I had a great conversation yesterday with a talented photographer, entrepreneur and fellow artist (it's the same guy). And one of the topics that came up was one that I have thought a lot about recently -- talent vs technique.
Back in the renaissance, artists would show their mastery of technique and understanding of perspective by creating realistic still lifes, anatomically correct portraits and landscapes that accurately showed how the trees, shrubs, mountains, etc. were arranged spatially.
I think knowing how to do these things is important and I think they provide a great launchpad to take off from, but I think talent uses technique as a springboard. For instance, some writers who adhere to proper sentence structure would greatly prefer the phrase "...from which to take off." over "...to take off from." And then other writers who are aware of this proper technique might say, "Screw it! It just sounds better the other way." In the end, finding your literary voice is like finding your visionary voice. First, learn how and why something is done, and then do what you want.
And just as the renaissance artists learned how to chisel stone, mix their own paint and how to apply it to the canvas, 3d artists today learn how to set up global illumination, how to use equirectangular HDRI image-based lighting, how to create their own shaders and tileable textures and how to create 3d models out of NURBS and polygons. So, how has 3D technique and the mastery of it evolved?
In "The Before Time", in "The Long, Long Ago", in an age we called, "The Late Twentieth Century", doing any kind of serious 3D involved three things -- a Silicon Graphics workstation, Alias/Wavefront software, and an obscene amount of money. I was fortunate. In 1995, I worked as an industrial designer for a consulting studio called Concept Designworx and I learned Alias Studio and Power Animator on their SGI Indigo 2 Extreme workstation. It was a steep learning curve! I think back on all the things you had to do just to produce anything at all. It was all a problem to be solved, a puzzle, a game. I ended up loving rendering in 3D more than doing design. And when I decided to consult on my own seven years later, I was running Maya (born from Power Animator) on my Mac laptop - much faster and cheaper than the SGIs I had trained on. Even then, learning the techniques of how things were made in 3D, involved lots of late nights and several trips to Starbucks.
Now I run 3D Studio Max and Vray on an old-but-heavily-modified BOXX 8304 workstation. It's a lot easier to create great looking stuff and it's still much cheaper than the old SGI and Alias Studio, but I've seen fantastic work done using SketchUp and Maxwell (together about $95.00). And that setup is even easier to learn to use. So, what am I rambling on and on about?
For a 3D artist, I think it's important to get a foundation of how and why things work. Learn everything you can about perspective, composition, drawing, painting, photography, and about ray tracing, global illumination, making polygonal and NURBS models, and Photoshop. But after you get a handle on the technique, break out and explore. In the end it's your talent that shines over technique. In other words, it's the artist, not the brush.