Is it time you got to grips with 3D software?
Added dimension Is mastering 3D software the key to artistic success, or does it have its limitations? Dom Carter speaks to artists about their experiences
Is mastering 3D software the key to artistic success, or does it have its limitations? Dom Carter discovers that the answer’s not clear cut…
It wasn’t until recently that ZBrush made sense. I’ve been learning it ever since…
Art software has revolutionised how illustrators create 2D work, thanks to features that give users greater control over their creations. Alongside these tools, software tailored towards 3D art has also changed people’s creative ambitions and opened up new career opportunities. Yet, despite the two disciplines having skill sets that overlap and feed into one another, some artists have initially struggled to move between 2D and 3D.
Even a relatively early introduction to animation and motion graphics software Maya 3.0 couldn’t help it click with Imaginism Studios cofounder Bobby Chiu. “It didn’t really feel like sculpting to me back then,” says the concept and character designer. “It wasn’t until 2017 when I asked a sculptor friend of mine, Justin Goby Fields, to put together an introduction to ZBrush course for artists that ZBrush finally made sense to me. I’ve been learning and using ZBrush ever since.” For 2000 AD artist Thomas Foster, picking up 3D software skills helped improve his confidence in creating realistic backgrounds and vehicles. “Upon discovering SketchUp, I spent
a lot of time designing background elements from scratch, or utilising existing assets in order to round out my repertoire.”
The further discovery of DAZ 3D, which specialises in rigged 3D human models, enabled Thomas to create full 3D scenes with minimal modelling involved, before he even put pencil to paper. “This meant I always had a solid foundation on which to build my images. The time spent exploring these methods has greatly improved my versatility and the range of resources at my disposal.”
The speed with which artists can lay down ideas with 3D software makes a proficiency with tools such as ZBrush, Blender and Cinema 4D hugely desirable to clients – especially when it comes to concept art.
“Designs that concept artists create are meant for one thing: to be built,” explains concept artist and illustrator Houston Sharp. “If concept artists can start that 3D visualisation in the beginning design phase, it makes it easier for the rest of the team to understand what needs to built. From there, the team can even take the 3D concept to use as a starting point for the final assets.”
Despite its usefulness, artists are still able to get work with no prior knowledge of 3D software. It just depends on which route you want to take. Philipp Scherer reveals that getting your foot in the door still remains the most difficult step to landing projects.
“If you’re working in the entertainment industry however, a basic knowledge of 3D is almost expected and working digitally is mandatory,” the concept artist and illustrator explains. “Even basic knowledge of 3D tools can be helpful. I have friends working as 2D artists that only know how to navigate in 3D and set up a basic render. But it helps them when they receive files from a third party and they’re asked to create a quick painting based on a 3D model.”
Phoebe Herring, a lecturer in game art at Falmouth University, agrees that 3D art is becoming increasingly vital for concept artists. “Clients are interested in the designer’s vision, not in waiting around for them to lay out all of their vanishing points by hand.”
She points out that physically based rendering offers her students a way to talk about materials that applies to both 2D and 3D art. “3D theory is a great way to talk about this stuff, and
The time spent on these 3D methods has improved my versatility and the range of resources at my disposal
students confident in 3D can mock up quick scenes to check the way their creations respond to the light.”
going in head first
Phoebe adds that there are other ways 3D studies can push your 2D skills to the next level. “Students often benefit hugely from sculpting proportionate human heads in ZBrush, even if they never go on to do 3D character art. The study forces a real understanding of the way features fall on the skull and reveals weak points for the artist to work on.”
According to Phoebe, 3D knowledge can’t exist in isolation. “It needs to sit alongside rock-solid perspective, anatomy and design skills. These fundamentals are the real tricky things, and nobody ever stops learning them.”
Illustrator Alix Branwyn also thinks that without a certain level of 2D understanding, 3D tools can only achieve so much. “I’ve found that a lot of the software that’s used for posing figures often leaves an unrealistic feel that can seep into the illustration and make it seem ‘off’. Faces feel lifeless and a bit ‘uncanny valley’, and hands often feel stiff and waxy rather than expressive and fleshy.
“I look at the use of 3D the same way that I view the use of photo reference and 2D digital shortcuts: it’s just another tool to get the work done quicker and make it look good.”
Bobby is of the same mind. “If you don’t understand art fundamentals, 3D won’t save you.”
Where to start?
For 2D artists looking to add 3D to their skill set, the range of tools available can be an embarrassment of riches. “Start small. 3D can be overwhelming,” advises Magic: The Gathering artist Steve
Argyle. “One very good way to learn 3D is to commit to one piece of software at a time and learn the basics of everything it does. Then go deep into whatever it is you want to do with that software.”
If this sounds too much like hard work, Thomas still thinks it’ll be worth your time. “There’s virtually no reason for artists not to learn about 3D. Even if the conclusion they reach is that it’s of no use to them, it will, at least, be an informed conclusion. More likely, they will come away with another string to their bow.”
3D is perfectly suited to Houston Sharp’s line of work. “You can reach a photo-realistic image much quicker with 3D,” he says.
Philipp Scherer says there will always be a place for concept artists without 3D skills, but observes that, “I would estimate that 70 per cent of the concept artists I work with use 3D software.”
Alix Branwyn says 3D can be an invaluable time and money saver. “It enables you to either take on more work or take some time for yourself – something as artists we probably don’t do enough.”
Thomas points out that the usefulness of 3D depends on the career route. “Those illustrating children’s picture books or working in portraiture may not see any significant benefit.”
Houston warns that artists shouldn’t let 3D take over. “Your 2D skills are just as valuable – if not more valuable – as any 3D program,” he says.
“Art is bigger than the software and in the end, artists should remember that 3D software is just a tool,” says Bobby. At Phoebe’s university, 2D is taught alongside 3D. “I do hear from some students that it knocks their confidence at first. These are often artists who have always been top of the class.”
Steve finds 3D useful for roughing out a scene. “You don’t have to model in every detail, but if you have some building blocks to work with, everything becomes easier.”