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).