Is Drawing Tablet a Must-have for 3D Design?

Aug 20,2020 PM 17:10

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Is a drawing tablet a necessary accessory to be successful as a 3D artist? There are many different software and workflows used to create artwork in the 3D space, so it can be difficult to put a definitive "yes" or "no" on this question. Although all 3D art can "technically" be done with only a mouse or a trackpad, there are some disciplines in the 3D world that nearly require a tablet for an artist to maximize their creative abilities.


It is widely agreed-upon by 3D artists that a drawing tablet is an essential tool for those who engage in "sculpting" workflows. In a similar fashion to that of that traditional clay sculptor, the artist usually starts with a sphere and molds it into their desired form using a wide array of sculpting tools. Many standard software packages such as Maya, Cinema 4D, and Blender offer the ability to "sculpt"; however, the vast majority of 3D sculptors prefer to use ZBrush. A tablet allows the artist to interact naturally with their model and provides a sculpting experience closer to working with a physical ball of clay. Additionally, tablets' pressure sensitivity feature is invaluable as it allows the artist to vary their stroke intensity by merely pressing harder onto the screen. Without this function, it can be challenging to get an organically sculpted shape as each stroke takes on an identical width and depth.



Another common task that many 3D artists prefer to use a tablet for is painting textures onto their models. Although most 3D software offer some amount of functionality for painting on models, many artists choose to use either Mari or Substance Painter for this process. Similar to the benefit provided in a sculpting workflow, using a tablet to paint in the 3D space is much more natural (than using a mouse or trackpad) as the artist can feel like they have a brush in their hand to apply color and texture to their models. The pressure sensitivity feature provided by drawing tablets is crucial as it allows the artist to create realistic strokes that vary in width and opacity. This effect is impossible to achieve with a mouse.



Sculpting and painting are just two of a tablet's practical applications in the 3D space. There is a multitude of other niche manners in which a drawing tablet can improve a 3D artist's creative experience. For example, one of Maya's hair and fur generation systems (XGen) can be interactively groomed with a "Comb Tool", which pairs perfectly with a tablet-style workflow. Or, the process of painting weights onto individual vertices in the character rigging process to assign how a skeletal rig is bound to the model's skin. In many of these processes, a tablet's central value is the same: allowing the artist to interact with their work more naturally than clicking and dragging with a mouse.

It is important to keep in mind that while it is "technically" possible to engage in any of these workflows without a drawing tablet, doing so may impact your creative abilities due to the limitations that come with a mouse - an inability to control pressure and the inherent difficulty of creating natural gestures by clicking and dragging. That being said, the vast majority of general 3D work can be done comfortably with a mouse - and in many situations, a tablet could potentially slow down and inhibit a 3D artist's workflow. Examples of this would include general hard-surface polygonal modeling projects, standard animation routines, creating procedural motion graphics, and look development for rendering - to name a few.


Plenty of 3D artists never touch ZBrush or Substance Painter, and would be unable to find a practical application for a drawing tablet in their workflow. It is more than possible to become a successful 3D artist with or without a tablet - ultimately, it comes down to what types of 3D projects you work with and which software packages you are comfortable using.



About the Author

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Jake Fellman(https://jakefellman.com) is a 3D motion designer specializing 

in product visualization animation.  He has been working as a freelance 

artist for six years and teaching digital design (in-person and online) for the past two.


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