david in firenze

The artist, not the tool.

Many 3D artists – and many of my students – are making a critical assumption about the nature of their art. Unfortunately, this assumption is absolutely  fatal to an artist’s career in the long run!

A good artist will realize their vision regardless of what tool is at hand.

Nobody claims that Monet’s artistic genius was in his choice of brush or canvas.  I’ve never heard Michelangelo’s success attributed to the type of chisel he used. Sure, an artist needs the right tool to realize a vision. But the tool itself isn’t the important part.

3D engenders the opposite line of thinking.

Put bluntly, the most dangerous idea is that if a person can master Maya or Max or ZBrush well enough, that alone will lead to certain artistic success.

But this is absolutely not the case. Knowing the tool simply isn’t enough.

How do I know this? Because I was there. I made the same mistake!When I went to school I was trapped in the cycle of constantly learning new tools. The idea of mastering new tools seemed like a surefire way to artistic success!

But of course, it wasn’t. Nobody cares about what tools you know – only what you can make with those tools.

Now, back when I went to school, 3D was still a pretty new thing. None of my profs had ever had jobs in any industry, let alone games or film.  So there was no one there to help out.

I learned the hard way. It took tons of job rejections and watching a visually stunning new movie to change my understanding.

The Matrix

Yes, that Matrix. Before the terrible sequels! But we’re in a post-Matrix world, so let’s review a bit.

The Matrix was cool.  It was very different than what had come before. And the visuals were fantastic – including the wardrobe design, the fight choreography, and the photography.

So there was this scene, when the crew jacks in to the Matrix to go do something:

And that scene made sense to me; it was a comic book splash page! All the heroes are standing around looking cool. Jim Lee’s X-Men did it all the time in the early 90s.

Make it cool

And that’s when it clicked for me – stop trying to learn new stuff, and just make cool things with what I already know.

The very next demo reel I made landed me my first game job. I interviewed with quite a few studios, and I ended up with two job offers on my answering machine on the same day.

The artist is the important part, not the tool.

Another example: Pixar, the dream job for a lot of young artists, is known for finding really talented traditional artists – and then training them in 3D packages to make their movies.

In other words, the artistic talent is the hard part, the difficult ingredient to find. Learning the 3D package? It is assumed that a good artist will be able to pick it up!

Remember that! It is just assumed you know the tools. Employers will simply assume that an artist has mastery over the software program. Unless you can land a job working as a demo artist for Autodesk, mastery of software is secondary. What really counts is what a person can do with the software.

This isn’t a new challenge. For centuries artists have wrestled with transferring a vision in the mind into concrete reality. But what does this mean for a student?

Traditional art classes

It means you should take more traditional art classes in lieu of 3D art classes! Seek out life drawing workshops, sculpting classes, color theory or painting classes, and especially photography classes.

The photo classes I took were some of the most useful classes of my life. They focused on composition and lighting, both extremely versatile skills that apply directly to 3D art creation. Photography is all about having the eye.

So don’t overlook traditional art skills! Foundational classes are more important than you think. A good artist can make something great no matter what tools they are stuck with.

Now go out and make something cool.

Fun fact!

So I took that photo of the copy of Mike’s David at the Piazza Della Signoria – the original used to stand in that very spot, open to the elements for everyone to see! Then they moved it indoors because some dude ATTACKED IT WITH A HAMMER. Way to ruin it for everybody, dude.

8 thoughts on “The artist, not the tool.”

  1. Firstly, Thank you for your tutorials… Some have been real life savers in finding those ridiculously hidden basic bits of functionality in Maya.

    I am a 3D pro of 23 years experience and although I agree with the intent of the article I do have one thing to say.
    Sometimes software does not work the way your brain is wired and so the tool becomes the problem. If you are left handed, right handed scissors will always be “wrong”. Yes, you can fight with the tool and give yourself a club thumb, or you can say that it doesnt matter how tallented you are, sometimes the software just does not gel with you.
    I am on my third attempt at learning Maya (v1, v8 and now 2015) and I just dont “get” it.
    Sybolics S World? Yep
    3D Studio Dos? Yep
    3DS Max? after a fight
    Side Effects? Yep
    Lightwave? Yep
    ZBrush? Yep
    Maya?… Ermmm I can use it, but I dont enjoy it and that is killing my creativity

    1. Hey Andrew, this is a good point you raise. But I think it applies to 3D software in general, not specifically to Maya. All 3D software is non-intuitive, when compared to the direct simplicity and feedback of working with pencil, or paint, or clay. The trade-off, of course, is sheer power. I don’t find Maya fun to use either, but I know it well enough to get around. In fact, the only 3D software that I’ve used that is fun, is Mudbox – it is direct and easy to use, IMO, it makes it fun to play around in.

      Also, I think it is funny you find Maya difficult to learn, but know ZBrush, because I am the opposite: I find ZBrush to be complete nonsense, with its crazy Amiga interface. 😀

  2. I find maya the funnest to use for modeling, I’ve tried Z brush modo and Max, can’t really get used get the speed I have with Maya.. funny because no one likes Maya but it’s actually a really solid piece of software, imo.

  3. Can I be a great 3d artist without even learning 2d animation? Also can I directly specialize in 3d modelling? And I have heard animators and games don’t recommend 3d sculpting process instead they hire polygonal modellers? I only want to master one technique.

    1. You don’t need to learn animation unless you want to be an animator.

      If you want to specialize in modeling, you do either hard surfaces or sculpting, generally. Both types of artists are expected to know how to polygonalize their high res sculpts.

      Poly modeling is probably most useful in areas like mobile development, where computation is still expensive.

  4. Sharyar,
    You can be a great artist knowing just one thing, but it depends if you are creating art because you are an artist, or creating art to get a job.
    If you like modeling you do not need animation.
    As James says, If you like creating high res sculps that is fine, but if you want a job in the games industry you will need to know how to make polygon based game resolution meshes.
    Hard surface modeling (vehicles, objects, buildings) can all be done within Max, Maya, Blender, Lightwave, Cinema 4D or any other software like this.
    Mobile development can be done in just one of these packages.
    Organic modeling (characters, plants, some environment work) for consoles needs the high res model sculpting first and then a game res mesh making. You can sculpt in Maya and Blender, but that is not how most companies do it.

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