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Microsoft’s new 3D creation tool, Paint 3D, is here today as part of the Windows 10 Creators Update. Here we see if it’ll be as much the subject of derision as the 2D version of Paint.

Everyone hates Microsoft Paint. Everyone loves to hate Microsoft Paint (unless it’s Jim using it). But using the 3D version that comes with the next version of Windows actually turned out to be a lot of fun.

Though it shares a name, Paint 3D isn’t really like the familiar Microsoft Paint app at all. Paint 3D’s entire purpose is to create fun, cartoony 3D objects and scenes. A major part of Paint 3D’s appeal is the Remix 3D community, where you and other members can import, edit, then share digital objects and ideas, taking from and providing inspiration to your fellow digital artists.

Microsoft first launched the app in conjunction with the Windows 10 Creators Update and Surface Studio announcements last fall. Since then, the app has remained accessible to beta-testing Insiders only as a preview, before its more general release today.

Watch the video below to see it in action, and read how to use it after that.

Getting started: Know what you want to do

You can accomplish two main tasks with Paint 3D: constructing your own 3D objects, and placing them within a scene. Remember the dioramas you made in elementary school? That’s Paint 3D in a nutshell.

Microsoft made an effort to introduce new users gently via Paint 3D’s welcome screen, which includes a pair of short introductory videos that are worth watching. Skip the introductory ‘challenge’ at the top: The way Microsoft introduces Paint 3D – immediately kicking you out to the web, for example – is so needlessly confusing that we’ve devised a better grand tour ourselves. Click the big New button and let’s dive in.

Both videos at the bottom of the Paint 3D welcome screen are worth watching, but the challenge at the top could be better implemented. And why is the “Paste” button there?

It’s not immediately obvious what you’re looking at the first time you open Paint 3D. A white space sits on a very faint grid at the bottom of your screen. Is this a workspace? A window? No, it’s the Canvas, a flat, 2D digital backdrop to your scene. You should see some familiar painting tools to the right. Try clicking the crayon, then drawing a wavy blue line across the bottom of the Canvas. Aha! This could be an ocean background to a nautical scene.

The Paint 3D interface. In the background is the Canvas, with a simple cone protruding through it. Surrounding the cone is the interface to rotate and resize it.

The Canvas, in fact, is the only 2D object in Paint 3D – it’s just a plane, with no actual depth. As you’ll quickly learn, Microsoft has its own ideas about how you should proceed, and they’re not always in line with how you’ll want to do things. In fact, even though the Canvas will probably be the first thing you interact with (or delete), the Canvas tab is fifth in the row of icons at the top of the screen. But you’re not here for 2D, are you? Click the cube-shaped 3D Objects icon to open up the 3D screen.

3D object creation: the meat of Paint3D

Creating and manipulating a simple, primitive 3D object is relatively intuitive, just like it is in the traditional Paint app. Click on an object in the menu on the right – a cone, for example – and left-click it into existence. You can resize it any way you’d like.

Microsoft’s Paint 3D interface: Tools, 3D Objects, Stickers, Text, Canvas, and Effects. Paint 3D assumes you’ll want to paint the Canvas first, then create 3D objects. It’s a little confusing, but you’ll get the hang of it.

When you release the button, a box will surround the object, with four circle-shaped handles. Three of the handles will rotate the cone in space. The fourth (at the 9 o’clock position) will pull or push the cone closer to or away from you. If you choose to paint it another colour, you may see the Sphere icon appear afterwards. This allows you to rotate the object to inspect it, but it should snap back to its original orientation once you’ve finished. (If you’re confused, clicking the question-mark-shaped help icon in the upper-left-hand corner will walk you through the process.)

You’ill quickly discover that you’ll be wrestling with Paint3D’s interface as much as anything else. With one 3D object in play, rotating it is no problem. With two, you’ll need to start thinking about how they’re oriented relative to one another.

Creating this tree wasn’t that intuitive. Because there’s no real custom 3D object creator in Paint 3D, I took two “2.5D” trunks, joined them at 90 degrees to one another, then combined them with a torus and a sphere. Aligning them all was the hard part.

Think about a snowman, for example. You’ll need to create at least three spheres, aligning them next to each other. Objects don’t deform when pressed together, so you may end up with spheres inside spheres, overlapping one another and hopefully hidden from view. You’ll quickly learn that the Select all button allows you to rotate your entire 3D scene as a whole, while multiselecting (Ctrl-click) or grouping objects together (like your three-sphere snowman) is essential for keeping your scene or object organized.

A large part of creating 3D objects or scenes, though, is simply making sure they’re all properly aligned. You’ll need to check along all three axes, rotating this and that to make sure everything looks sharp. Occasionally, objects seem to “stick” slightly when they’re aligned vertically, or touching another object, to help you out. This didn’t happen consistently. Expect a lot of trial and error to make things just so.

Microsoft’s handy “time machine” feature allows you to rewind time and save your bacon.

Don’t despair, though. If you do mess up, Microsoft took one awesome feature from its OneNote UWP app: Replay, now called Time Machine. Time Machine literally records almost every change you’ve made to the scene and allows you to scroll back through time, finding the place where it all went south. Don’t forget about this: It’s invaluable!

If you’re creative, assembling a scene with just a combination of primitive objects is simple enough. (We’ll get to decorating them in just a moment.) But there’s one other really nifty feature that Paint 3D offers, and that’s the 3D Doodle.

3D Doodle brings a sense of fun to Paint 3D

One of the real weaknesses of 3D Paint is that there’s very little room for flexibility. At this point, you can’t draw a spiral, for example, or even something like a pyramid. Nor can you deform a cylinder, twisting it to resemble a snake. (When we asked about it, a Microsoft representative said there are no specific plans for this yet.) The 3D Doodle partially makes up for this, inflating 2D sketches into 3D.

What the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ versions of Paint 3D’s 3D Doodle look like, respectively.

The easiest way is just to try it: under the 3D objects tab, click the right-hand, “soft” 3D doodle. Left-click the main workspace, and then draw a puffy cloud shape. When you’ve completed the shape, Paint 3D will inflate it to something that looks like a pillow, which you can expand, shrink, flatten or puff out. A “hard” version of the 3D doodle takes the rounded edge of the “soft” doodle and makes it a straight line. (Think of a star-shaped skyscraper.)

Painting with Stickers and Text

Whether you paint your objects or scene before assembling it is up to you – there are advantages to both approaches. When it comes to decorating your objects, you have three primary options: Tools, Stickers, and Text.

Painting an object within Paint 3D is relatively straightforward. Within the Tools sidebar, you can select a colour as well as different texture options, including matte, gloss, and dull or polished metal. (The latter two reproduce gold, copper, and other metallic effects really well.) The paintbrush looks like it slops a thin layer of 3D paint over the object, and the other paint tools are equally sophisticated.

A simple Sticker texture wrapped around a 3D model can look pretty cool, as on the mouse. But trying to import a Mona Lisa smile onto this female model ended up looking grotesque.

Stickers, though, are deceptively powerful cosmetic tools.  By default, stickers work as a texture that automatically maps to the 3D surface, which is a great way of adding details, like eyeballs, that you’d normally have to paint by hand. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of eye, ear, and glasses stickers in Stickers, under the Smiley Face tab. If you slide the sticker over the 3D model and resize it, you’ll quickly grok how it all works. Press the Stamp icon (at the 3 o’clock position) to apply the texture, and adjust the opacity to suit your liking.

Even better, Microsoft has also provided textures like sand, bark, and rocks to make your 3D scenes more lifelike. Use them.

You can make your own Sticker textures, too. To make this 3D object look like it was made of bricks, I simply searched the Web for a brick texture, made a Sticker out of it, and stamped each side.

Stickers are so powerful that I would even recommend them over the Text tool. Text does two things: It creates floating 3D text that acts as a 3D object, and it also should allow you to etch 2D text onto an object. I say should, however, because so far I haven’t been able to make it work. An easy workaround is to take Paint (yes, the normal Paint app) and create a small square with your text inside it, then save it as a normal image file. Paint 3D allows you to import image files as stickers, so it’s almost easier to do that than wrestle with the Text option.

I just used Paint and a Sticker to make the sign on the right.

A couple of other tab options almost seem like afterthoughts. The Canvas tab allows you to make a couple of limited tweaks to the Canvas, and the final Effects tab just applies different-coloured lighting options. I expect those to be fleshed out a bit later on – none of the 3D objects cast shadows, for example.

Microsoft’s 3D cheat sheet: Remix 3D

Learning how to orient, resize, and paint 3D objects within Paint 3D is essential. But Microsoft also provides a massive storehouse of pre-rendered 3D art on its community site, Remix 3D, to populate your scene without spending the time to create your own objects. Once you’re done creating a 3D object or scene, you can share it on Remix 3D, of course.

No, you can’t make this in Paint 3D, as this chest was created in Maya by Microsoft. But you can still add it to your scene, and digital artists may be able to upload their own professional art later as part of the Khronos Foundation’s glTF format.

In the upper-right corner of the Paint 3D app is the Remix 3D icon (which looks rather like the Share icon in Office). Click it, and a sidebar opens, opening the Remix 3D doors. Remix 3D provides a virtual Board for bookmarking objects you might want to reuse, but the most useful feature is right at the top: a search box, where you can search for items like “pine tree” or “treasure chest.” There’s quite a lot to choose from.

Microsoft’s Remix 3D Web interface is unnecessarily confusing and should be avoided. Just use the in-app sidebar instead.

Each object has a Download icon under it, which will open the object inside Paint 3D, or you can save it to your Board.

Don’t go hog-wild, though. What Microsoft doesn’t tell you is that each 3D Paint scene has an upper file-size limit: 64MB at this writing – and it might have increased from 48MB as I was working with the program. Most of the custom art inside Remix 3D is made with professional 3D modeling tools, so not surprisingly each object can quickly consume your file allotment. Just one robot head in Microsoft’s “build-a-bot” collection required 14MB.

At no point does Microsoft’s Paint 3D reveal that there’s a file-size limit to what you can upload or save… until here.

Go above that limit, and Microsoft may prevent you from uploading your creations to Remix 3D. I also found I couldn’t even save my creations locally – and with no explanation. I’m chalking this up to Paint 3D’s preview status, but it’s still a problem that needs fixing.

Paint 3D allows you to upload your creations to Remix 3D, but you can also save them within the app or even export them. You may want to do that because Paint 3D’s in-app viewer currently stinks, distorting your creations awkwardly. Insiders also have a second app within Windows, a bare-bones 3D viewer known as View 3D, which neatly solves this problem.

Paint 3D’s to-do list

3D Paint has some work to do. You might recall that part of Microsoft’s original announcement of Paint 3D involved scanning real-world objects via a Windows Capture 3D app supposedly being developed for Windows 10 phones. Microsoft says that component is scheduled for a future release. Likewise, Microsoft hasn’t apparently included its Magic Select tool, which lets you strip the background from an image for superior Stickers. Eventually, the Creators Update will allow you to view these objects with Microsoft’s HoloLens, too.

There are other issues. Simply sitting idle, with just a big fuzzy cloud and some 3D text, Paint 3D consumed up to 16.6 percent of the CPU power of my Surface Pro 4. Larger scenes can require over a gigabyte of RAM. Microsoft Edge (which Microsoft opens by default to display the Remix 3D site) gobbled up 20.2 percent of my CPU. Paint 3D really should have features to deform and alter 3D objects, but they’ll undoubtedly consume even more of your PC’s resources. 

Despite its relative simplicity – or perhaps because of it – Paint 3D is a lot of fun. More fun than its predecessor certainly.