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3D Graphics in the Art Classroom: An Introduction

Photography and Making Virtual Worlds

If you feel the need to place 3D graphics in an historical fine arts perspective, then it fits most easily with photography as far as the finished product is concerned and with art happenings, events and environments as far as the creative process is concerned. The major difference between 3D graphics and the historical art disciplines mentioned are that happenings, events and environments have been created in the real world and then recorded by photographic means and 3D graphics are a photographic record of a world that is entirely of the artists own making.

Put simply, 3D landscape creation software packages such as Bryce and Vue allow an artist to create and populate a virtual world. This is then rendered (the technical term for the virtual photography part of the process) as a 2D image or animation.

How Art Mimics Life – or Not

The selling point of most 3D landscape creation software has traditionally been the achievement of realism, but don’t image that this limits what you or your students can create in any way, shape or form. Sure there are preset landforms, atmospheres and objects but everything can have its parameters (characteristics) altered. For example, sunlight can be any colour you like. The combinations are virtually infinite and this even without the capability of bringing new objects and materials into your scenes via the import functions that most of these types of software packages have.

3D landscape creation software mimics realism predominately through the treatment of light and its effects. If you place an object in a scene it will automatically be assigned a shadow and highlights depending on the relative location of the sun (or moon). Move the object in the scene and these things will change, again depending on the relative location of the light source, or sources.

You can create any number of additional light sources with a single click each and then move them around to create exactly the lighting mood that you desire for the scene. If you change your sky and cloud settings from midday to sunset all of the objects in your scene will change colour to match the atmosphere settings. Water is semi- transparent and refracts and reflects; polished metals shine and reflect; glass is opaque or transparent. Everything as it should be according to the laws of physics, but in the worlds of 3D graphics even these are not immutable.

Making a Start with 3D Art

Interested? Bryce is Freeware (free to use without charge) and can be downloaded from the Daz Studio site. Those who are unfamiliar with this type of software can try out a free and fairly simple beginner’s 3D Bryce tutorial. This software has been taught successfully to students from year 4 (primary school – Australia) to Adult and Community Education classes. It’s never too late to make a start in the world of 3D art.

Visual Arts Concepts and 3d Graphics

Once you’ve had a play around with the software you might want to get down to the all too serious business of including it in your Visual Arts teaching program. The following is a brief list of some of the art elements and principles that can be learnt by students through creating artwork with 3D graphics software.

  • perspective (both linear and atmospheric)
  • shape
  • mass
  • texture and transparency
  • shading and shadows
  • colour
  • light
  • reflection and refraction
  • point of view
  • subject framing

Free Art Tools – How Open Source and Freeware Work

There are many excellent 3D software programs available and quite a few of them are free. You just need to search around. Most of the free ones are either Open Source (a bunch of interested people have got together to develop and distribute it for free) or Freeware. The Freeware programs usually have a paid version with more advanced options or are sold with the expectation that users will want to purchase additional pre-made items such as materials and objects to use in their scenes.

The bottom line for art educators is that we get to use this, generally professional standard software, with all the students in a class and without having to pay for expensive site licences. Getting your computer co-ordinator to install the software is another issue entirely.

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