Thinking In Three Dimensions

2014 Artwork 3D Drawing instinct sketch

Well, I’ve already written about the basics of drawing 3D objects, so I thought that I’d talk about something a bit more advanced. I am, of course, talking about thinking in three dimensions.

As I said, this is a slightly more advanced skill. So, if more realistic three-dimensional art still seems like a strange collection of angular lines and curves (which follow a series of arcane and unknowable rules) to you, then you’re probably best reading my other article and just practising the basics for now.

Anyway, “thinking in three dimensions” is when drawing three-dimensional images becomes so intuitive to you that, when you start drawing something that you’ve never drawn before, it’s almost like you’re just automatically tracing the outline of it rather than having to actively work out how to make it look 3D.

Basically, it’s how to go from drawing things like this:

A very two-dimensional picture I drew in 2000-2001, which only shows the very first signs of 3D drawing (eg: the driver's left arm).

A very two-dimensional picture I drew in 2000-2001, which only shows the very first signs of 3D drawing (eg: the driver’s left arm).

To drawing (and possibly even painting) things like this:

"Seas" By C. A. Brown

“Seas” By C. A. Brown

It’s kind of hard to describe exactly what this skill feels like when you have it (and I can barely even remember what it was like when I didn’t know how to do this), but the best way to describe it is that everything in your drawing feels more physical to you.

It feels like you have a physical copy of the 3D object in your mind and all you have to do is to copy it onto paper.

You draw angled edges, sides and curve lines on things not because these things are supposed to make something look 3D, but because those are the physical contours of the object and anything else would just feel unnatural.

You automatically know which sides of an object to draw and which ones not to draw because, well, that’s just what the object looks like.

To be honest, thinking in three dimensions and knowing how to copy it onto paper is probably more of a learned instinct than a “skill”.

Pretty cool, right?

So, how do you learn how to do this?

This is a skill which you can only really get from a lot of practice and a lot of close observation of photographs and other drawings. In fact, when you’ve learnt this skill, you probably won’t even realise that you’ve learnt it until quite a while later.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a skill that you can learn quickly, but it is something which grows with you as you continue your own artistic journey. At first, when you’re learning how to draw things in 3D, it’ll seem difficult and complicated.

You’ll make mistakes and you’ll learn from these mistakes. You’ll have to use formal techniques quite often (like perspective lines, consulting references, breaking an object down into simple geometric shapes etc…). Don’t worry, this is all part of the learning process.

One of the best ways to get started is to draw fun doodles of simple 3D shapes when you’re bored. After a while, you’ll notice that your doodles of other objects are starting to include these basic 3D shapes. I think that the first 3D object I worked out how to draw was probably a basic table, which was just a simple cuboid or cube with things on top of it.

In fact, I’d say that I owe most of my early 3D drawing skills to nothing more than doodling a lot in classes and lectures when I was younger. So, doodling is a good way to learn the basics of thinking in three dimensions. This is because you can doodle a lot of things very quickly and, since there is no pressure or expectation, you will probably be more willing to experiment too.

Not only that, you’ll occasionally see drawings or photos that you really like and you’ll want to copy them just to learn how to draw something like that.

Then, when you’re drawing an original picture, you’ll suddenly remember a technique you learnt when you were copying the other picture and add it to your new picture. After you’ve used this technique a few times, you’ll probably even start to forget where you learnt it from.

But, after making a lot of drawings, things will start to seem a little bit more intuitive to you. Very slowly, drawing more realistic 3D objects and scenery will just start to feel a bit more natural. As I said earlier, this is something which you probably won’t even notice at the time.

And, to be honest, this is something which you will never quite stop learning. Although I’d like to think that I’ve got fairly good at it, there are still times when I have to go back to basics and work out how to draw something using lots of trial and error and the few formal techniques I know. For example, take a look at this panel from a comic that I’m working on at the moment.

Yes, I didn't know how to draw THIS instinctively.

Yes, I didn’t know how to draw THIS instinctively.

In order to draw this small scene, I actually had to draw four perspective lines and think consciously about the angles of every line in the picture. When I initially tried to sketch this picture without doing these things, it ended up looking like a confusing mess.

So, although it’s cool to have this skill, don’t make the mistake of feeling that you’re too confident to learn anything new. Don’t make the mistake of resting on your laurels and not trying new things occasionally. Yes, you’ll fail sometimes, but failure is an essential part of the learning process.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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