Better Illustration Reference With 3D Modeling

I have recently been taking some time during the holiday break to learn some 3D modeling basics. It’s challenging but really fun! While I am primarily a 2D illustrator (and always will be, I suspect), 3D modeling is a valuable skill that I have increasingly come to rely on in the past several years when I am sourcing references.

Why might 3D modeling be useful to a 2D artist? Well, one of the challenges of a realist illustrator is constantly sourcing good reference images in the preparatory stage of a picture. Imagine an illustration prompt that calls for a cleric in a cathedral performing a ritual atop an altar. Where do you look for a good reference of a cathedral? Google image search works in a pinch, but found reference from online sources inevitably need to be adjusted and changed. That altar image from a church in France is great, but you wish it was at a different angle, or maybe this cathedral in Germany is perfect but the lighting isn’t right. Everything requires a certain amount of reworking, resulting in hours of extra work because the reference isn’t well suited. Even when the reference image is just right, you’ll have to worry about whether it is copyrighted or is in the public domain.

I painted this illustration several years ago for a collectable card set that never made it to print. The prompt called for a particular model of a battleship being attacked by a horde of oil coated water zombies.

I looked up a lot of images of the battleship, but couldn’t find any that fit the viewpoint I needed. In order to get it right, I had a few options: build the ship myself out of cardboard and set up the shot I needed, order a toy model of the ship online and then use that as a model, or use the 3D application Google Sketchup to get the model in 3D. Google Sketchup has thousands of models available for download in a sharing section of the app called 3D Warehouse. Military vehicles of all shapes and sizes are very popular, so it was quite easy to find just the model of the ship that I needed. I downloaded the model, rotated and panned it until I had the perspective I needed, then saved out my model as a JPEG. Ship reference sourced!

I’ve even used Google Sketchup in my thumbnail phase. For “Wrong Turn”, I had a complicated scene in mind with multiple figures, a wagon and several animals. In order to better understand the size and scale of all the different elements, I played with models in a scene in Sketchup until I had something that felt right. I then shot reference for the figures and based my reference composition off of what I had created in Sketchup. It’s akin to playing with toys and setting up a diorama, only in a digital format.

I had been getting by with Sketchup for years, but I kept running into a fundamental problem. The program has no real way to deal with lighting. It’s great to be able to source any number of vehicles, buildings and objects, but it outputs everything as a flat, line based drawing. Sketchup is perfect for linework and perspective, but doesn’t offer much for dramatic or unusual lighting schemes. Why? Well, lighting is incredibly complicated, that’s why!

Think about the light in the room you are in now. You’ll probably notice an overhead light from a lamp and maybe a window light if it is daytime outside. Maybe your computer screen or tablet is throwing off a little light. But also consider the reflected light from all the objects surrounding you. Everything reflects light to some extent. Altogether, in real life there are a dizzying amount of light sources affecting the world you see in varying degrees of strength, color and intensity.

As a result, I decided to start learning Blender, an open source 3D modeling program in order to start my journey with the holy grail of realistically lit 3D reference as my goal. Blender is orders of magnitude more complex to learn than Sketchup – it’s akin to going from training wheels on a tricycle to a Harley motorcycle. I’ve been learning from lessons in the Wikipedia book Blender 3D: Noob to Pro I made the above rendering of some polished wine glasses from a tutorial after about 3 evenings of study – not too bad!

After getting the hang of the wine glasses, I took a stab at an actual challenge for a digital painting. A reference stumbling block I often encounter is armor. Fantasy frequently calls for armor on warrior characters, but physical armor reference props are expensive. I decided to paint a soldier in a Spanish helmet from the 15th century.

Knowing how to build in 3D efficiently is a skill in itself. Because the helmet is essentially the same from front to back, I made one quarter of the helmet, then duplicated it three more times to create the entire model.

After modeling the helmet, I lit it from 3 different sources to get an approximation of how it might look in life. I set the background color as a bright green so  I could easily mask it out in Photoshop, similar to how greenscreen techniques are used in filmmaking. The rendering actually has some problems, such as the tiny slivers/holes that were created along the base by some incorrect modeling. I’m still learning, after all! But, these issues were OK as all I needed was a decent approximation of a helmet that I could build off of for my painting.

And here’s the painting! The helmet reference didn’t need to be perfect; it just needed to be good enough. I used other images of helmets for texturing and metal reflection, but the 3D model served its purpose well as a base to build off of. I’m really looking forward to learning more about Blender – I’m just scratching the surface of this 3D world!