Fine artists find the third dimension a lush habitat for creating still images

At first blush, it seems an odd pairing: 3D software and 2D images. It’s a coupling of tool and consequence as unlikely as building blocks and watercolors. And yet, more and more artists are using 3D modeling and animation software to create 2D still images. Some use these tools for obvious and pragmatic reasons: to produce printed materials with frames plucked from animations or pictures of products designed with 3D tools. Others use 3D programs to create illustrations with a “computer” look, for special effects, to work with geometric shapes, or to simulate objects that don’t exist.

But it’s the artists using 3D software to create their personal work—paintings, for lack of a better word— who seem to wander into a 3D space and manipulate it in the most fascinating ways.

These artists develop their “paintings” using the same basic tools as engineers, designers, architects, and animators. They create 3D objects, shade them, place the models in a scene, define surface characteristics, light the scene, select a view, then shoot (render) the picture (although perhaps not in that order). But the similarity with how others use 3D tools ends, for the most part, there.

Unfettered by the need to model anything real or manufacturable, to match a storyboard or illustrate a concept, freed from the need to meet a deadline, these artists are discovering and exploring an artistic process that defies simple description and convenient naming. They may spend months roaming through a 3D environment that they constantly change to create—some say chance upon—one image.

Obviously, this isn’t painting, although the result may look like a painting. Nor is it sculpture, although that, too, plays a part. And the use of lights and cameras in 3D scenes begs a comparison with photography; yet, it’s as different from photography as photography is different from painting. See for yourself.

Wynne Ragland studied painting and printmaking at the Atlanta College of Art and received an MFA in photographic art and sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Now, he’s working with Topas from AT&T Graphics Software Labs (Indianapolis). “I began experimenting right from the start,” he says. He creates his futuristic landscapes by starting with what he describes as big blobs of models—polygons of all shapes and sizes stuck together in a mesh.

Then he pastes what he calls “funky texture maps” onto the model. “Most people create an object and try to make the object look photo-realistic,” Ragland says. “All I’m looking for [in texture maps] are colors.” He might, for example, grab an image from a video, and then use only a section of that image as a decal that he slips onto the model.

Once the texture map is applied, he begins shaping the model. He twists it, carves out polygons in some areas, grafts polygons onto others. As he does, the texture map stretches and changes, and the landscape Ragland is creating begins to form. “The model becomes the brush, and the texture maps create the palette,” he says. “It’s real hard to explain. It’s like working with clay. Shapes start to emerge.”

Char Davies studied philosophy, anthropology, and visual art at Bennington College and received a BFA in 1978 from the University of Victoria (British Columbia). During the next 10 years, she exhibited her paintings across Canada and worked as a freelance filmmaker with Canada’s National Film Board. In 1988, she joined SoftImage (Montreal), where, as vice president and director of visual research, she explores new ways to use the company’s Unix-based, 3D animation software as an imaging tool. Like Ragland, she searches for images within a 3D space. But the environment she inhabits is as different from his as the process she uses and the images she creates.

In her most recent work, an ongoing series called “Interior Bodies,” Davies uses very simple models. “Root,” for example, has no more than 10 polygons. The complexity in the images comes instead, as it might in the natural world, from the play of colors, shadows, reflections, textures, and surfaces and atmospheric effects.
“As a painter, I tend to focus not on modeling or animation, but on material definition, texturing, lighting, and rendering,” she says. The SoftImage system, which runs on Silicon Graphics workstations, gives her the ability to work interactively with these effects in a 3D world.

“When I was painting, the canvas became a wall I couldn’t get through,” she says. “Now I can pass beyond the picture plane. I can move around three-dimensional objects inside a three-dimensional space. It’s like sculpture, except I cannot touch, and unlike sculpture, because I can cross exterior boundaries and go inside.

“It’s not a wrap-around virtual space,” she adds, “but I feel like I’m in there far more than when I was working on canvas, or with painting software. With painting software, you’re still working with 2D surfaces and layers. With 3D, you’re making an environment and taking a snapshot of it.” This ability to enter an environment, to move around and inside the forms she creates, is in harmony with her subject matter.

In “Interior Bodies,” Davies is exploring what she calls “visual metaphors of nature,” metaphors that “are alternative to the Cartesian world view of Western science, which has separated mind from body and ‘man’ from nature.” With “Root,” for example, she wanted to represent the unity of the root, the plant, and the environment. “I had a sense that I wanted a root-like form,” she says, “that would be simultaneously under the earth and also part of the surrounding landscape.”

Char Davies - ROOT, 1991 - Photographic transparency, 42 x 72Char Davies - Root - Photographic transparency<br /> 1991 Char Davies
"Stream" (left) and "Roof (right) are from Char Davies' awardwinning series, "Interior Bodies," Both were created with 3D animation software from SoftImage, "In this work, the content doesn't come from objects, but from effects. Ifs very ephemeral, and yet what I feel compelled to express is organic. With 3D animation software, I can simulate light and physical laws in nature."
Stream (left) and Roots (right) © Char Davies 1991

She began “Root” by sculpting a simple shape, a twisting tube, using a round spline that she duplicated to get a series of circles, extruded with a “skin,” twisted, and placed in a spherically shaped environment. Next, she added light.

“I usually start with one light in front, one in back,” she says, “one warm, one cold, and work from there.” Then, she colored the shape. Thus far, she had created something she describes as “an ugly, tube-like thing in a brownish color.” It’s enough, for once she has a shape and a lighted environment, she begins working with the camera, using it to change her viewpoint as she searches for the composition. “Sometimes, I spend days,” she says. “Sometimes, I animate the camera and make 200 or 300 frames that I look at the next day, trying to find that one frame that begins to resonate.

“I’ve no interest in making decorative work,” she explains. “If there’s no emotional power, I discard the images.”

Once she finds the view, she begins adding textures to the model-textures captured with a scanner or painted perhaps, but more likely, procedural textures. With procedural textures, she can work interactively with the material definitions, changing textures, colors, transparencies, reflections, and refractions, simulating the behavior of light and its natural properties as it interacts with the various surfaces of the three-dimensional forms. She can change the material definition of any part of the objects she’s sculpted, including the environment. She can cause a light to shine through a partially transparent texture to cast colored shadows (“like a dance hall in the ’50s,” she explains), then change the texture, the transparency, the colors. “It has nothing to do with painting, but I’m bringing all my skills as a painter to the creative process.”

She is, though, in a way, painting her metaphors with light rather than oil paints. “Because the work is based on the effects of light,” she notes, “it’s very ephemeral.” She points to an area on the right side of “Root.” “I look at Root and I can’t tell how it was created. That’s how ephemeral it is. I assume this area was created with projected light,” she says, and smiles. “I love the fact that I don’t know. It still has mystery for me.”

"There's a 3D space in the computer that creates variables that don't exist any other way."—David Sherwin (Berkeley, CA)
"There's a 3D space in the computer that creates variables that don't exist any other way."—David Sherwin (Berkeley, CA)

David Sherwin (Berkeley, CA) studied drawing and sculpture at Chicago Art Institute, graduating with an MFA in 1968. In 1987, he began working with computer graphics at the Suite 3D Center for Art and Technology (San Francisco), where he had access to a variety of 3D and 2D software programs. The following year, he received a first place award from Prix Ars Electronica.

He tends to use 3D software more as Ragland does than the way Davies uses it, in that he works with very complex models to create his still images. Unlike Ragland, however, he usually begins with a drawing. “Because drawing is one of my strengths, I might do a thumbnail on paper and scan it into the computer,” he says, “but usually I start with a freehand sketch on the computer using a vector or spline, and extrude that shape into a 3D model.

“I push the complexity as far as I can. I use lots of polygons,” he says, explaining that, to create the soft curves in his images, he needs lots of points. He also uses lots of models—and models within models.

“Then, I play,” he says. “There’s a 3D space in the computer that creates variables that don’t exist any other way. I can explore a reality in that space that can’t be explored any other way.”

He plays with textures, drawing from a personal library of hundreds of textures created and collected during the past four years— scanned images, painted images, images he’s altered with image processing software such as HiRes QFX from Ron Scott Inc. (Houston). And as do the other artists, he plays with lights, colors, transparencies, and other material definitions. “I work like a jazz musician,” he says. “I like to improvise, to explore as many options as I can.”

The resulting “paintings” have a depth and texture that imply three-dimensionality, yet despite the complexity of the underlying models, it’s often impossible to see a 3D object or a model.

Constance Lawrence (Emeryville, CA) also uses extremely complex models to produce soft and fluid shapes. However, for Lawrence, who studied painting and ceramics at the Instituto de San Miguel and was an apprentice to Master Weaver Ida Grae, it was the ability to paint with light that first drew her to computer graphics eight years ago.

"There's a 3D space in the computer that creates variables that don't exist any other way."—David Sherwin (Berkeley, CA)
Constance Lawrence of Lawrence & Lawrence Associates [Emeryville, CA), a painter and ceramicist, began using computer graphies to "paint with light" eight years ago. She first became interested in 3D software because it could produce higher-resolution images than painting software, "To me, computer graphics is more of a mental than a tactile thing, But the bottom line is that I really enjoy playing with shapes, lights, and textures."

Prompted by Sherman Kennedy, a software engineer who has since become her partner, she began her research with computer graphics by using painting systems. Now, she works with a version of Topas enhanced by Kennedy that gives her the ability to make the graphics “less perfect.”

“Since Topas puts out an ASCII file, we can change specific attributes such as the color of individual vectors and polygons in a semitransparent object,” Kennedy says. “We use it to add complexity to the model.”
Kennedy has also spent a great deal of time perfecting the quality of the output. Thus, it’s possible to create film-recorded images that more closely reflect the images Lawrence sees onscreen, that capture the jewel-like quality of those images.

"To me, computer graphics is more of a mental than a tactile thing, But the bottom line is that I really enjoy playing with shapes, lights, and textures."—Constance Lawrence

To create her images, Lawrence often uses transparent, spline- based models that she lights from the inside. “I can affect the colors of the models with the lights,” she says. “I also change colors with textures. It’s a whole different way of coloring than painting.

“In painting, you always see the direction it’s going. With 3D, you make accidental discoveries,” she says. “No matter how well you know the tools, you still will be surprised by the way light hits objects. The surprise is very important to me. Sherman sets after a goal. I sit down to have fun. The surprise is the pleasure. If I’m pleasantly surprised, then I have a good result.”

It’s a delight with happenstance that Ragland, Davies, Sherwin, and Lawrence all seem to share a joy in working with a system that gives something back to them. Most people who work with 3D systems, artists and developers alike, point to the need for and advantages of interactive systems. For all of these artists, who freely explore moving, three-dimensional environments in the creative process of producing still images, “interaction” has a much deeper meaning than the simple spinning of 3D objects.

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Last verified: May 27,2017.