender to occupy the entire interface (or restore it to its original size if it has already been enlarged). Another feature of the default keymap is the convenient Object Context Menu that appears on the screen when you right-click anywhere in the 3D View. It contains several frequently used options that we will see in action in the next paragraphs and chapters.

One important tab in the User Preferences is the Add-ons tab, where we will find a list of all the additional (plug-in) functions of Blender that can be activated by checking the box to the right of each entry. Some add-ons are official and active by default (such as the Cycles rendering engine), while the majority are inactive because they are unofficial add-ons, i.e. produced by the community, and the choice of making them available in Blender is left to the user. Scrolling through the list of add-ons, you will realize that there are many additional functions and they are divided into several categories that can be viewed by clicking on

We will discuss some interesting add-ons in the appendices of the book.

At this point, you just need to do some field testing to realize how easy it is to dynamically transform the layout, depending on the type of work you are doing. Blender breaks the classic schema of 3D software, whose roots date back to about thirty years ago, and puts the Viewport at the center of attention, helping the artist from the start to get into the mindset useful for manipulating and transforming objects directly in the 3D view; an example of this is the default absence of the classic quad view, optional in Blender (Ctrl-Alt-Q), which divides the screen into four parts for a simultaneous view of the three orthographic projections plus the frame reserved for the perspective view.

To conclude the paragraph dedicated to the GUI, it is necessary to point out to anyone who has a second monitor the useful possibility of duplicating the Blender window in order to work on a single scene using two different layouts of the interface at the same time. This is possible from the Window menu by selecting New Window, which will duplicate the layout in use (without the main header); or New Main Window, which will duplicate the entire Blender interface.

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