Why 3D artists want to learn to draw/paint?

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  01 January 2012
Post Why 3D artists want to learn to draw/paint?

EDIT: An updated version of the original post below has been published as an article on CGSociety:


I have seen too many people ask the question "I want to do 3D, but should I learn how to draw?" or "Do you have to draw in order to be good at 3D?" and I've decided to create this sticky thread so I can refer to it whenever this question is asked again in the future.

It basically goes like this:

Learning the foundations of visual art is the most important thing for all visual artists, regardless if it's 3D, 2D, graphic design, illustration, etc.

All of the bad 3D portfolios out there can be summed up with one sentence: Lack of understanding of the foundations (composition, perspective, lighting/values, color theory, anatomy/figure).

You can learn the foundations without drawing and painting, but the reason why people say drawing and painting helps so much is because 2D art forces you to learn the foundations, while 3D art does not. In 2D art, if you didn't master the foundation, then you couldn't do anything that's halfway decent. But in 3D, because the way 3D assets are generated, you can produce something "finished" looking, even if the foundation elements are absolutely horrid. 3D allows people to put a lot of polish on turd, basically.

That is why so many people recommend learning to draw and paint, because doing so will force you to learn the foundations whether you like it or not, and there's no cheating in 2D--either you can or you can't--there are no "polish the turd" buttons like there are in 3D.

Another compelling reason why 3D artists would be smart to learn how to draw and paint, is that the critical foundations of visual art learned in drawing and painting will directly carry over to your 3D, so you're actually learning a universal skill-set/knowledge. Whatever you learn in 2D is just as effective when applied to 3D. The reverse, however, isn't as true. Many things you learn in 3D don't carry over to 2D effectively. In fact, you can be an accomplished 3D artist and still draw and paint like a complete beginner, regardless of how much you understand composition, lighting, colors, anatomy, etc, and it'll take you at least a few years to get up to speed as a 2D artist. But if someone is an accomplished 2D artist, he'll be able to translate that same set of foundational knowledge directly into 3D as soon as he learns which buttons to push in 3D software in order to achieve the image he wants, and it's a far faster process for a good 2D artist to learn 3D, than it is for a good 3D artist to learn 2D.

In other words, learning the critical foundations of visual art as a 2D artist has profound advantages over learning the same foundations by using 3D.

Once you learn how to draw and paint, you'll have an invaluable tool to aid you in your 3D. You can create your own concept art, do thumbnails and sketches to work from, and so on. It's far faster and more intuitive to strategize/plan in 2D than it is in 3D, and it's also much faster to make changes to your sketches/mock-ups than it is in 3D. A proficient 2D artist can create something very expressive with just a few lines, while it'll take much longer to do the same in 3D.

Too often, I see 3D enthusiasts making the mistakes of not realizing they are still "artists," and there's the word "artist" attached to the term "3D artist." Don't ever forget that you are an artist first and foremost--whatever medium you choose to do your art with is merely a tool for you to express your creative vision. Even if you are part of a production pipeline and not a one-man show, you still need to realize that you are part of a team of visual artists, and the better artist you are, the better you can interface with other visual artists (in other words, don't be the weak link in the chain by being ignorant of all the critical foundations of visual art).

Last edited by Lunatique : 10 October 2016 at 09:50 PM.
  01 January 2012
This needed to be said!! Agree with it so much!!

When I was in Uni and all the budding 3D artists of the future were asking their tutors do you need to be able to draw there were some stock answers: No you dont, well it helps, or yes.

The answer to "I can't draw, will I be able to become a 3D artist" should be "you mean you cant draw YET!"

Its almost as if the default belief is that you can 'learn' 3D, but anything with a pencil requires you to be born with magic toes or you have been given the birthright of your linage that deams you worthy.

Sure you can be an awesome rigger without learning to draw, some people are great animators and never learned to draw but in general if you want to create beautiful visual art then why the bloodey hell are you NOT trying to learn to draw.

From someone who cant draw YET but is working on it!
  01 January 2012
Fantastic posts and well said Lunatique, drawing over and over helps brainstorm ideas in a manner that is clear to understand instead of merely notes. Sometimes only the original artist might be able to fully interpret them, but if your coming up with a character concept and have a sketch book of ideas eventually a solid concept will be locked into your mind to work with. It can be frustrating seeing people dive into 3d and skipping any other steps, especially the absurdly large crowd that feels that starting with zbrush makes them 3d masters. Regardless of medium having core values and fundamentals deeply rooted can completely transform artists work into something spectacular.
  01 January 2012
This should be a sticky.

The overwhelming majority of WIPs in the 3D WIP forum that have serious issues with them are due to a lack of understanding of artistic fundamentals. Unfortunately the fact that 3D is done with software means that many people have skipped the pen/paint/paper/canvas part of art and gone straight into the button-pressing part.

It's incredible to me that people constantly argue against learning the fundamentals of art. And yet, when it comes to getting a job in this field, it's what separates the great portfolios from the mediocre-to-bad.
  01 January 2012
Originally Posted by leigh: This should be a sticky.

Yep, it is a sticky. I wish we could put this in the 3D WIP forums too though, but I'm not a FL there, so someone who is will have to do it.
  01 January 2012
Sorry for how long this is, but I'm really desperate. As much as I'm pleading for some kind of advice for myself, maybe there's a chance somebody else could learn how to avoid my problems by reading this.

I heard a lot of advice like this back when I was starting Animation Mentor about six years ago. I took the advice of the pros to heart, dropped out of AM and devoted all of my free time to learning drawing. I bought a ton of art supplies, and books and videos about color, character design, forceful gesture, etc.

It's been nothing but disappointment the whole time. I've gotten nothing out of the pursuit that brings me any closer to a job or to a portfolio that would get me into a good art school.

I live in a very small town in the deep south (USA) and there aren't any art classes around here but Bob Ross crap for retired ladies. I've been totally on my own and I can see what I'm doing wrong in my drawings just as easily as anybody online could. There's nothing I can do in natural media that doesn't come out looking shaky and clumsy, despite how much I've learned abstractly about various principles related to composition, perspective, etc. I just don't have the hands for it.

I've only got very limited experience with modeling (most of what I did in 3D was just animating provided rigs) but it seems like this kind of problem is ameliorated in the case of 3D art because I can stop, take my time, tweak, undo, build geometry, etc. It's not like 2D where the appeal of your character is determined by how deftly you can push a pen across a paper, and how steadily you can erase your mistakes without erasing the rest, and how long you can stomach the process of tiny incremental corrections that cramp your fingers and wrist. The principles might be the same but the actual work is so, so different.

It's my own fault for whatever reason, and I'm sure your advice is good for a lot of people, but it's been really, really hard on a personal level to try to keep this up for so long so that "someday" I could make my own animation projects and get exciting work in a studio. Every idea I've had has gone to the back burner while I've made crappy copies of Preston Blair, Reilly method exercises, and photos from online. I can get the basic ideas of everything down, though my perspective is still weak - but it never, ever actually looks "good" like the kind of finished artwork that gets people paid or (more importantly for me) accepted into a real art school or a place like Gnomon.

I did very well in Animation Mentor. I love 2D art, but what matters most to me is creating characters, scenes and stories, so ultimately I don't have a preference about 2D vs 3D. I dream of getting into some kind of art school that would teach me absolutely everything about how to make art, make animations, and finally turn them into films or game assets. But all the good schools have strict portfolio requirements and nothing I've done is going to cut it there.

I took this advice, spent six years following it and after all that time I'm basically back where I started - except I have to relearn all the 3D programs that changed in the meantime. I have no idea what I'm going to do about college, which I kept postponing because I thought I'd eventually learn enough about drawing to get into a good school.

In hindsight I should've stayed in AM and just tried to learn art on the side, likewise for basic modeling - but with the way that the posts and articles and tutorials I were reading were stressing traditional art as so essential to 3D, I really believed I was doing the right thing by focusing on drawing 100 percent. Moreover, because all the good 3D art schools put the same kind of stress on traditional art in their acceptance process, it seemed necessary, if I was ever going to get to the kind of school that would teach me how to model, rig, and texture like they do at Dreamworks and Pixar.

But the requirements of those schools for a portfolio of traditional art mean that I'm stuck. To their admissions review, it doesn't matter what I know if I can't show it with drawings and paintings. I really don't want to go to some place like Full Sail and end up only being to make iPad games and local commercials. What I want is to make 3D art with cinematic quality; I took advice like the kind in this thread and all it seems to have done is push that goal back by more than half a decade.

I'm not saying anybody's wrong - there's probably just something weird about my coordination, I even have really horrible handwriting. But, I did what I could, and this is what happened, and now I have no idea what to do next. I'm dying to go to a school and work my ass off, but it looks like I'm in for another few years stuck in this awful town while I grind Maya tutorials.

After this long, I don't even feel like I have a chance anymore.
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