Enhancing Creativity with 3D Software in Art Education

This paper was delivered at the 99th College Art Association Conference in 2011 as part of the panel, “Digital Craftsmanship: How Artists Are Making Physical Objects from Virtual Data.”


Enhancing Creativity with 3D Software in Art Education


Bruce Wands
Artist, Musician, Writer, Curator
Chair, MFA Computer Art
Director of Computer Education
Director, New York Digital Salon
School of Visual Arts, New York, NY



The primary role of the arts educator is to enhance the creativity of their students by developing their individual style and voice through studio courses, critique and an understanding of art theory and history. Given the digital literacy of the current generation of college students, 3D software can significantly contribute to their artistic development, whether it is in sculpture, animation, imaging or other disciplines. This paper will trace the development of teaching with 3D software and technology, and examine how to properly integrate it into undergraduate and graduate educational environments. As artists and educators, we need to balance the importance of personal creative expression in the art world with the demands of the major studios that are producing 3D stereoscopic feature films. While many educational institutions prepare students to enter the industry, others take a fine art approach and nurture creativity by using digital techniques and tools.


Educational Philosophy

As art educators, we must always remind ourselves that creativity is the most important element when developing an emerging artist. This includes the development of a unique individual style with a focus on personal vision and a unique artistic voice. In the digital age, many students fail to see the large picture and are more concerned with software skills, rather than personal self-expression. Also, many college classes, undergraduate in particular, focus on only teaching software, rather than developing a broader approach to using that software in a creative way. One way to nurture this approach is to support freedom of creative expression and experimentation. While the traditional model for art education was the master/apprentice relationship, in modern times we need to rethink this relationship. It is not uncommon for students to have a deeper understanding of the software than the teacher. Certainly, the teacher is a master of their craft, but the shift from a drawing/painting/sculpture to a more inclusive and multidisciplinary digital approach forces us to re-examine that traditional model. Students today do not see art creation as pertaining to a single medium. They use software, drawing and painting and a wide array of tools to create their work.


The Internet has opened many new doors for global cultural exchange. What was once an isolated cultural-specific art world has now become multicultural. The existence of a multicultural student body is now a fact, rather than an anomaly. The benefits of cultural exchange are many. One of the more important aspects of this is in critique. When students from many cultures look at and discuss each others’ work, they bring their cultural heritage, values and an individualize perspective to their comments and discussion. This is important and should be encouraged.


One of the most important points that I stress to my graduate students is that they must produce their personal creative work for their entire career. It is the fire that feeds their creativity and should not be allowed to burn out or be extinguished. Many art students enter the commercial art field and work for both large and small studios. While their role in their day-to-day life is creative, many of them work as production artists and need to follow the direction of the creative director or art director. While this can be lucrative, as well as personally satisfying, there is something that is missing. That is personal creative self-expression. To continue to create one’s own personal work is extremely gratifying, as it comes from the soul. The individual artist is in control of what they are doing and free of any commercial restraints. While collaboration does fit within this model, the more important issue is to be free to create new and exciting work. There is an added benefit to this, as well. Employers respect artists that continue to cherish their creative self-expression. Whether it is done in the evening or on the weekends, this type of activity adds immensely to the quality of life an artist has. Also, participating in exhibitions, speaking at conferences and guest lecturing also enhances the experience of those who see the work.


As art educators, we need to constantly seek ways in which we can expand our students’ educational experience. As Chair of the MFA Computer Art department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, I follow the mandate of the college that working professionals teach. As such, our faculty is composed of artists, art historians, curators and industry professionals. We design our courses around what the faculty member does on a day-to-day basis. Another important element is that we have an ongoing interaction with industry professionals, both from the fine art world and commercial studio field. This includes frequent guest lectures, critiques, workshops and online interaction with professionals who do not have the time to come to New York. We also maintain an active guest lecture series and invite visiting artists and faculty to join us when possible. While this model may not work in every location, there are varying degrees that this can be implemented. I am sure that most educators have had the experience of making a point to their students over and over again, and then when someone from the outside comes in and makes the same point, it finally hits home. More than this, artists and professionals also benefit from working with and critiquing students’ work. We are a community of creative individuals and need to constantly expand and support this community, no matter what the location.


History of Teaching 3D Software

The teaching of 3D visualization has roots in sculpture and architecture and dates back hundreds of years. What is new is 3D software. Born out of military intelligence and CAD/CAM design and manufacture of automobiles, jewelry and many other applications, fine artists discovered this new tool mainly from the application of it in motion pictures, commercials and special effects. The original Tron was a film that started it all, and we now have the second generation of the film in theaters today. Expanding upon that, let us trace the history of 3D software in education by decades.



During this period, incoming students had little or no software knowledge or experience. Their desire was to learn this new technology for a variety of creative applications. Software companies like Digital Arts, Cubicomp, Alias and others released commercial products that were available to the educational community. Since the learning curve of this software was very high and the technology of the time was primitive compared to today, student projects were short and conceptually based. One of the issues was that the software interfaces were minimal and to really understand 3D, an artist had to have a fairly sophisticated knowledge of programming and mathematics.



During this period, we saw a rapid development of software and hardware. What is commonly referred to as the “Hollywood Gold Rush” brought an enormous amount of artists knowledgeable in 3D software to the west coast to begin working on films that used 3D for animation, special effects and compositing. Toy Story was the first completely 3D animated feature film and the first of the genre. Today, there is hardly a television commercial or feature film that does not use digital visualization software in some way. This wave created a revolution is digital art education. The demand for creative individuals who were digitally literate has increased exponentially. Educational programs at the time were populated with artists that were traditionally trained and wanted to update their 3D and other software skills. As such, the focus of the educational environment was more about software training than aesthetics, critique and theory. Whether this was good or bad is debatable, but it was the climate of the time. Student projects began to expand their scope and complexity, but there were still technical limits to overcome, such as rendering time and the limits of the software.



Over the past ten years, and more visible over the past five years is a change in the nature of the student interested in studying 3D. Unlike the students of past decades, they have grown up in an environment where 3D feature films, and more recently 3D stereoscopic films, have become the norm. They have never known a world without computers and the Internet, and see digital media as part of the normal landscape, rather than an innovation that is outside every day life. 3D software continues to become increasing sophisticated, yet the students of today begin learning it in high school. When they get to college, they already have a basic grasp of the technology. What they now need is more studio work, critique, theory and artistic maturation, rather than software instruction. It is almost like 3D software education has come full circle. When you look at drawing, painting and sculpture, there are hundreds of years of traditional and aesthetic development. Of the three, sculpture is about to be the next digital frontier. Drawing and painting have been revolutionized by Abode Photoshop, but the end result is still a two dimensional image. Sculpture, on the other hand, will now be fundamentally changed by rapid prototyping and digital methods of creating the object. One major point to be reminded of is that that handwork will never be supplanted. There are many sculptors who use 3D for visualization and traditional means for execution. While this is a much larger discussion, digital literacy is fundamentally changing how the next generation of artists approaches their work and create their art.


3D Curriculum Development

Curriculum development must be an ongoing dynamic process. The speed atwhich hardware and software continue to evolve significantly impacts the education of artists. While the emphasis must not be on the tools, one cannot deny that this evolution continually opens new doors for creative expression. A such, curriculum must be evaluated on an annual or per semester basis. The days of the laborious process of curriculum committees and insisting on a multi-year evaluation of how things are changing must be re-thought. The taking on of a multidisciplinary approach is more of a blessing than a curse. What was once black and white is now ever-changing shades of gray. In traditional academic institutions, there exists a dilemma of where to place digital creativity in the curriculum. Should it be in the art department, mathematics department or in computer science? Budgetary issues also impact this process. A room full of computers is not the same as a room full of easels or drawing tables. Support staff need to be in place to maintain the equipment. Many universities are solving this problem by creating interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degree programs. I feel that this is a positive trend and also addresses the changing nature of the art student.


Topics for Consideration

There are many topics to consider when teaching 3D to art students.
For example, are they graduate or undergraduate students? You have four years to develop the creativity of an undergraduate student, where an MFA is typically two years. Many students want to go into industry and enter programs with the mistaken knowledge that all they have to do is learn Maya and they will get a job. This cannot be further from the truth. Software knowledge is where it starts, not where it ends. Whether it be a Hollywood studio or an art gallery, they want to see what an artist can do with the software, rather than whether they know it.
Creativity and a unique personal vision are far more important. Disney calls it “the spark”, and rather than define it, they know it when they see it. Gallery owners are the same. When you experience a work of art, it is the personal reaction to the artwork that is important, as well as the content, aesthetics and refinement of the technique used to create it. This is a very important part of teaching 3D to artists. One of the best ways to do this is to show them the work of various successful artists and deconstruct the work from an aesthetic and technical viewpoint.


Drawing skills are another issue that needs to be addressed. From my point of view, artists are visual thinkers and need to know how to draw. Many digital art programs do not require drawing, and I see this as a mistake. A pencil is the easiest low-tech tool for visualization and can save hours and hours of time, versus visualizing something with 3D software alone. Even if drawing is not a required part of the curriculum, there should be drawing workshops offered in any digital art program.


Programming also needs to be considered an integral part of a 3D artist’s education. Only using off the shelf software is a mistake. It denies the artist the ability to put their own signature on their work, as well as speed up the workflow. Maya has a scripting language and two semesters of programming should be included in both BFA and MFA degree programs.


When designing curriculum for artists, there needs to be a balance between studio work, history, theory and critique. All too often, programs become industry specific and loose sight of the real value of creativity. The goal of both undergraduate and graduate education should be to develop a complete artist with an in depth knowledge of the concepts above. Only preparing them to enter industry is a huge mistake. If fact, it handicaps students by only giving them a commercial skill set, rather and a true educational experience.


Expounding on this point, there is also the issue of discipline specific versus multidisciplinary programs. These exist both on the undergraduate and graduate level. Put simply, if a student has a clear idea of the career they want to pursue, then a discipline specific program is probable the best. However, it is not that uncommon for a student to enter a discipline specific program, only to find that they want to pursue a different career, or want more career options. This is where multidisciplinary programs show their strength. Students have access to a wider variety of courses and interact with a more diverse student population. Also, when they graduate, their career options are much broader. Taken in the light of the rapid changes in technology, a multidisciplinary education seems to be the program of choice, unless a student is completely focused on a single discipline. Even then, these disciplines are changing. Design used to be solely print based years ago. Now, it encompasses many media. Animation is also in this class. While Hollywood studios wanted specialists several years ago, now they are looking for generalists. One of the reasons for this is that they can keep the artist employed throughout the production cycle, rather than take on modelers, animators and technical directors for short periods of time when they are needed.


Finally, there is the ongoing discussion of art education as a fine art or commercial entity. Given the high cost of undergraduate and graduate education today, students will spend an enormous amount of money for their education and many will take on a huge debt. One of their, and their parents’ concerns is that they will find employment after art school. The advantages and disadvantages of discipline specific and multidisciplinary education have been discussed above. Ultimately, this decision rests with the art student as they prepare for their professional life.


Future Trends in 3D Education

When looking at the future of art education, and 3D education in general, it is quite clear that students of the future will never have known a world without computers and digital creativity will be the standard production method. This does not negate traditional media, but augments it. For example, a student who wants to create oil paintings or sculpture may still follow the traditional methods, but they will also use the computer to sketch out their ideas and help visualize them. It also follows that students will continue to enter degree programs more digitally literate. International programs are proliferating and will continue to do so. The cost of setting up a computer lab has dropped significantly over the past several years and the life of a computer’s usefulness has also been extended. While top colleges and universities need to maintain the latest technology, software like Maya and the Adobe Creative Suite will work fine on computers that are a few years old, but only until new software requires the latest hardware. This must also be taken in the context that hardware and software will continue to evolve and new technologies will continue to emerge. We are still at the beginning of the global digital revolution. For example, stereoscopic feature films and televisions are the latest rage. Mobile technologies are evolving rapidly and content must be scaleable and available on all types of media. The amount of content that is uploaded to the Internet is staggering and software must be created to handle this overload of information we receive everyday. In closing, we must always keep in mind that it is the content, or in art terms, the aesthetics of the work that is the most important.


About the Author
Bruce Wands has been working in digital media and music for over thirty years as an artist, musician, writer, and curator. His book, Art of the Digital Age, was published by Thames & Hudson in 2006. He has lectured, performed, and exhibited his creative work throughout the United States and abroad, including Europe and Asia. Recent events include the Decoding the Digital Conference at the V&A Museum on London, Art in the Digital Era in Guangzhou, China, 1st China International Conference on Interaction Design, 4th International Conference on the Arts in Society, Electronics Alive V, 2007 Computer Graphics Invitational, CHArt 2006, SIGGRAPH 2006, ACM Creativity & Cognition Conference and Exhibition, and the 1st Beijing International New Media Arts Exhibition. Time Out New York named Bruce as one of the “99 People to Watch in 1999”. He is the Chair of the MFA Computer Art Department and the Director of Computer Education at the School of Visual Arts in New York. U.S. News and World Report ranked his department 5th in Multimedia/Visual Communications in 2007 and his students have won six Student Academy Awards. He is the Director of the New York Digital Salon, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2008 (www.nydigitalsalon.org). He is the author of Digital Creativity, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in 2001. www.brucewands.com.