I often see aspiring 3D artists ask the question, "I want to do 3D, but should I learn how to draw?" or "Do you have to draw in order to be good at 3D?" If you've ever wondered about this, then you'll want to read on.
One of the most important truths that many aspiring 3D artists don’t know, is that learning the foundations of visual art is the most important thing for all visual artists, regardless if it's 3D, 2D, graphic design, illustration, VFX, animation, photography, etc.
All of the bad 3D portfolios out there can be summed up with one sentence: Lack of understanding of the foundations (composition, perspective, lighting/values/forms, color theory, anatomy/figure).
You can learn the foundations without drawing and painting, but the reason why people say drawing and painting helps so much is because 2D art forces you to learn the foundations, while 3D art does not. In 2D art, if you didn't master the foundations, then you couldn't do anything that's halfway decent. But in 3D, because the way assets are generated, you can produce something "finished" looking, even if the foundation elements are absolutely horrid. 3D allows people to put a lot of "polish on turd," while 2D does not allow this.Art by Rob Chang
That is why so many people recommend learning classical drawing and painting, because doing so will force you to learn the foundations whether you like it or not, and there's no cheating in 2D--either you can or you can't--there are no "polish the turd" buttons like there are in 3D where the surface textures and material properties can be procedurally generated, virtual cameras and lights can be dragged around and positioned, and algorithms can create perfectly rendered scenes for you. In 2D, if you want to create credible and aesthetically compelling images, you would have to actually understand at an advanced level exactly how light and shadows interact and behave on different materials, how forms appear under different lighting scenarios, how local colors interact with the light source's color cast, how the illusion of perspective is created, and so on, and you'll have to be able to convey all of that one pencil line and brushstroke at a time.
Another compelling reason why 3D artists would be smart to learn how to draw and paint, is that the critical foundations of visual art learned in drawing and painting will directly carry over to your 3D, so you're actually learning a universal skill-set/knowledge. Whatever you learn in 2D is just as effective when applied to 3D. The reverse, however, isn't as true. Many things you learn in 3D don't carry over to 2D effectively. In fact, you can be an accomplished 3D artist and still draw and paint like a complete beginner, regardless of how much you understand composition, lighting, colors, anatomy, etc., and it'll take you at least a few years to get up to speed as a 2D artist. But if someone is a proficient 2D artist, he'll be able to translate that same set of foundational knowledge directly into 3D as soon as he learns which buttons to push in 3D software in order to achieve the image he wants.
Here's an example from many years ago, when I tried Zbrush for the first time. I was not a 3D artist but I was a proficient 2D artist, so on my very first try just fooling around in the software, I was able to create something that looked half-way decent:Art by Rob Chang
Sure, it's quite rough and totally unfinished, and compared to all the amazing Zbursh masterpieces out there we’ve seen over the years, it's really nothing special. However, considering it was my very first time using Zbrush and I was just fooling around, it demonstrated that I had a solid background as a visual artist and knew what I was doing in terms of general proportions and anatomy (I didn’t use any references—I just sculpted an imaginary old man’s face out of my head because I thought all the wrinkles and flabby skin would allow me to really test out Zbrush’s tools). Basically, I had the foundational knowledge and artistic experience, and all I had to do was learn the software's interface and basic tools as I played around in it for an afternoon. If a proficient 3D artist who had never drawn and painted before in his life tried to do something similar in 2D (and without using references), it’s very likely the result would look like a child’s drawing.
Basically, it's a far faster process for a proficient 2D artist to learn 3D, than it is for a good 3D artist to learn 2D.
Once you learn how to draw and paint, you'll have an invaluable tool to aid you in your 3D. You can create your own concept art, do thumbnails and sketches to work from, and so on. It's far faster and more intuitive to strategize/plan in 2D than it is in 3D, and it's also much faster to make changes to your sketches/mock-ups than it is in 3D. A proficient 2D artist can create something very expressive with just a few lines, while it'll take much longer to do the same in 3D. You could be in a restaurant talking to someone, and if you were a proficient 2D artist, even just with a paper napkin and a pen, you would be able to sketch something compelling to communicate your visual ideas very quickly. Ever marveled at how good 2D artists could just open up their sketchbook and quickly draw a beautiful portrait sketch of someone sitting in front of them, or doodle a cool looking fantasy character in mid-action, or horror creature, or a badass armored vehicle? That could be you.
Art by Rob Chang
In other words, learning the critical foundations of visual art as a 2D artist has profound advantages over learning the same foundations by using 3D.
Too often, I see 3D enthusiasts making the mistakes of not realizing they are still "artists," and there's the word "artist" attached to the term "3D artist." Don't ever forget that you are an artist first and foremost--whatever medium you choose to do your art with is merely a tool for you to express your creative vision, and you must be proficient in the critical foundations of visual art if you want to be any good at your chosen visual medium. Even if you are part of a production pipeline and not a one-man show, you still need to realize that you are part of a team of visual artists, and the better artist you are, the better you can interface with other visual artists (in other words, don't be the weak link in the chain by being ignorant of all the critical foundations of visual art).
The surest way to really learn the foundations deeply and internalize those important concepts is through 2D, because everything you need to do in 2D requires those foundations, while 3D never forces you to learn them. And that is why 3D artists would benefit immensely from learning to draw and paint proficiently in 2D.