Paint amazing scenes by starting out in 3D

Illustrator John Petersen shows some of the benefits of starting your digitally painted piece in 3D.

Paint amazing scenes by starting out in 3D

Getting the perspective right on the spiral staircases would have been difficult without accurate geometry to use as a base

If you want to be accurate, consider creating a 3D mock-up of your environment, if for no other reason than to help you with perspective and to help with orientation.

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This can be a time-consuming process, but in the long run it's worth it because you can play with camera angles, enabling you to generate a composition that you might not have considered. Furthermore, if you're doing it for a client, you can send them different camera angles of the mocked-up environment, which they can choose from.

Once you've built the scene you can move the camera around and quickly render multiple images. There are a number of free programs you can download to get started, such as SketchUp or Blender.

I'm using 3ds Max for this question. You can also go the James Gurney route and build a complete clay and styrofoam maquette sculpture of your environment and use studio lighting to obtain a super accurate reference. However, this takes tremendous time and effort, so it really depends on how quickly you need to get the job done.

01. Map it out

This is an aerial view of the scene. The commission calls for an old city environment. I create boxes and shape extrusions. Then I lay out a street pattern and build everything in between. I add spheres here and there for dome shapes, and some rooftop structures for detail.

02. Bird's eye view

Here's an aerial view mock-up. I like this angle, but the view needs to be at street level. I'm trying to achieve a balanced composition while retaining dramatic detail. The commission calls for spiral staircases going up to nowhere, some reaching over 100 feet in the sky.

03. Settling down

This is the winning angle. The environment needs to have a prominent empty lot, a trash-filled ditch and a legible street sign. From here I can project a rendering on to illustration board, or just start painting right over the 3D model image.

Words: John Petersen

An education in biological and pre-medical illustration led US-based John Petersen to become an animator and designer at Engineering Systems, Inc. He's also a freelance illustrator.

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 116.

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