Is 3D Art Actually Art?

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.


Warning: As the kids today say, the following image is not safe for work.


The Vakaldin tracker Sar ta Olt caught the scent of Tanglevine at first light. The foolish Kromanji shaman had left her village, probably searching for herbs. He set out to capture her. Those pesky, ugly naked things moved into the swamplands two hundred years ago, without an invitation. Vakaldin hated Kromanji, but the ancient warrior clan found uses for them. Tanglevine would provide a week’s sport for the he-Vaks, and some of the bolder she-Vaks, of his village. Later, her flesh would taste like pork, if roasted alive and slathered with enough garlic and watersage.

Sar ta Olt sniffed the air. Tanglevine had two companions. He knew the scents of that detestable Catwhisper and Goldfern. He chased them before. They always eluded him by splitting up. Today, they couldn’t, not protecting their valuable shaman. He had them! Three noisy, smelly, clumsy Kromanji were a thundering herd of swamp sloths. A blind she-Vak could track them. A wonderful prize they would be. If he captured them, then he got his pick of the bunch for his very own. Catwhisper looked the most delicious in many ways. He would bring them back to his chief and great acclaim. After all, Sar ta Olt was the best tracker in the swamplands. This was a mere stretch of the legs.

If Sar ta Olt was the greatest of the Vakaldin trackers, then Goldfern and Catwhisper were the best of the Kromanji scouts. Not strong enough to bring down a mastadon, the two women swept the area around their village for threats to the hunters and farmers. The swamps were more home to them than their own huts, and nothing eluded their eyes, ears, or noses. Not even a knifetooth lion heard them move, nor could a dreadwolf outsmart them. They often guarded Tanglevine on her forays beyond the village. Not every death in the swamplands walked on paws, wrapped in fur. The shaman often became too lost in her flowers to pay attention to what approached. Goldfern smelled Sar ta Olt at fifty feet. In their tongue, they called him Ohkar, the deadliest predator in the swamplands.

The women exhausted their wits eluding Sar ta Olt. Their stealth and cunning only threw him off long enough for them to breathe. They were far from the safety of the village walls. Finally, they ducked into the water, hiding in a canopy of moss and vines hanging from some dead trees. They could run no farther without rest. The trio become as still as stones. There he was, only feet away. So close, they heard him snarl. Kromanji had fallen prey to enough Vakaldin for the women to know their bone weapons were useless against Sar ta Olt’s thick hide. He also had that club made from something called iron. They saw the ropes and manacles hanging from his belts, meant for them.

Goldfern and Catwhisper tense. They ready their weapons. Tanglevine senses their intentions. They plan to sacrifice themselves so the shaman can escape. The scouts are her friends, and she’ll be a corpse before she lets this Ohkar defile them, much less eat them. Tanglevine wasn’t chosen Kromanji shaman simply because her mother spoke with spirits. She reaches out to the snake overhead. Their wills become one. The snake hisses encouragement to the shaman and her guards.

The sound of the swamp grows. The insects and birds sing loudly. The wind kicks up, blowing the hanging vines and moss together into a curtain between hunter and hunted. It brings the thick odor of wet muck into the face of Sar ta Olt, masking the women’s scent. The usually quiet water laps at the rocks beneath his feet. The swamp’s creatures close in on the Vakaldin. Now, who is the hunted?

DAZ Studio 4.8 Pro -> Reality 4.2 -> Luxrender 1.5.

“Hunted” is unusual for me. I usually stick with fantasy or Medieval themes. But I was inspired by Frank Frazetta’s “Night Winds,” featuring a nude woman hiding from an armored night. The scene I had in mind felt more at home with cro-magnons than anyone Medieval. And it made more sense to have them hiding from Ogarus Uglius (primeval ogre) than another of their kind. I figure this took place about 20,000 years ago, before the Agricultural Revolution and urbanization and the social construct of “modesty.” It ain’t cold in swamps, so why bother with artificial fur?

Learning from Frank Frazetta

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn from the Master himself, but I’m not sure if the lesson learned is even something he did.

I’m currently working on a render inspired by Frank Frazetta’s painting for the cover of Karl Wagner’s novel, “Night Winds.” The painting features a naked girl hiding under a fallen tree from a nasty looking knight who hunts for her. I thought about switching it up, with a swamp instead of a mountain meadow, the girl on the left instead of the right, and having an ogre hunting for her instead of the knight. Like everything else I do, it grew, and grew, and grew. Until it was a full sized swamp with three girls. By then, however, the characters were so small as to be hidden by all that swamp.

It just looked wrong.

So, I went back to the original painting. That is when it hit me.

Frazetta and I approach composition from equally opposite directions. Or, it appears that way.

I approach 3D art like a model railroader. Those of you who have played with trains probably know what that means. For those of you who don’t, putting together a model railroad goes something like this: oh, this is a cool model stockyard and I like this Oldsmobile and that is an awesome tree and I have to have this set of crates and that pile of junk is great and look at that battleship and that building is fantastic and so is that building and that one and that Model T and that collection of figures and … uh, I should probably leave room to run a train through here, huh? When I design a 3D art scene, I pretty much do the same thing, assembling as many props as allowed by law into the most amazing set you’ve ever seen. Then, I bring in the characters and pose them in such a way as to still see the whole set.

The end result is the figures, the actual characters telling the story, are lost in the details. This is most apparent in my render for “Magical Yule.” I was so bent on that storefront and snowfall that it required 14 figures to fill the scene, and their stories are lost. Now, for “These Mean Streets,” it was deliberate. That scene was about capturing the look and feel of Daytona Beach circa 1974. The figures were details. Yet, in that deliberate composition, the figures become characters, all telling their stories at once, and it works.

Frazetta didn’t do that. Okay, so I really don’t know if he did or not. So far, I haven’t come across anything saying he didn’t, but it sure doesn’t appear that he did. In “Night Winds,” all we have are the girl, the knight, his horse, and the tree. Some vague mountains appear in the background. The rest of the set is there just to hold the figures together. It appears that he painted the figures first, large, up close, and in the viewer’s face. Then, he added the set. The end result is a sense of immediacy and intimacy. All of his paintings are like that.

I scrapped that beautiful swamp.

I brought in my four characters into the empty screen, positioned them, and posed them. Then, I moved the camera in close until they filled the screen. They take up about three fourths of the scene now. After that, I positioned the set around them, prop by prop. I positioned the props to the characters, instead of posing the characters to the finished set. It is a much more powerful scene now.

Here is the test of the swamp set, without the characters.

hunted set test

The girls will be on the left, and the ogre on the right. The space gives me plenty of room to pose all of them dramatically. The set looks packed, and it sorta is. I need that many props to make it look like a swamp. But the main reason it looks packed is all that swamp set I had before is now compressed into a small, intimate area, instead of being spread out. Consider it artistic critical mass. There isn’t much to the set beyond what you can see here. This type of set design was actually easier than my old grab it all and shove it in model railroading method. Everything is placed deliberately for maximum effect and interaction with the characters. Because the set is so small, it also saves resources on my aging computer.

Sword and Sorcery

Captain Elisabeth Lovejoy (Sword) and Aura Lockhaven (Sorcery) team up to take down a nasty ogre.


Elisabeth’s importance in the Aura storyline is growing. The Aura tales are sword and sorcery. If Aura handles the sorcery, someone has to handle the sword.

The two friends obviously have different fighting styles. Aura fights from a distance. Her accuracy is pinpoint up to fifty feet. Using bladed weapons, Elisabeth has to get up close, and personal. This ogre is already dead; he just doesn’t know it yet.

DAZ Studio 4.8 Pro -> Reality 4.2 -> Luxrender 1.5.



Off Balance

Some days just don’t go as planned.

aura action new C

A reworked render from yesterday’s post about Aura’s new skin. I was able to shrink the boots after all. It’s amazing what happens when one begins messing with morph sliders. I tried a new light scheme, and added the attack effects. If Aura is going to be off balance, there ought to be a reason.

DAZ Studio 4.8 Pro -> Reality 4.1 -> Luxrender 1.5.



pensiveWhat is Aura thinking?

DAZ Studio -> Reality 4 -> Luxrender 1.3.

Preliminary work in GIMP 2.8, Hexagon 2.5, and Shadermap 2.

Perhaps the question ought to be where did she stash the bottle and goblet in that outfit?

This scene was a test of the IBL with one spotlight for an outdoor scene. Reality 4.1, with its 21X speed increase, debuts this coming Monday, so I’m preparing for the Sarethian Seven graphic novel. Most of the first story takes place outdoors. I really like the way the IBL looks, so it’s a go.

Henry and Aura

henry and auraIntroducing Henry Lockhaven, the town of Hartshorn’s favorite, and wealthiest, tavern owner. Henry will be our intrepid host and fearless narrator for the Tales of the Sarethian Seven graphic novels. Also introducing his ten year old daughter, Aura, who may be the most formidable and demanding audience he has tried to entertain.

“Now, really, Daddy,” Aura said. “You’ve told that tale before, only it was Noishante not Yveramore, the merchant wore blue not red, he rode a donkey not a horse, it happened in Harion not northern Karpi, and –”

“Do you want to tell this tale, young lady?” Henry snapped.

“No, I rather enjoy hearing you tell it. Your tale is like your ale. Do try harder to get it right,” Aura replied.

“Aura, dearest, sweetest, youngest child of mine. Did you learn this attitude from your brother or your sister?”

“I learned it from you, Daddy.”

“Oh. Right you are. Carry on, then.”

DAZ Studio 4.6 Pro -> Reality 4 -> Luxrender 1.3.

This will be an interesting series of stories, as Henry has been dead ten years in the written Aura novels. So, not only will the graphic novels serve as stories of the Sarethian Seven, but they will also serve as Aura’s backstory.

Refining Aura Lockhaven’s 3D Appearance

I’ve been making further refinement in Aura’s 3D incarnation, moving her yet closer to her written description.

aura_closeup by nathan boutwellTons of DAZ Studio/3D technical geeky stuff follows. If that isn’t your cup of coffee, skip seven paragraphs.

Improvements include:

Laticis’ fiber mesh eyebrows. This may be the singlemost dramatic improvement to Victoria 6, eliminating the flat brow look about which so many of us have complained. I made thickness morphs for them in Hexagon (Aura has bushy eyebrows). Textures made to match her hair. The ability to do that may supersede the depth provided by the prop. One of the most common gripes of 3D artists is brunette eyebrows on a blonde character.

AJ’s Blood Vessels maps applied to the skin texture. Finally, human looking skin. Aura is the queen of my fictional universe, and I want her to look as real as possible. No human has perfect skin! Her base skin texture is Belle overlaid with 25% layer of skin from ForbiddenWhispers’ Ultimate Merchant Resource Kit. Those are the blotchiest skins in my runtime (without getting silly about it). The Blood Vessels add to the “not a Photoshopped magazine model” appearance.

New specular settings using Reality 4’s dual specular channel option. A specular map in each channel, with its own setting, simulates the depth of reflectivity of human skin, and adds to the subsurface shader. We naked bipedal primates are not as solid as we believe.

New normal maps made by merging the Belle bump maps with AlFan’s Displacement for V6 maps. This was tricky. Each type of map does something different, and merging them required them to be baked at lower levels in ShaderMap than if applied singly in Reality. Too hot, and Aura became a hag instead of a 22 year old enchantress.

Gregoria hair by Mairy3Dream, with custom textures. Yes, she’s back in this hair again! This hair is the closest to what I see in my mind, looks great, has a much finer mesh, and wonderful action morphs. It also had an annoying curl below her chin that I could not get rid of. Until the morning of July 12 when I found the corresponding slider. The original maps also had a built-in reflection that looked like white streaks in Reality, especially in the reds and browns I combined for Aura’s dark chestnut hair. Hence, the new textures, made by overlaying EmmaandJordi’s Sirea hair textures.

Although it’s appeared before (“Working Late”), this is the first good look at Aura’s seven pointed star necklace (septagram?). It replaces the toric she wore in 2013 and 2014. Magicians in her world recognize seven elements: water, fire, earth, air, spirit, metal, and light. One point for each element. Each point should have a different stone corresponding to the element’s color, so I’ll have to go back into Hexagon and rework the materials maps at some point to allow that. The chain is the Piratess necklace by Ravenhair.

They won’t see this blog post, but I want to thank these DeviantArt 3D artists for their significant contributions. 3dLux did the hard work on specular settings for Reality 4. He also brought AJ’s Blood Vessels to my attention, and walked me through how to apply them. Laticis made the eyebrows, and offers them free. They are easy to apply and texture. It was also easy to make thickness morph for them. The hardest part was erasing the eyebrows from the original diffuse map. Sigstan worked up an awesome tutorial on portrait lighting on the Reality forums. His tips for hair and eyes for R2.5 still work in R4.

Of course, not much can be seen from a portrait render. How about a comparison of before and after?

Below is the original of “Defender of the Faith.” It was rendered in late 2014, using Reality 2.5.

defender_of_the_faith by nathan boutwellAnd now, the same scene, with the changes in skin, hair, and clothes, rendered through Reality 4, using a new light setup.

defenderImages and Aura Lockhaven copyright Nathan Boutwell.

Working Late

working_late“Please, Lady Aura!” Milly begged.

Aura Lockhaven frowned. “I’m reluctant to make love potions. They’re too manipulative.”

“Oh, it isn’t for him,” Milly said. “It’s for me.”

“If you don’t love him, why are you marrying him!” Aura snapped.

“He’s wonderful. He treats me like a princess. He’s kind, generous, loyal, attentive. He makes me laugh. I just want to make sure I love him as much as he loves me.”

“It sounds like you already love him,” Aura said, smiling. “Oh, all right. I don’t see any harm. When is the wedding?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

DAZ Studio 4.6 Pro -> Reality 4 -> Luxrender 1.3 -> GIMP 2.8.

Preliminary work in GIMP, Hexagon 2.5, and ShaderMap 2.

One Thousand Words Plus One Thousand Pictures

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then what happens when a wordslinger makes pictures? He does what I’m thinking about doing.

I am considering writing and illustrating a graphic novel!

Of course, I’ll use 3D renders for the illustration. That is how Aura Lockhaven was born, way back in 2010. Besides, my drawing skills are less than primitive.

I’d love to use the Reality-Luxrender system, as it produces superior renders, but it is also slow. Slow, as in, it takes all blooming day for one action scene to finish. That doesn’t count time spent composing the scene, developing texture maps, recomposing the scene, cursing over a bad shadow, tweaking the texture maps, trying a different light placement for more drama, more cursing over a missed error in a pose, etc. At that glacial speed, I may finish one page every month. Not even a zen master has that type of patience.

However, with the pending release of Reality 4.1, that time will be greatly reduced. Reality 4.1, with its accompanying Luxrender 1.5, promises to deliver a proven speed increase of up to 600%, and I have the computational power to handle it. So, that all day render will now finish within an hour. That means, a 3D graphic novel is finally feasible.

For some time, I’ve considered making a few four to ten page stories to put on the website as gifts to the few fans I have, and a way to gain more fans for the soon (I hope) release of the Aura stories. Yet, I don’t want to make an Aura Lockhaven graphic novel prior to the release of her first three books. Spoilers, you know. So, who can be the subject?

The Sarethian Seven!

The Sarethian SevenLeft to right: Enorra, Noishante, Coravanne, Iryndelle, Lunambyra, Tannerra, and Yveramore. They’ve existed for a year and a half, and are just sitting around, sharpening their swords, eating me out of house and home, without any actual work to do. They’re rather bored. I really want to do something with them, because creating and naming them was some of the most fun I’ve had in a decade. So, why not feature the Seven in a graphic novel?

If you are not familiar with the Sarethian Seven, I invite you to visit this DeviantArt page, this other DeviantArt page, and this page from my blog archive.

Scantily clad, bad-ass, butt-kicking, head-bashing barbarian women! Shades of Frank Frazetta! Exotic locales! Gentlemen in distress! Haughty monarchs! Impudent wizards! Monsters oozing slime! Vile Evil Transgressors just begging for a good skull cleaving! Hot and cold running swords! Buckles swashed left and right! No anthropomorphic animal comic relief! What could be better?

Dinosaurs. Hmm …

Of course, the one overarching priority is that a graphic novel does not take precedence over the written Aura stories. I can be too easily distracted.

I plan to start with a small story. If it is successful (as in I like it), then I’ll use it as a prequel for something more elaborate. Their stories are already written in tale format. It won’t take much to grab a few from the middle of the book. The cool thing about the Sarethian Seven stories is that they are all tales Henry Lockhaven told his eight year old daughter, Aura. So, they are connected to the overall Auraverse.

I’m not sure if I’ll give this away, charge a subscription, beg for donations, or a mixture of all the above. Research needs to be done to see how to load the novel online, how to integrate it into the website, whether it should be downloadable or read online, black text on white voice bubble or white text on black, which fonts to use, white page background or black page background, how to realistically portray blood spatters in GIMP, etc. This will be a mature graphic novel. While there will be no sex, some nudity is required for a tale to work, there is a tremendous amount of violence, and the Seven are foul mouthed. So, do I need some form of certified age verification for this project, or is the “pinky promise” system I already have in place for the website’s art gallery sufficient?

I’m leaning toward the Japanese realism manga format (Koike and Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub), rather than the American (DC/Marvel) format. It offers more emotional punch. Although, I prefer the larger panels of the American format, and obviously, I’ll work left to right. If I’m not mistaken, Frank Miller walked the line between the two formats (Lone Wolf and Cub is one of his primary influences), so perhaps I should revisit his layout style. Then again, for sheer hit-me-in-the-testicles emotional power, nothing has topped Identity Crisis (DC, 2004), so a reread is in order, with an eye toward format. A reread of Dynamite’s Red Sonja series (especially the first years) is also in order. This also gives me a reason to thoroughly read and study BadDragon’s Androssian Prophecy, one of the best online graphic novels I’ve yet encountered.

At this moment, it’s just a probability, and of course, Reality 4.1 must be released first.

But I am preparing even now.

In looking at the Seven, I realized that with just a little tweaking, each corresponds to one of the seven chakras. Now, that is an interesting way to develop character personalities. They almost already fit the descriptions.

Crown Chakra, to Know: Lunambyra. As the sorceress, she’s the most spiritual of them.

Third Eye Chakra, to See: Coravanne. Her skills of observation and perception are uncanny.

Throat Chakra, to Speak: Noishante. She can charm anyone with her voice.

Heart Chakra, to Love: Enorra. She is the kindest of the Seven.

Solar Plexus Chakra, to Will: Iryndelle. She’s all will.

Sacral Chakra, to Feel: Tannerra. She is the most emotional fighter. It is also the creative center, so I will give Tannerra an eye and talent for fine art.

Root Chakra, to Be: Yveramore. She remains calm in any crisis.

Of course, they need flaws. Well, I have seven of them, so why not have each one embody, and have to fight, one of the Seven Deadly Sins?

Pride: Iryndelle. She can be imperious.

Wrath: The vile tempered Noishante.

Lust: Yveramore, who will hop into bed with anyone.

Sloth: Enorra, whose shyness can turn to apathy.

Gluttony: Lunambyra, who drinks too much.

Greed: Coravanne. She can let her purse overrule her brain.

Envy: Tannerra, who is still jealous of Iryndelle’s status as true royalty.

Even if I end up not writing and illustrating a graphic novel, this contemplation has allowed me to develop the Sarethian Seven, further moving them toward the front of my pending written catalog. Not bad for a weekend’s pipe dream.