Using 3D Software for Illustration and Design

This article will describe some ways that primarily 2D Illustrators, comic and manga artists, concept artists and digital painters use 3D software in their workflow and give some examples of 2D artists utilising 3D technology in their creative process. I’ll keep it basic because 3D is a rabbit hole you can quite happily fall into and lose yourself in if you are not careful.

I touched upon this subject in an article I wrote last year but I wanted to follow it up with something a bit more specific to 2D artists using traditional drawing and painting skills and describe how 3D software can be a useful tool in creating artwork that is still 2D as an end product.

Learning and using 3D software is very accessible nowadays with free software such as Blender and Sketchup and the ever increasing amount of tutorials on YouTube. Some 2D artists are also using the Unreal Engine and 3D assets for world building.

Manga artist Inio Asano creates real-time backdrops in Unreal Engine

I’ve been making 3D mock ups using Blender for a fantasy story project I’m working on for Stone Baked Games. The final Illustrations will look very different from the 3D mock ups. I’m doing a hand drawn, hand painted style, but I’m finding the 3D useful for playing with compositions, camera angles and lighting even though it looks like a digital lego set to begin with. I use a free tool called Carapace to create perspective grids for rendered images as well so that I can draw into them with my hand drawing skills in 2D painting software such as Clip Studio Paint and Krita. It is a good job I brushed up on my perspective drawing…

Gingerbread house

I only started learning 3D skills with Blender at the end of 2018 and I’ve been able to do what I wanted in a relatively short time, although if I had had a basic curriculum toward that goal it would have sped up my process, which is why I’m writing this article for anyone interested.

What skills do you need?

I’ll describe the basic skills you will need to learn to get started.

Learning the user interface of the 3D program is a must. Navigation in the 3D workspace and how to control the camera and the lights is important to learn as well as adding and placing 3D objects and composing 3D scenes. You only need very basic modelling skills to get started or you can download free and paid 3D assets to use if you don’t have the time or the inclination to do that.

Just by using primitive shapes such as spheres, cubes and cylinders you can create scenes and characters for drawing over if you just want a reference for perspective or light and shadow. Some modelling skills are useful if there is a particular object you need. I made these cakes for one of my scenes with basic modelling skills. This style is called low poly modelling.


I will give you another tip: learning about the skin modifier in Blender can be useful for making gnarly trees and base objects for digital sculpting.


Another useful skill to learn is how to assign materials to your objects. You will be able to create different materials such as glass, metal, plastic and wood to name a few which might be useful if you need particular reference for how light affects surface materials.


Look up how to use HDRI images for lighting your scenes as well. It is a fast and effective way to light your objects for different times of the day and environments. You can get lots of free HDRI images on site like HDRI Haven.

Metalic material and HDRI image Render in Blender

UV mapping and assigning textures is something you may also want to learn later on, especially if you like digital painting. You may also have to learn about using the node editor in Blender if you want to assign textures to your objects.

A node setup for image textures in Blender

I’ve written a short article for an introduction to texturing.

You will need to learn how to render out and save your scenes as images as well so that they can be imported as images into 2D art software.

If your primary goal is to create reference for characters or organic objects you may also need to learn some 3D sculpting skills.

I’ve been learning more about 3D sculpting lately. Sculpting is a more fun and intuitive way of making detailed organic 3D objects, but be warned it can get time consuming and addictive depending on how far you go with it.

Using 3D for digital paint-over and draw over techniques

Here I’m going to link to some YouTube videos I found where digital artists are talking about using 3D to aid them in creation of 2D artwork.


Creating reference for lighting and different angles

You can of course do this in a fully fledged 3D program, but if you really don’t have time to learn 3D there are easier solutions geared toward artists. I wrote about some in this article.

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