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).


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


@Ben - When reading your post, questions popped up in my head.

  1. During the six years you were trying to learn the foundations of visual art, did you actually use effective learning resources from authoritative authors, artists, and instructors? Or were you just fumbling around in the dark and chasing your own tail? Did you actively seek the guidance of authoritative artists? Did you constantly post your work in forums for critiques? Did you constantly approach artists you admired and asked for their advice when you were going nowhere and feeling frustrated?

Many of my students were stuck in a rut for many years, and they felt so lost, confused, discouraged–like their dreams are slipping away and they couldn’t do a thing about it. Many of them went to art school but didn’t learn anything worthwhile because they had bad instructors that either didn’t know how to teach effectively, or weren’t even proficient artists in the first place and had nothing worth of value to teach (not to mention there are schools out there that basically take your money and then just teach you the same thing you could have learned from reading the software manual). They often told me they learned far more in a couple of weeks in my workshop than they did in all the years they went to art school. Some of them were self-taught and didn’t get anywhere, because they had no idea how to learn/work smart, instead of just working hard and being kind of stupid/ineffective about it–almost like banging their heads on the brick wall without clear results. But with effective guidance from me, within just a few week everything clicked, and they had so many big “AHA!” moments of epiphany that their minds were completely blown wide open.

See, they were smart–they knew to look for help. It was because they felt so lost and frustrated that they took my workshop, and it changed their lives, because my workshop was created especially for frustrated artists like them–to lead them out of the dark and into the light, so they can equip themselves with all the effective knowledge/techniques and learning/practicing/growing approaches that will get them fast and clear results.

So my advice to you is: You can’t just wander around in the dark without guidance. You need to ask questions, get critiques, search for advice, and be critical of the methods you are currently using to learn/practice/grow. There are some excellent books, videos, workshops, and classes you can take–you need to be resourceful and seek them out. Ask for recommendations and opinions in forums. Talk to artists you respect and admire.

  1. Did you ever ask yourself if you had misinterpreted what you read online? And whose advice were you taking exactly? Were they authoritative animators you looked up to? What did your Animation Mentor instructors say? Did you even ask them for their advice before you dropped out?

Animation is not the same as general visual art. Plenty of people can animate quite well in 3D but can’t draw or paint. Animation is all about motion, conveying emotions and intent through body language and facial expressions, and acting. It’s highly specialized in one specific area of visual art, and does not overlap many other areas of visual art foundations (though knowing them won’t hurt at all and only makes you a more rounded artist in general).

  1. You said your passion is to create stories, characters, and scenes, so essentially you’re saying you want to be a creator/storyteller, and I’m assuming you meant in a visual medium–either through animation, graphic novels, illustrations, or video games. If that’s the case, then yes, you absolutely have to learn all the critical foundations of visual art in order to create rich and compelling worlds and characters. Have you actually made any effort to become a good storyteller? Did you study writing at all?

If you are serious about becoming a storyteller, you’ll need to learn storytelling–things like dramatic structure, character arcs, conflict and resolution, pacing, show don’t tell, start early and leave late, themes and motifs, the anatomy of humor, and so on. That in and of itself is another art form that can take years to become good at–you’ll have to write constantly in order to become a good writer/storyteller. One of the biggest mistakes we see all the time is visual artists who fancy themselves as storytellers but cannot write their way out of a paper bag, and the end up spending years of their lives creating short films or graphic novels with bad storytelling that no one really gives a shit about, even if the visuals look great.

  1. You didn’t say how old you were, but you don’t seem that old. I have students ranging from teens to elderly folks in their 60’s, professional artists and hobbyists, advanced artists working as art directors and total beginners, and none of them have given up hope. If you truly love something, you’ll love it regardless if it becomes a career or remain a passionate hobby–you’ll just keep on doing it for the love of it first and foremost. Even if you never make a career out of it, you can still create in your free time and share your creative vision with the world, or even develop it into a commercial property. Lots of people develop their own IP (Intellectual Property) in their free time and then share it online, and eventually built a following and turned it into commercial properties.

And finally, since you’re in the Art T&T forum already, stick around and read all the sticky threads–they will lead you in the right direction.


Sorry I rambled so long. Lunatique, thank you very much for your patient reply. You are obviously a natural teacher.
I am under pressure to relocate, so I cannot begin any more online courses at this time.

  1. It has felt like I’ve been bashing my head against walls, stumbling in the dark, yes. But I have tried to use the best educational materials recommended, so for example I own every Glen Vilppu DVD.
    At the beginning I posted a few drawings, and didn’t get any real criticism of the drawing itself, but just suggestions to keep drawing and to keep doing the exercises I was doing. I have no idea who any of these people were really, it was all just on the internet.
    But I trust in my own taste, and I could see that the major flaw in my drawings was a combination of mindset and manual dexterity; the lines were just very confusing and very clumsy. Loose and confusing, the finished drawings are inartistic, like the doodles of an adolescent.
    I can surmise that this difficulty is probably due to my lack of real-world drawing from life, and a deficient understanding of anatomy. I hope I can address both problems at once, when I am in a class.

  2. What really decided it for me was when I read in Richard Williams’ animation book an emotional appeal to aspiring animators that they first have a solid foundation in figurative art. I admit that I implemented the suggestion rashly, without asking my animation mentors.
    I did rather well at animating, and I’ve learned much since then. The problem for me was that I knew I would want my own models, rigs and environments to work with, and as you say, these are all matters very different from animating.

  3. Writing is my first love and I have made a thorough study of it, not only in novels and short stories but also in the fields of dramaturgy and film. As you say, you have seen many visual artists who are budding storytellers, who are skilled artists but weak authors; I would say that I am the inversion of that archetype, with strong story skills and poor artwork.

  4. Art could never be just a hobby for me. Even if I am always terrible at creating it, I love it too much ever to stop trying to make it my career.

I will just keep looking for some kind of school, that I can move near. I wish I could find a real “program” in which to enroll, though, rather than just taking random studio sessions.


You should post your work here at cgtalk (in the WIP section, or start a sketchbook thread and post all your studies/practices in it). There are some members who give excellent critiques in that area of the forum, and I also regularly provide critiques there too.

Once you are settled down after relocating, you might want to take a look at the workshop I’m teaching (called “Becoming A Better Artist”–linked below in my signature). I teach it roughly every 2 to 3 months, so it is repeated about 4 to 5 times a year.


I was trying to do 3d stuff for 3 years I think but I dont really think I improved a lot.I was busy with other stuff cuz I wanted to learn how to rig,animate or texture stuff better.
I am not sure about my skills in drawing.I could redraw something by watching it but to actually draw something to look good as on some pro work images I couldnt do.
At first I did 3d stuff like robots,cars and similar metal stuff and I didnt have much trouble but now I want to make some cool looking character,texture it and animate.I can do whole body at decent quality but when I need to make a head it just ends up too low poly,high poly,too boxy…I tried using blueprints but I must lot of times wonder where should go what,mostly for mouth and eyes.By practicing I kinda always get the back of the head nice low poly and nice aligning to the jaw.I tried to do some anime hair,but fail at that point too.
Also when you say drawing do you mean I need to have lot of tools like pencil and similar.Using photoshop isnt really handy cuz I use mouse.If I could draw with my hand on the screen with that magic pen I could improve my skills.
Anyway I am just blabing nonsence :slight_smile:
I would probably need some profesional help from the teacher up here or anyone who knows something that might help me.
I think this is my first post here.


Start reading the sticky threads in this forum–you will learn a ton from them.


Hi all, I’m trying to focus on being able to draw right now so I can model later in the future. Let just say that my drawing level is probably close to a 3rd grader. What resources are there to guide me in the proper technique to draw. My goal right now is to be able to draw what I see so wherever I am I can doodle and practice more.


Read the sticky threads–they contain learning resources that will teach you what you need to know.


I started getting into 3D after the fact in drawing- interesting enough I found the practice in a 3D environment helped me visualize my objects in a 2D environment where my perspective was very weak- and my studies in a 2D environment helped me stylize my 3D work. I’m still a beginner, but these were unexpected niceties :slight_smile:

Excellent post, I referred a a few other friends to it thank you!


Hey Lunatique, can you help me with the name of a good book for starting drawin again, I have some experience but because I’m a 3d artist i think I left the drawing path aside, I want to return to it and begin with it and really improve it, I have read that drawing with the rigth side of the brain is a good book but what do you think about it, or have a better advice to do until i take the next class with you.

thank you


I highly recommend Jack Hamm’s Drawing the Head and Figures book. It was an important book in my formative years.

Harley Brown’s eternal truths for every artist is also a really good book that covers the basic foundations.

Drawing People by Barbara Bradley is also a really good book.

The legendary Andrew Loomis books are also excellent–every single one of them.

There are other recommendations in this sticky thread: http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?f=166&t=226083


Out of curiousity, is there a online course giving for techniques on drawing?


Do you specifically want to just learn how to draw, as in how to draw animals or people or buildings–that type of learning, or do you want to learn drawing as in you want to learn all the critical foundations of visual art (composition, perspective, values, lighting, color theory, anatomy/figure, stylization, expressiveness, drawing, painting, etc)?



I would like to learn the critical foundations first!


In that case, you should take a look at the workshop I teach (linked below in my signature).