How to use Microsoft's Paint 3D: Creating cool 3D scenes has never been so much fun

Take it from someone who can barely draw a stickman: You can totally do this.
  • Mark Hachman (PC World (US online))
  • 13 February, 2017 22:00


I’ll admit it—I simply can’t draw. Stick figures push my creative limits. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that creating 3D objects and dioramas is actually easier in Microsoft’s Paint 3D than drawing two-dimensional art in Microsoft’s legacy Paint app.

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—and share them. 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.

Chances are that you haven’t seen Paint 3D yet—but you will. 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 Insiders only as a preview, before its more general release later this spring. If you’re running an Insider build, there’s really no reason not to download it from the Store and try it out. We’ll show you how!

ufo screenshot Microsoft Paint 3D IDG / Mark Hachman

Creating this 3D scene took me about three minutes with Paint 3D.

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.

paint3d welcome screen IDG / Mark Hachman

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.

paint 3d opening view cone through canvas IDG / Mark Hachman

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.

3d paint icons Paint 3D Microsoft IDG / Mark Hachman

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 color, 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. 

paint3d finished tree IDG / Mark Hachman

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.

paint3d time machine IDG / Mark Hachman

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.

soft vs hard models 3D Doodle Paint 3 Microsoft IDG / Mark Hachman

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 color 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.

paint 3d sticker interface IDG / Mark Hachman

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. 

paint3d brick texture Microsoft IDG / Mark Hachman

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.

Paint 3D sticker sign IDG / Mark Hachman

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-colored lighting options. I expect those to be fleshed out a bit later on—none of the 3D objects cast shadows, for example.

The best thing? The Remix 3D images you can borrow and share! Keep reading.

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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.

paint3d treasure chest Microsoft

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.

paint 3d remix 3d build a bot IDG / Mark Hachman

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.

paint 3d file limit IDG / Mark Hachman

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. 

Microsoft Paint 3D desert island IDG / Mark Hachman

Apply what you’ve learned (and steal a bit from Remix 3D) and you’ll have cool-looking scenes like this in no time!

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. 

Make no mistake about it, though: Paint 3D is a lot of fun, more than I ever thought it would be. Simply by getting creative with features like the 3D Doodle and Stickers, I was able to create a simple scene that I was rather proud of. How did I do it? I’ll walk you through it in the attached video.