Do I Need to Know How to Draw for 3D Modeling?

Which 2D skills are most beneficial for a 3D artist

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?"

While not necessary, a well-developed foundation in traditional art or digital painting is a major asset en route to success as a 3D artist.

There are several reasons for this. Drawing skills make you more versatile. They give you flexibility and freedom during the initial design stages. 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. There is no question that traditional 2D skills are helpful to any 3D artist.

For young artists in middle school or high school, it is likely worth the time and effort to develop 2D drawing skills. Any artist's portfolio would benefit from a broad skill set, including drawing, painting, 3D modeling, texturing, and rendering.

But what if you took to 3D later in life and never had the time to learn to draw or paint? Would it be better to focus entirely on 3D, or to take a step back and develop a solid foundation in 2D?

The truth is it depends on your skill levels and resources. Here we look at some of the most and least important skills for learning both 2D and 3D drawing and rendering.

2D Skills You Should Focus On

Tiltshifted sketch of a cottage
LdF / Getty Images

If you've decided to take some time to learn 2D, here are some skills and techniques that will prove beneficial for someone interested in launching a career in 3D computer graphics:

  • Sketching and Thumbnail Iteration: The ability to quickly iterate on an idea through sketches and thumbnails is a much valued 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 do not. You will also have the freedom to combine ideas from multiple sketches to produce your final design.
  • Perspective: 3D software may be able to automatically render perspective, but that doesn't negate the value of understanding perspective for both 2D and 3D art. Think of it as a foundational set of rules upon which everything is built.
  • Compositing. Set Extension. Matte Painting: These are all facets of CG that depend heavily on a combination of 2D and 3D elements. For a final image to be successful there must be precise perspective continuity. In some situations, you won't have time to model an entire scene in 3D. 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 great images from merely good ones. An eye for composition is something that will develop organically over time, but it's 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: Sight-see refers to the process of drawing exactly what you see. It's the preferred drawing technique in most atelier settings and is a valuable skill set if representational drawing and painting are the primary goals. 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, 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 add some realism to your ​demo reel, but it won't teach you how to come up with designs of your own.
  • Production-Quality Digital Painting/2D Rendering: If your primary goal is to work in 3D, the odds are good 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 anyway. 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 focus.

What About Anatomy?

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

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 some basic anatomy. 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 perfecting the art of figure drawing when you could spend the time honing your sculpting abilities?

We don't want to argue 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. We think that's something worth considering. You can still study Loomis, Bammes, or Bridgman, but why not do it in 3D?