'Using 3D as a starting point for a Digital Painting'
by Richard Tilbury

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Software Used: Photoshop, 3D Studio Max

Over the course of this tutorial I shall be discussing some methods and techniques used to create a digital painting of an interior. More specifically I will aim to show how 3D software can be used as a useful application in the process.


With a good deal of artistic output these days being produced entirely in a digital format, the tools that artists now have at their disposal have developed far beyond the realms of pencil and paper (although these still prove to be the consummate materials at the birth of an idea).

From concept design to polished production pieces and certainly matte painting, the modern day artist would be hard pushed to avoid working without the aid of tools such as the ubiquitous Photoshop, and Painter. With this in mind, it follows that 3D programs such as 3DS Max, Maya and XSI, etc. offer a number of useful assets that can help inform and solve artistic issues, such as perspective and lighting.

When it comes to drawing even a relatively simple scene that incorporates a few tricky shapes and curved forms, it can take a concentrated session to construct the perspective accurately by hand. By using a 3D package however, a simple representation can be built in a short time and a camera placed in the scene. This enables a swift mock up of the proposed composition and angle of view, but more importantly allows the artist to achieve an exact and authentic “perspective template”. By moving the camera the artist now has a completely flexible method of experimenting with the composition and altering the viewpoint, as well as altering the camera settings to exaggerate and distort the perspective slightly and thus change the mood and impact of the picture.

The following tutorial will aim to show how, with the use of a 3D package, a simple scene can be built in order to establish an accurate perspective guide for painting.


Once you have decided on an idea for your scene, I find it is always best to start with a sketch to explore and clarify some of the concepts. For this tutorial, I essentially wanted to describe a rather grand interior that included a statue as a focal point with a glass panel roof and an interesting staircase. I wanted to try and achieve a Victorian quality about the scene that somehow spoke of a bygone era but with an air of ambiguity about it. I particularly liked the notion of using light to add drama and including a polished marble floor and ceramic bricks which the Victorians liked to use.

Due to the nature of this tutorial I did not spend too much time getting the perspective correct as this was going to be achieved in 3D, but rather just drew in some of the essential components which would later be modelled.

Building the 3D Scene:

Once I had finished the rough sketch (Fig.01) I then moved to 3DS Max to build a simple version of my drawing.

Concept Sketch of Interior
Fig.01 (click to see larger version)

The first step was to construct a simple box that represented the walls and floor and then build the staircase and plinth. I also used a simple cylinder to represent a column with some variation to ensure the perspective was correct for details that could be added along its height (Fig.02). As I was building the scene I thought it might be more dramatic to have the statue and plinth directly below the raised platform, almost as though it were supporting it, which was something I had not planned in the sketch. One other alteration I made was to add a curve to the staircase which added some interest to the composition.

Basic 3D model of Interior

The next stage was to put the staircase lamp in and put on the roof, which comprises of two long panelled, glass curves. In order to paint the iron framework I added the relevant number of subdivisions along the roof geometry which could then be used later to create an accurate structure and perspective.

I assigned a plain grey material to everything in the scene as we are only interested in the forms at this stage. By ticking the Wire checkbox in the material editor, the wall and ceiling geometry now display the individual polys, which is very

useful as a perspective guide when adding further detail later on (Fig.03).

Perspective Guides

Another area where the use of 3D is particularly useful is in solving repeatable patterns in perspective, and in this case the floor tiles. I created a single tileable texture of a single tile which I then mapped onto the floor. Then in Max I altered the tiling amount to get the right scale (20 x 20) and rotated the angle of the map by 45 degrees, as seen in Fig.04.


Applying the Floor Texture
Fig.04 (click to see larger version)

When the scene is rendered, it now creates a very quick and accurate template which can be masked later and used as an overlay in the painting stage (Fig.05).

Basic 3D Template Scene

Starting the Painting:

Before starting with the painting phase, decide on the size and proportions of the final image and then render out your 3D scene accordingly.

One thing that I briefly touched upon earlier was the notion of lighting. I have not decided to set up any lighting in the scene as I find it sometimes restricts ones artistic freedom. Lighting is a crucial aspect to any image and, as such for the sake of aesthetics, it is nice to be able to bend the truth a little, and in this case use it as a structural device which does not always comply with science! For this reason, I did not spend time setting up a perfect solution but rather used the 3D render purely for providing the perspective.

When you have decided on a satisfactory aspect, render out the image and open it in your respective painting program – in this case Photoshop.

I always keep this render on a separate layer as reference and immediately add a new one that will form the starting point of the painting.

This first layer will be a tonal version of the entire scene and will establish the light source and generally flesh out the light and dark passages in the painting (Fig.06).

Fleshing out Light & Dark Areas

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