Rendering Basics for Architecture Students (V-Ray for Sketchup)

Rendering is one of the fastest growing skills in architecture and it’s not just used in a professional setting but also in academia. It’s actually a skill I avoided for the most part during my undergraduate because I always felt it was too steep of a learning curve and I just didn’t have enough time to grasp it amidst the constant deadlines. Luckily for me, the MArch programme at Greenwich has an entire module dedicated to, you guessed it, rendering. In this post, I wanted to just break down all the myths about rendering but also offer some genuinely actionable tips that you can take away if you’re also a beginner like myself.

The thing with rendering in the design space is that there are plenty of tutorials online for designing products or for commercial and retail styled renders that you’d usually see in architecture practices. But there isn’t anything solid geared towards students who are busy building their own worlds and hypothetical projects from thin air. Correct me if I’m wrong and you’ve come across creators online who are showcasing the ins and outs of crafting renders.

Before I begin, it’s important to note that my weapons of choice for this project are Sketchup and V-Ray. These are two software I’m most comfortable with at the moment and work great for me but of course, use whatever you are familiar with and would like to give a try. There really is no right or wrong but other suggestions I’ve been given include Blender, Enscape and Lumion. Obviously your project and aims for creating these renders will be totally different so there is only so much I can share that may actually help you but this is how I developed my skills in this particular area.

The Future Representation module is all about finding new ways to represent your ideas. We were taught about various skills such as 3D scanning, using Arc GIS and even software such as Rhino. The final outcome was to produce 3 renders of your project. The exciting part of this module was that the renders themselves don’t necessarily have to relate to how your design project is developing, leaving room for endless creativity and the chance to really go over the top and just create something visually stunning. This is important when it comes to renders such as the ones I’ll be breaking down because they don’t have to make sense at all but if your renders are particularly about exploring aspects of your design then the process might be slightly longer and iterative.

Another important thing to note is that there were plenty of failed attempts (one which I even presented at a crit!) and a lot of going back and forth with certain ideas. Fortunately, I had the support of my tutors and made sure to just have fun with it which is why I think I enjoyed this module the most. Failed attempts just bring you closer to the ‘right’ one so don’t fret if your renders aren’t amazing the first few times – mine definitely weren’t. Rendering can’t be mastered in a day or two and that’s totally fine.

If you’d like to see the whole process as well as the stuff I learnt in some of the classes, you can check out the blog diary we had to create which breaks down and documents the growth of the renders: https://futurerep.toscaleblog.co.uk/

🔪 Preparation

The two things I made sure to do throughout this project was to research as often as I could, which simply just means scrolling through Pinterest or exploring paintings, images and drawings that offer up qualities I could use in my renders. The other thing is of course the 3D model. See, when it comes to rendering, we often lose sight of the 3D model which in all honesty does 80% of the work in my opinion. Without a properly crafted model, your renders won’t be up to scratch.

The first thing I did was plan out what views I wanted to capture and what kind of story did I want to tell through these renders. Bear in mind that the project itself was at a very early stage but my strength was the narrative, so I took that element and designed my views around it. In this case, the first was a view of the food court a.k.a. the Garden of Eat’n which was one of the key spaces I had been developing. Second was an external view of part of the building that highlighted the context, being the High Street and also the grandeur and scale of the mall. Lastly, I wanted to do an abstract render, similar to a render of a physical model. Instead of that, I went with a render that depicts a deconstructed version of my building as a play shopping toy used by children because the entire idea is based on the fact that shopping is completely unheard of in 100 years time and is therefore seen as an exciting, retro, fun activity that is being revived.

After sketching these scenes out, I started simultaneously looking for references that has a similar composition to what I was looking for as well as editing the 3D models I already had. New files for each render is so so important. This meant that it doesn’t interfere with any of the design project but also means that once you set your scene, you only have to model what is in view. This tip is extremely important because you could end up modelling objects endlessly, but once you have your view, all you have to care about is whatever is in view. It really doesn’t even matter if some of the background elements aren’t up to scratch because you can always use the magical powers of post production.

Thinking about the render in terms of a layered composition helps immensly. Breaking down your images into foreground, middleground and background will help you determine which parts of the render require more effort and the level of priority they have. After you do some research and find references and images that you might want to try and replicate with your own ideas, this will become a lot easier and you can begin to identify certain elements that you want to emphasise in the image. Rendering requires patience.

For example, in this street scene, I wanted to make sure that the context was obvious so I used typical objects found in a British High Street such as the crossing or the public bin as foreground elements. In fact, everything apart from the model of the building has been downloaded and edited from Sketchup’s 3D Warehouse. This is another huge advantage of using Sketchup because these are so accessible and easy to use. Of course, you can also find 3D models that work for all kinds of software online but most of the time it is paid or not really up to scratch. Make sure to find ways of making it easier for yourself on the parts of the render that don’t necessarily matter as much. You can always edit and replace in post-production if needed so things don’t need to be final from the get-go.

👀 The Ins and Outs of V-Ray

V-Ray is a great rendering software that I have dabbled with previously but never had the time or reason to actually learn. I often get asked how to learn software and my answer every time is just to use the software, try creating something with it because you need that learning curve and the struggle to actually figure things out. This is simply how I learnt V-Ray. To give you an example, I wanted to understand how materials worked, should I use the in-built library or try and find some via the Internet. I came across a couple of hiccups along the way such as the scale being quite off for some materials or not knowing how exactly to import my own material into V-Ray. But the solutions to these problems are literally a Google search away. Sure, you might not find the answer immedietly but a little bit of skim reading and trial and error will get you there.

For one, I learnt that the newer versions of V-Ray no longer use .vismat files and have switched over to something called .vrmat which apparently is a totally different thing. There is a way to get around this by downloading the material anyway and uploading the various files manually. Usually you’ll have a standard image file as the material and then sometimes extra maps (which are also types of images) such as a Bump or Displacement map to help give the material some depth and texture.

V-Ray Material Library Browser - V-Ray 5 for 3ds Max - Chaos Help

Secondly, it’s likely that the built-in library will have the material you’re looking for, and if it doesn’t you can go in and edit the properties and develop your own one that is better suited to what you are looking for. For renders that have a heavy 3D model behind them, sometimes it can be better to use these default materials which are similar to the effect you are looking for rather than trying to make every single material as accurate as possible. Especially objects that are in the foreground can usually be passed off with a colour. If need be, you can add some texture in post-production so don’t sweat the details that might not make a huge difference.

Lastly, I have to talk about lighting. For the most part, I use rectangle lights wherever I can because they are the easiest to work with. Being able to turn them invisible (i.e. the rectangle doesn’t sohw up only the light emitting from it) is also a great hack of introducing more lighting throughout your renders. Usually, one or two rectangle lights will do the job as long as you are making good use of the sunlight too. It is so important to experiment and adjust the settings as there is no universal solution. Even if you are following a YouTube video that tells you not to deter from the provided settings, do it anyway. Sometimes when I get frustrated because the thing I want to work doesn’t work, I just play with the settings for a while. I know this might sound counterproductive or unhelpful but it’s the truth.

🌍 How to set a HDRI

You can think of a HDRI as an environment image that has preset lighting settings which does most of the work for you. This is great for exterior renders that need a little bit of environmental context or for a type of lighting that is difficult to create manually. Here’s a great tutorial on how to set up a HDRI in your model.

🖱️ Your 3D Model

This is what they do not tell you about rendering – the role your 3D model plays in all of it! I think there needs to be more emphasis on the work that goes into your 3D model and the way it reflects in your renders. Of course, this isn’t going to be easy and you won’t craft the perfect model in one evening. The point is to iterate and test. I suggest working on one element of the model and tehn testing the render using the Interactive mode in V-Ray. This is also a good place to begin setting and finalising the scene for your image. Once you’re happy with it, try not to alter it too much otherwise you’ll simply keep modelling.

Well, how do you know when to stop? I tend to write out a list of everything I could possibly need to model. If that seems overwhelming, it’s time to start thinking about how to work smarter. The great thing about Sketchup is its 3D Warehouse. If you simply don’t have the time to try and model a perfect chair that sits in the background of your render, go and find one online. Chances are that it’ll be better modelled and come with its own materials, doing 99% of the work for you. In a similar way, you have to figure out when the render is done. Look at the images below. There is a steady progression from one render to the next, and I’d actually recommend saving these renders at each step to understand the amount of progress you’ve made. You’ll come to a point where there simply won’t be anymore left to do in which case it can be a great point to start thinking about post-production.

🖌️ Post-Production

The ratio of which your images are rendered and edited in Photoshop is totally up to you. There is no perfect way of doing things and most of the time there are several factors to consider like the time you have left, the specifications on your computer that allow for high-quality renders and your own skills. There are some amazing tutorials out there that teach you how to adjust the colour settings or add in plants and people which are way more difficult to do as 3D objects. my two go-to YouTube channels for this sort of thing are Learn Upstairs and Show it Better who make rendering look super easy. Alternatively, simply search for whatever it is you want to do like ‘how to match the colour palette of a different image onto my own in Photoshop’.

❗ P.S. the 2021 version now has an awesome feature called Neural filters that lets you do this with a click of a button! It’s amazing and can help you keep your renders looking coherent throughout because you can simply use your own image as one of the references.

🌸 Final Thoughts

So we’ve learnt some of the basics about rendering throughout this post, but I have to admit, I don’t know everything there is to know when creating visually appealing images! Therefore, please understand that this is simply stuff I’ve learnt along my self-learning journey and found interesting to share with you all. Rendering is definitely one of the harder skills out there but as you progress and iterate, you’ll start seeing results that you might not have ever expected. My only advice would be to keep at it and try to have a clear vision from the beginning to guide you.

Good luck!

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