Human hand with geometric pattern over missing piece of finger
 Orlagh Murphy / Getty Images

It’s a question that crops up all the time on professional CG forums —”do I need to know how to draw to have a successful career in 3D?”

Before we buckle down and try to answer that, let us say this:

It’s a foregone conclusion that a well-developed foundation in traditional art or digital painting is a definite asset en route to success as a 3D artist.

There are numerous reasons this is the case. Drawing skills make you more versatile. They give you flexibility and freedom during the initial design stages of an image, they give you the ability to seamlessly mix 2D and 3D elements. They allow you to tweak your image in post-production to enhance the result you received from your render engine. So yes, traditional 2D skills are helpful to any 3D artist — no question about it.

The real question isn’t whether it helps. The question is whether or not it’s worth investing the extensive time it takes to learn.

If you’re young (pre-high school or high school age), we say definitely. You absolutely have plenty of time to develop a broad skill set that includes both drawing/painting and 3D modeling, texturing, and rendering. If this is the case, you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by spending some time on your 2D portfolio.

But what if you fell in love with 3D a little bit later in life and have never really taken the time to learn how to draw or paint?

Maybe you started messing around with 3D software in college? Or perhaps you discovered it even later and decided it’s something you’d like to pursue as a career change. Whatever the reason, you may be asking yourself the following question:

Is it better to buckle down and learn as much 3D as you can, as quickly as possible, or should you take a step back and try to develop a solid 2D foundation?

In a perfect world, we’d all do both. It’d be fantastic if everyone could take two years to study composition, perspective, figure drawing, and painting, and then enroll in a four-year degree program to study 3D. But for most people, this just isn’t practical.

So what to do if time is at a premium?

2D Skills You Should Focus On

Tiltshifted sketch of a cottage
LdF / Getty Images

Ultimately, you’ll probably need to pick and choose which aspects of 2D art you have time to focus on. Here are some facets of 2D art that we feel will be most beneficial for someone who is most interested in launching a career in 3D computer graphics:

  • Sketching and Thumbnail Iteration: There’s nothing more valuable than being able to get a lot of ideas onto paper very quickly, and the ability to iterate on them is a million dollar talent. If you can churn out ten or fifteen thumbnail sketches in the course of a few hours, it puts you in an advantageous position. You can show them to friends and family, or on the CG forums to find out which ones work and which ones don’t, and you’ll have the freedom to combine ideas from multiple sketches to produce your final design.
  • Perspective: On the one hand, this probably sounds a bit counter-productive. What’s the point spending your precious time learning perspective when your 3D software renders perspective automatically?
  • Compositing. Set Extension. Matte Painting: These are all facets of CG that depend heavily on a combination of 2D and 3D elements, and for a final image to be successful there must be precise perspective continuity. There are times when you may not have time to model an entire scene in 3D, and when that time comes you’ll be glad you know how to place 2D elements on an accurate perspective grid.
  • Composition: A good environment or character design can stand on its own, but top-notch composition is often what separates the great images from the good ones. An eye for composition is something that will develop organically over time, but it’s more than worth it to pick up a book or two on the subject. Be on the lookout for books on story-boarding, which can be a tremendous resource for both composition and loose sketching.

Techniques That May Not Be Worth Your Time

Young man painting girl in landscape
Clarissa Leahy / Getty Images

Sight-see drawing: Paraphrased loosely, sight-see is learning to draw precisely what you see. It’s the preferred drawing technique in most atelier settings, and it’s a valid course of study when representational drawing and painting are the artist’s primary goal.

But for someone trying to bolster their drawing skills simply to improve as a 3D artist, sight-see drawing is of relatively little value. By its very nature, sight-see is completely reliant on live models and clear reference.

As a CG artist, much of the time you’ll be creating things that don’t exist in the real world–unique creatures, fantasy environments, monsters, characters, etc. Learning to make copies of reference photographs may help put some impressive looking images in your ​demo reel, but it won’t teach you how to come up with designs of your own.

Reference itself is very, very important, but learning how to distill it into your own concepts is far more useful than copying it directly.

Learning production-level digital painting/2D rendering techniques: If your primary goal is to be working in 3D, there are pretty good odds you’ll never need to refine a sketch or thumbnail into a production level piece of artwork. It takes years to learn how to paint light and shadow, render form, and surface detail at a professional level.

Don’t expect to learn how to paint like Dave Rapoza, and then pursue your 3D career. It takes years and years to get to that level, and many people never make it to that level. Unless concept-art is what you want to be doing professionally, you’re better off focusing on the things that will truly help you achieve your personal goals. You never want to spread yourself too thin at the risk of losing your focus!

What About Anatomy?

Engraving depicting frontal and posterior anatomy of a human
 belterz / Getty Images

This is a tricky one to answer because we can’t in good conscience recommend ​against learning how to draw human anatomy. If you plan on being a character artist, you’ll need to learn anatomy somehow, and this is a valid way to do it.

But having said that—wouldn’t it be more beneficial to learn anatomy directly in Zbrush, Mudbox, or Sculptris?

Muscle memory plays a huge role in art, and even though there’s definitely some overlap between drawing on paper and sculpting digitally, one would never say they were identical. Why spend hundreds of hours mastering the art of figure drawing when you could spend the time honing your sculpting abilities?

Again, we don’t want to argue strictly against learning anatomy by drawing, but the fact is, sketching in ZBrush has gotten to the point where it’s not really much slower than sketching on paper, and we think that’s something worth considering. You can still study the old masters like Loomis, Bammes, or Bridgman, but why not do it in 3D?

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