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10 Tricks From 3D Modeling That You Can Use in Digital Painting

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

The biggest problem with digital painting is that it's seen as quite a spontaneous activity—you don't think, you just get an idea and try to present it with all the resources available. When the outcome is far from your expectations, you just consider yourself talentless and lose heart. Such a vision of the creation process is a serious obstacle in your artistic education—all you know is that you can't paint, but there's no tutorial for this! This applies to "talented" artists too. They feel they're good, they want to be better, but they just don't know what's wrong with their art. However, the problem is very simple—it's all about seeing the creation process as a whole.

As long as you run on autopilot, you can't control the outcome. You need to trust it will bring you where you want to, but you can't be sure—because autopilot is only as experienced as you! At the same time, you're not able to tell what your autopilot does wrong, because you only see the outcome. An unsuccessful painting is like a broken car—it's not the whole car that's broken, it's probably only one part, maybe easy to fix. But if you don't know a thing about its mechanics, you'll say the whole car sucks. When you see painting as a whole, you're unable to learn—you don't even know there's something to learn! But others are better than you, so it must be about talent, painting software, graphic tablet, years of doodling, brush pack...

Photoshop favors autopilot in painting because it's so intuitive—all you need to do to start painting is to create a new file and grab a digital brush. Everything is being left to you. You can start with a line art, or you can just go and paint everything from scratch. If the outcome looks OK, you stop painting, if it doesn't, you change things until it does.

Process like this is nearly impossible in 3D modeling software like 3DS Max or Blender. These programs stop your autopilot and force you to portion the process into individual parts because they're built like this—you can't create a whole piece with one tool. Usually, you can't even "build a stick man" without skimming through at least one tutorial. Why don't we learn from 3D modeling workflow to improve the creation process and make it prone to artistic upgrades?

In this article I'll show you ten steps you can include in your process to make it more orderly and neat. Most importantly, they will let you leave autopilot behind and take it all in your hands!

1. Set the Camera

In a 3D scene everything is visible at the same time, and you can freely observe it from every angle. The final picture, however, is seen through the camera—and the position of the camera isn't random. The artist needs to place it in a way to present the scene it the most effective way. The camera defines perspective—the point of view and all the consequences of it.

Setting the perspective should be your first step. Probably you shuddered a little after reading this, since perspective is a buzzword for most of the artists—I say "perspective", you think "math!". You can relax, perspective isn't about that. When you paint a scene, it's a picture seen by a virtual observer. The position of their eyes makes the scene. A fly is very small when the observer is far away and huge when the observer nearly touches it with their eyes. Depending on their position the top or bottom of a table may be visible. A 3D block may become a cylinder or even a pyramid—it's the observer that makes a 2D shape of a 3D form only by moving! What they see comes to existence, what they don't—doesn't exist. The picture is the scene seen through their eyes—without them there would be nothing. You're not painting a dragon—you're painting a dragon as seen by someone's eyes!

perspective in painting
Oh my, that's one huge monster-leg!
perspective in painting 2
...or maybe not so much

When you paint on autopilot, you ignore the observer. Even if you heard about something like this, you may simply assume that all the people looking at the picture are the observers. Wrong—they're observers of the picture, but not of the scene. To start using perspective as a camera, avoid architectural tutorials and focus on the purpose of the perspective.

2. Don't Base on a Single Reference

When you want to model a realistic animal in 3D, one reference, even the most beautiful, just won't do it. You need every side of the animal, preferably top, front and profile views, but some others may be required to reveal details. After it's modeled, the artist knows everything about the animal's body and, if skilled in drawing too, would be able to draw it in every pose now—without any reference!

In 2D painting you can manage with a single reference. You want to create a running lion, so you Google "lion running" and there it is, the perfect shape you need to re-create! And if you want to manage without a reference and try a tutorial about drawing a lion, you'll most likely end up with a single pose too. Indeed, you'll be able to draw it without a reference now, but it's only this one pose. "I can draw a running lion/lion in profile view/sitting lion" isn't the same as "I can draw lions".

You need to break out from thinking with outlines. Outlines don't exist, they can be sketched over an object, but they're not a constant attribute of the object. Before you draw another masterpiece, make studies of the object first. Find various references of the lion, sketch them as translated to simplified forms and search for common features. Observe how they change in perspective and try to understand what the object needs it all for. This way not only you'll be able to create your own pose for this particular work, but also all the works in the future!

painting without references
Your studies don't need to be neat nor time-consuming. However, make sure you know how to draw something before you start working on a serious art!

3. Start With Simple Blocks

When you're starting with a 3D model, you need to find a simple block most similar to the idea in your head and then shape it. There's no way to start in any other way. When you start with something simple and add details gradually, you have control over the scene all the time. In autopilot painting it's usually much more chaotic. You have the idea in your head and try to paint all the details at the same time. If you do it, you're on the best way to lose the real meaning—the main idea—of the picture. If you put a lot of effort into a painting and it still looks wrong, this may be the reason.

There are two aspects of "simple blocks":

The Base for Details—the Topic

If someone says "human", what do you see in your mind? Color of the eyes, the width of cheekbones, single hairs, or rather a creature with two legs, two arms and a head? Every object has a set of features that are crucial to it, and then a set of optional ones. Start with the crucial features and save the details for later. Warning: if after defining the simple shape you're not happy with it, don't cheat yourself with "it's going to look better when I add colors, and all these details, and cool lighting". It's the base that makes the first impression—all the details are just a nice addition and they never make the picture alone. A boring pose and wrong proportions are all what people see, even when the artist had spent two hours drawing all the scales one by one. Don't waste your time—prepare a good base before diving into details.

painting base
The topic is "flying dragon". The actual shape of the wings, head, scales or claws has no power here.

Composition and the Real Meaning

When you start right from the details, the scene becomes a set of them, not a whole. It's OK when you're painting a character, but when there's more, you need to create some kind of link between the objects.

Good speed paintings look so astonishing because they contain the essence of the scene without any redundant elements. You don't really look at them like a normal, detailed painting - you rather feel them, receive their meaning without searching for information by observing all the details.

There are layers of meaning in every painting. The most important one is light and shadow—it's crucial for revealing form. Everything else is just a nice addition, a cherry on the top. However, almost every aspiring artist goes straight for colors and details, desperately trying to distract viewer's attention from the mistakes at the very base of the picture. Sadly, a tasteless cake covered with cherries won't impress anyone.

Start with something simple and go slowly further. Details should be the very last thing you're adding, and only when everything else looks good. A good method to constrain yourself is to start with a huge brush and make it a bit smaller with every step.

how to speed paint
Try to capture the main topic and add the details when it's already settled

4. See the Object Outside of Its Environment

In the beginning there was only a form. It's independent from the vision, it can be felt with touch and hearing. In 3D, form is revealed by ambient occlusion—a method of showing which areas are easily touched by ambient light and which aren't. 

Before you get into all these complicated color properties, stop to think over the form itself. If you've got line art, use it to paint crevices - the areas where light has difficult access too. This is what you need—not outlines of line art, but the form. When you paint in ambient occlusion, don't think about light at all. It can be water, or dye, or deadly laser trying and failing to reach the crevices.

Ambient occlusion in painting isn't "a trick to make a picture look like a 3D render"—its main goal is to define form without touching any aspect of vision (except perspective). "3D-render-feel" may be a side effect of it, but actually it's about the very base of painting. When you want to picture your idea, all the complicated aspects of painting may kill it! Slow down, leave it all for later and create the form only. In this stage you may not really know what you're trying to paint, so save yourself confusion and focus on the base.

ambient occlusion painting
Ambient occlusion isn't about look, but about form

There's one more thing to it. Traditional sculptors often use ambient occlusion in their works even though in theory it should occur naturally. However, using dark pigment in the crevices makes the sculpture independent from good light—it will not look flat even with the most adverse light. We can take a lesson from it!

5. Know What's Outside of the Scene

It's a characteristic for a good book that the world doesn't seem to be created just for the story—we can believe it could be just as alive even without the characters we're reading about. It's the same with every scene you're painting. When using autopilot we tend to start with the character, and the background is then adjusted to it. That's not what makes a believable piece. If you want to picture the character only, that's OK, but it won't work with scenes.

In 3D, the area captured by the camera is just a part of the scene. There may be trees around casting shadows into the scene, there may be a secondary light source hidden somewhere outside the frame. They all make the scene complete—the world doesn't end outside the frame!

painting open frame
1 - visible scene; 2 - invisible, but existing environment

Beside the obvious benefit of credibility, there's another thing to it. Everything in the world around influences the scene. Children tend to draw the sun in the corner of their pictures because they can't grasp the idea of the world outside the frame. You can make the scene flooded with light without putting the light source within the frame, and it's the same with all the objects reflecting the light. If you're painting a cave scene, blue light can indicate a hole in one of the walls or even the entrance just in the position of the observer! Everything that affects the character within the frame can be moved outside without losing its power.

6. Set the Lighting

Proper lighting is crucial in 3D modeling. A 3D artist automatically learns that without light there's no form or color, while most of aspiring artists are unfamiliar with this basic knowledge. It's because it's not required in painting—you just take a color and it exists, no matter whether there is or isn't any light source. That's also the main reason why painting, especially digital, is so hard to learn. The mere action of moving your stylus pen on the tablet (or clicking and dragging with a mouse) has nothing to do with a huge amount of theory hidden behind realistic world. The first mistake made by many beginners is to look for "how to paint digitally" tutorials instead of something more like "how do we see".

If you're not terrified yet, I'll tell you one shocking thing: with every color you put on the picture, you include information about light source. Every single blob of color says something about the light source it was made by! When you have no idea how it works, you'll most likely mix dozens of light sources before even considering the main one!

Now, relax. This is what you probably have been doing until now, but you're reading this article to change it, right? First, separate the lighting from the colors. Just imagine there are no colors, everything is white when fully illuminated and black when obscured. Take your picture painted with ambient occlusion and adjust it to lighting by painting over it with the shades of gray. Avoid white and black—they're too powerful and made for higher things.

One more thing: experiment with lighting. Now, when you don't need to think about color, you can calmly judge which direction will be the most beneficial for your composition, and how many light sources are needed to make the best of it. Keep in mind the previous advice about the world outside of the scene—your light source can be very far away, or in the place of the observer. It can be everywhere, casting shadows of objects that the camera can't see and thus introducing them partly to the scene. You can create a forest without painting a single tree!

painting lighting frame
Including the shadows of objects from outside of the scene will create an illusion of an open world

7. Create Maps 

The previous part was an introduction to the most important issue of realistic 3D modeling—texture mapping. If you read my articles about light and shadow, and color fundamentals, you know how many factors there's involved into the illusion of color and form. When painting on autopilot, you're taking an attempt to mix light, shadow, diffuse reflection, specular reflection, subsurface scattering, material, texture, ambient occlusion, emission of light, and more, all at the same time, while playing with luminosity, brightness, hue, and saturation for the best effect. And still you wonder why painting is so hard?

Again, my job is not to scare you and discourage you from painting. On the contrary, I want to show you the way to learn it without relying on your talent or lack thereof! Talent is a nice conception only if you possess it—otherwise, you're doomed forever. Stop dreaming about talent because it's just like a dream about big lottery win—no matter what you do, you can't affect it. Believing in talent closes all the doors and is an excuse—sorry for harsh words—for your own laziness. Painting can be learned, and once you portion it into simpler chunks, it becomes clear what you need to learn exactly. Suddenly "I can't draw because I lack talent" turns into more realistic "I can't draw [yet] because it's very hard to learn".

Back to mapping. All the things that build a look of an object can be separated for our convenience, and that's what 3D programs do. You can just take a brush and paint over the object, but it hardly ever will give you a decent effect. Instead, 3D artists use multiple maps, all put one on each other. They don't cover, but rather complement each other. In Photoshop it can be simulated by using separate layer for every map and playing with Blending Modes. You can create as many maps as you want to, basing on real 3D maps or on your own ideas. I'll show you a basic set you can use in Photoshop. This is not the only way to do it and you should not treat it like this. Rather, it's recommended to find your own —I'm just showing you the direction (the file is available to download, so you can play with it).

Ambient Occlusion

This is the map we've already talked about. When you start with a line art, dark lines may indicate both crevices and prominence. They're very subjective and they have nothing to do with painting. Ambient occlusion, however, lets you define forms without running to outlines—and just like line art, it's still independent from lighting and other complicated things. Also, it makes a proper clipping mask for other maps.

ambient occlusion photoshop painting blending
Ambient occlusion map doesn't require any special Blending Mode


Set the light source and illuminate the scene as if by default it was all 50% gray. This is just illumination of the forms—forget completely about colors at this point!

 lighting photoshop painting blending
Use Multiply mode for shadows and Soft Light/Screen mode for lights, or just paint over AO map in Normal mode


As we've learned in my article about color shading, luminance (also called luminosity) is a relative brightness of colors. For example, 100% bright blue is perceived as darker than 50% bright green. Therefore, putting color map right on the lighting map would result in unsaturated, washed-out colors. 

Luminance map should take saturation, not brightness of color into account. Saturated colors will be darker than unsaturated ones. So, there are two things you need to think about when planning the luminance map:

  • how dark the color is (follow the article to learn more about it);
  • how saturated the color is.
luminance photoshop painting blending
Paint the luminance in Normal mode...
 luminance photoshop painting blending 2
...then switch to Multiply mode

Diffuse Reflection

The color of light source affects greatly the final colors of the objects. In traditional painting it all needs to be calculated, but in Photoshop all we need are Blending Modes.

Typical setting is orange-yellow light source (like sun) one one side and blue (sky) on the other. Let's start with the sun. Select a color for it and paint solidly the areas that sun will reach.

 lighting photoshop painting blending
Don't worry about shading at this point, it's more like all or nothing

Now you can use Screen mode to reveal the shading. Play with Opacity to meet your needs.

lighting photoshop painting blending
Screen mode with low Opacity work pretty well here

The other side is not going to be strongly illuminated, but the sky will give it a blue shade. Back diffuse reflection, as I call it, isn't back-light or common reflected light—use it to color the shadows.

lighting photoshop painting blending
Solid blue should do the trick
lighting photoshop painting blending
Color mode will reveal the shading

If you want to make the contrast stronger, you may add another layers of diffuse reflection, this time applying soft shading.

lighting photoshop painting blending
Don't use solid color here!
lighting photoshop painting blending
Overlay and Color Dodge both work very well here

Flat Colors

This is what we've got now—lighting, luminance, and diffuse reflection maps. Let's add colors to it, right under the diffuse reflection maps.

lighting photoshop painting blending
The scene is ready for coloring

Paint the colors solidly again. It's nice to forget about shading, isn't it?

 flat colors photoshop painting blending 2
The essence of flat colors!
 flat colors photoshop painting blending
Would you guess that Color mode will be the best for it? However, sometimes Multiply mode will fit better to darken the colors

The illustration below shows how important it is to use multiple maps when using Blending Modes.

color photoshop painting blending
1 - color map without luminance map; 2 - color map, luminance map, but without diffuse reflection map; 3 - luminance, color and diffuse reflection maps

Specular Reflection

Specular reflection is definitely overused in digital painting—it's just too easy and too effective. One simple dot of white and a whole material appears glossy! However, specularity is more than this white dot (the reflection of light source). Specular surfaces reflect everything depending on their properties. I've made the bigger cube 100% specular, while the other one is 100% matte.

specular reflection photoshop painting blending
Specular surfaces are mirrors, usually not as perfect as one above

To create a something not as specular use Multiply mode and lower the Opacity.

specular reflection photoshop painting blending
Multiply mode uses subtractive color mixing rules

To make the object shiny and rough at the same time, blur the reflection with a messy brush.

specular reflection photoshop painting blending
Conceal the sharp borders to achieve a softer reflection
specular reflection photoshop painting blending
Now the reflection isn't so sharp

The situation below is about red specular layer. If your object has a transparent, glossy layer (like water), you can use Screen or even Normal mode with low Opacity.

specular reflection photoshop painting blending
You can use Screen or Normal mode here.

What about reflected light? It's specular reflection too! Think about it.

8. Take Atmosphere and Depth of Field Into Consideration

3D scene has depth from definition, but after rendering it becomes a classic 2D picture. However, you can still notice a lot of depth—it still looks 3D in some mysterious way. How is it achieved, and can you use this trick in painting?

Aerial Perspective

Air is invisible to us, so we tend to ignore it. In 3D programs, however, it's an important factor changing the look of the scene. The features of the atmosphere change the properties of light, and thus colors on the scene. Using aerial perspective is a great way to create depth in your 2D picture. You can read more about it in my article about shading with color.

aerial perspective painting
1—A may be as big as B, but it's distant and therefore looks smaller; 2—small A is closer to us than distant, big B

Depth of Field

To make it simple—there are two main kinds of depth of field, shallow and deep. Shallow focus means that one area is rendered sharply, when everything outside it is blurry. Deep focus is about rendering everything as sharply as possible. All right, that's theory, but what does it have to do with distance and depth?

The depth of field (DOF) is an area in your field of vision. Everything captured within it is going to be sharp and detailed. Short DOF gives you the shallow focus and long DOF—deep focus. Shallow depth of field indicates that at least one of the objects is close to your eyes—that's why pictures of big objects taken with shallow focus simulated look like models.

depth of field painting shallow focus
1—shallow focus on distant A; 2—shallow focus on close B. Green area shows DOF
depth of field painting deep focus
Both distant A and close B are rendered sharply—they both fit into deep DOF (green rectangle)

To remember it better, lay on the ground with one of your cheek touching the floor (a desktop is OK too, if you've got enough space). Close the eye that's higher. Look at the area right before you with the other eye and then slide focus a bit further. You should see DOF sliding with your eyes! (and if you wear strong glasses, you may notice the moment where DOF refuses to slide anymore).

This is a trick used extensively in art and movies. In 3D programs it's very easy to simulate it, but as a 2D artist you need to take care of it yourself.

 9. Use Modifiers

Modifiers in 3D modeling are kind of changers that affect the object non-destructively, which means you can modify or remove the change at any time without affecting the previous state. In digital painting we often use filters and adjust the image with Photoshop tools, but if something goes wrong and we're not careful, we may lose our previous outcome. That's where adjustment layers, smart filters, and layer masks come to play.

I commit this sin too—I quickly press Control - M to play a bit with contrast, because "It's just for a moment, I'll see if it looks OK and then remove it...". It's a bad habit, and it's really better to make the change with a modifier. This way you'll be able to quickly compare the difference even the next day, when you get some distance to the picture and your judgment is clearer. Also, the mere chance to adjust the value of the modifier instead of constant undo's is a big benefit here. 

photoshop non destructive smart filter adjustement
Maybe your autopilot doesn't have options like these, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't use them in Photoshop!

Using layer mask instead of Eraser Tool may be a great improvement for your workflow too. You may be sure about the change at the moment, and regret it a minute later, so instead of keeping 500 history states, use non-destructive methods wherever possible. It's not like you pay for them or something!

10. Set Up the Rendering

In 3D modeling this is very important part. It defines the quality and realism of the final picture. In painting the rendering is what we do from the start, so we can call the set-up of this the first phase, the creation of a new document.

Is there any more overlooked phase of a creation process? It's like taking a sheet of paper—what can go wrong? Actually, a lot of things. If the resolution is too small, you won't be able to include small details (they may be the size of a single pixel). If it's too large, your computer may start to "choke" and the strokes will be lagged. The proportion of the sides will affect the placement of power points (check out golden ratio to learn more about this topic) and thus the desired composition. Of course, you can resize the image later, but every scaling brings a drop in quality of what you've already painted. 

photoshop file dimensions
All right, now let's work on the eye...

Sometimes you don't know what actually you want to paint and autopilot is necessary to start. However, when you see the main topic starts to reveal, take steering in your hands and plan the rest. See what kind of composition your sketch suggests and crop the image for perfect proportions.


Does it mean you should treat Photoshop as a 3D program? Not in the least! The point is you should take the driver seat and take real control over the creation process, just like you would in Blender, 3ds Max, or Maya. It may look very awkward on the beginning, so rigid and strict, but it's just like learning how to walk—your autopilot will learn from you and after some time you'll be able to use it again!

There's one more lesson to take from this—become a 3D artist for a while. Great artists like Stjepan "Nebezial" Šejić or Landy "Jiyu-Kaze" Andria don't hide they've learned a lot while playing with 3D modeling. Painting is based on reality, and every 3D software is kind of reality-simulating machine. They're not perfect, of course, but they've already sliced reality into easy-to-swallow chunks—would you prefer doing it all yourself once again?

Blender is free and also non-intuitive, so you won't be able to use your creative autopilot there. And there's a whole lot of tutorials about it! I'm deeply convinced that one full, textured model made by you from scratch (basing on tutorials, of course) will change your perspective on painting forever. In this article I showed you what I've learned during my short adventure with Blender. Who knows what you will learn?

photoshop wip painting ambient occlusion layer
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