One of my future projects is called “Observational Modeling.” A PDF with video demonstrations on modeling what you see, with an emphasis on observing and simplifying. Taking this idea from “Observational Drawing.”
Modeling things from your imagination, or just making things up as you go isn’t the best way to grow your modeling skill. It’s also hard for others (and you!) to judge your skill or progress. But if you model an object or things that exist in the real world, then others will have something to compare to. Think of it this way: If you model or sculpt a creature, you can get away with it with lots of details. But if you try to model or sculpt a well known person, no amount of details can cover up your inability to capture the likeness of that person.
If your goal is to become a character modeler, then by all means, start with character modeling. However, if your goal is to improve and grow as a modeler in general, then I recommend that you start with hard surface. As for me, I started off with creature/character, and now struggling a bit with hard surface. Both have its own challenges to overcome.
Here’s a model I did earlier. The reference looks simple. So I thought! But don’t underestimate. A reference of the thing you want to model might look simple, but you won’t know the challenges you’ll face until you begin modeling it in the 3d viewport. Since this is based on a reference, I can look at my model and see which area I need to work on/improve. If this was purely from imagination, there’s no way to know where I struggle or where the challenge lies. Hence, observational modeling is the way to learn, grow and improve.
The Mirror modifier can save a lot of time, but in Edit Mode, how do you model the top and not have to repeat it for the bottom? And is that even possible? If I repeat the same for the bottom it can be tedious. Perhaps there’s another way, but that would mean I have to start all over? I don’t have enough experience with hard surface to answer this. This is an example of one of the challenges I faced with something that looks simple.