From Sculpture to 3D Paintings and Drawings: What Is Three-Dimensional Art?

Tourists wander through a Richard Serra sculpture at MoMA in New York City. Credit: James Leynse/Corbis/Getty Images

What’s the difference between two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) art? In general, 3D art incorporates height, width, and depth, whereas 2D art tends to be limited to a flat surface. Pottery and sculptures are good examples of 3D art, while paintings, drawings, and photographs are technically all confined to two dimensions. Nonetheless, folks who work on paper or canvas often create the illusion of the third dimension in their work. So, how do they render such lifelike art? To find out more, we’re delving into the history of 3D art and the theories behind it.

Aspects of 3D Art

As Artdex puts it, “Three-dimensional art pieces, presented in the dimensions of height, width, and depth, occupy physical space and can be perceived from all sides and angles.” Some types of 3D art, such as sculpture, pottery, and jewelry, have been around since the beginning of time, while other iterations are relatively new.

Light art sculptures by Dan Flavin presented at Deutsche Guggenheim, Unter den Linden in December 1999. Credit: Tollkühn/ullstein bild/Getty Images

When it comes to three-dimensional works, there’s a lot of terminology to pin down. For example, all truly three-dimensional works have volume — or the “quantity of three-dimensional space enclosed by a closed surface.” Additionally, 3D art has mass — this kind of intrinsic, tangible weight. Of course, there are variations in just how 3D a work is — and a variety of terms describes these degrees of dimensionality.

Low Relief: Low-relief sculptures are carved onto a 2D object with just enough depth to allow for the formation of shadows. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise is a good example of a low-relief sculpture.

High Relief: High-relief sculptures also protrude outward from a flat surface, but to a much greater degree than low-relief works. To be considered high relief, at least half of the sculpture must protrude outward from the surface.

Frontal Sculpture: While frontal sculptures are technically 3D, they’re only designed to be viewed from one angle. Think metal sculptures intended to be used as wall art.

Full Round: Full round sculptures, such as Michelangelo’s David, are so 3D that they can be viewed from any side.

Walk Through: Walk-through art takes things to the next level by requiring the viewer to actually walk through the piece in order to truly experience it.

Installation Art: Installation art is like walk-through art, but on a much grander scale. Artists often utilize an entire room (or building) to create their own atmosphere or environment.

Landscape Art: Landscape art is an art that utilizes — you guessed it — landscaping and other natural or outdoor elements.

3D Principles in 2D Art

Drawings, paintings, and other artworks that are produced on paper or canvas are technically 2D. But during the 1400s, artists began to realize that by incorporating the same principles found in 3D works they could create the illusion of the third dimension. They, quite literally, gained some perspective.

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Photo Courtesy: Masaccio/Wikipedia

The advent of perspective in drawing and painting is largely credited to an Italian architect and artist named Filippo Brunelleschi and his use of the vanishing point. This new technique caught on quickly, and, soon enough, the Italian artist Masaccio became the first-known painter to truly master the technique. To this day, he’s still considered the first great painter of the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance.

For centuries, artists have also relied on shading to give their drawings and paintings the illusion of mass. The use of shadows and overlapping objects — as well as a focus on size in relation to the vanishing point — can all help achieve that 3D effect in an otherwise flat medium. Undoubtedly, the implementation of perspective vastly changed the landscape of art, so much so that it’s one of the first principles fledgling artists study to this day.

Modern 3D Art

Some modern artists, such as Kurt Wenner, have taken the idea of using 3D concepts in 2D art to a whole other level entirely. In the 1980s, Wenner began creating incredibly lifelike 3D-style street art on sidewalks and streets with chalk. By combining his skills as an artist with intricate geometrical designs, Wenner launched a pavement art movement that’s still active today thanks to hundreds of festivals, such as the Pasadena Chalk Festival.

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Photo Courtesy: Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

Of course, sculpture remains a popular form of 3D art. French sculptor Auguste Rodin, the creator of iconic pieces like The Kiss (1884) and The Thinker (1880), reshaped the art form by rejecting the idea that sculpture had to revolve around classical themes. Instead, Rodin focused on appealing to the viewer’s emotions and imagination. By promoting the idea that there was no right or wrong interpretation of his work, Rodin laid the foundation for many modern sculptors today.

In the 20th century, 3D art expanded to a wide variety of different mediums. Glass sculpture began to see a significant rise in popularity, paving the way for artists like Dale Chihuly. Additionally, installation and performance art saw similar surges in popularity as artists moved beyond the canvas, beyond the white walls of the gallery. Using everything from lights to natural, found objects, sculptors express themselves with all of the malleability 3D art has to offer. Even filmmakers have found ways to create a supposedly more immersive experience, all thanks to special 3D glasses.

If you’d like to learn more about how to add 3D perspective to your own drawings or paintings, there are a number of great tutorials that will take you through the basics of perspective, shading, and more.

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