Is 3D art actually art?
That question is as oft asked, and debated, as the still asked question is photography actually art. We should think the latter question long settled by now, at least by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans if no one else. The war over digital art seems to have settled down, as well it should. There are too many masterpieces composed with stylus and program for that controversy to have any further sway. As far as I’m concerned, 3D is in the same boat as photography and digital. So, in this essay, I’m going to wade into the argument; obviously from the side of those who say yes, it is art.
No one can define art. The definition is unique to the artist, as well as the viewer. I’ll use my own. Art comes from within. It’s a vision in the mind and heart of the creator. How it is produced so the world can enjoy it is a mere convenience, and whatever feels natural to the artist. Some use paint. Some use pencil. Some use stone. Others use a stylus and a computer. Others use cloth or metal. But all begins with that vision in the heart and mind, and ends with some form of story told in a visual format. The difference between Pierre-August Renoir’s “Girl with Watering Can” and a child’s fingerpainting is a difference in skill. Both Renoir and your kindergartner had a vision that screamed to be seen, and would not rest until it was.
It’s interesting that those who condemn 3D art the loudest are not artists. Painters, illustrators, and photographers are usually kind and constructive in their criticisms. Those who scream “It isn’t art” tend to be those who have never advanced beyond ball point pen stick figures on ruled notebook paper, or worse — blurred selfies taken in bathroom mirrors, with the tops of their heads cut off. Perhaps the adage should be rephrased to say, “Those who do, do. Those who can’t do, criticize.” I’d like to see these condemnatory critics do something just as good as we do, with paint, pencil, stylus, camera, or computer.
Most 3D artists would rather paint or draw. We simply never developed the skills to do so. But we found a medium that permits us to express our visions, elevating us beyond the stick figure. Sure, we move things around on a computer screen, not unlike playing with G.I. Joe or Barbie in a Hasbro or Kenner set. But these pixelated figures do what we want them to do, and they’re cheaper than a twelve inches to the foot model hired to pose for us. At the end of the day, we have an image that, we hope, comes close to a visual representation of that vision screaming inside our minds. Now, I could stop right there. Visions screaming in our minds? Voices in our heads? Yeah, this is art!
Granted, 3D art has its limitations. I’ve often accused painters of having it easy. They can make that oil say what they want it to say. We 3D guys are a bit hard pressed to get wire mesh to perform as well. Bending virtual wire mesh is not unlike bending real chicken wire. It just doesn’t quite perform like the human body. Cloth is worse. Hand artists will get cloth to fold and flow like cloth. 3D cloth folds like, well, chicken wire. We’re also limited by available products. If a comics artist wants a particular suit of armor, he gets it. We have to work with what has been made by someone else, unless we’re skilled with an autocad type modeling program, and most of us are not. This latter fact does provide a foundation for one of the critics’ most legitimate complaints — we see the same clothes, props, and sets in everyone’s renders. There are ways around that, and if we are true to our visions, we will find them.
Even if we do all use the same suit of clothes, it is still art. One of my creative writing professors said, “All the world’s original stories could be written on a postage stamp. Everything has been written, but it has not been written from your point of view and in your style. Those make it unique.” The same thing is true of art. Both Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo painted Conan the Barbarian. Yet, the two versions cannot be compared to each other because one is Frazetta’s interpretation and the other is Vallejo’s. Each artist had his own style and his own vision of the Cimmerian.
There is a plethora of nudes in 3D art. Too many, in fact. However, none look like “The Hunted.” No one has seen the Victoria 6 figure like those characters, with those skin textures, standing in that swamp, ready to tackle an ogre, and believe me, no one has ever seen the Michael 6 figure turned into that particular ogre. It was the vision I had in my mind, and I was able to achieve it. That, my friends, makes it art.
Critics condemn us for using bought products, saying real artists begin with nothing. Really? Not even painters make everything from scratch. Most use purchased tools and items. There may be some industrious artist who has a loom and weaves his own cloth, but most buy ready-made canvas. Some grind their own pigments, but most order paints from a dealer. I know no artist who makes her own pencils. The closest that come to total purity are the folks who make their own paper and inks, but that is part of the overall handmade book process, an art form unto itself. So, how is 3D art any different from watercolor painting? We simply use our fingers in different ways, on keys instead of brushes. The half-crazed, half-genius mind is the same regardless of medium.
How about time. A painter will spend days on one painting. Some scrap it and start over. Frank Frazetta repainted “Conan the Destroyer” twice before he was satisfied. The original that graces the cover of the 1971 book Conan the Buccaneer no longer exists, lying underneath two more versions. Heck, there is something underneath the Mona Lisa. Very few 3D artists load a figure, pose him, add a light, and click the render button to get a final piece. Most spend days setting up the scene. I once spent an entire month on one scene because the final image just didn’t look right. The published version of “The Hunted” is not the original version. In the original, the characters were swallowed by the set. So, I scraped the first set and started over, posing the characters up front first, then building the set around them. Painters will empathize, and look at their stacks of used canvases. Comics artists are grinning while glancing at their overflowing trash cans. It’s art if we spend time on it, agonize over it, achieve ecstasy with it, reach the point where we say “one more touch and it’s ruined,” and walk away.
Ultimately, though, the answer is this. One of my professors in college said about free verse poetry, “It’s a poem if the poet says it’s a poem!” That can be applied to any art. It’s art if the artist says it’s art. And I say, 3D art is art. Because I said so.