Upon Salvador Dali's death in 1989, the world was reminded of his unique ability to render "the unreal world with such extreme realism that its truth and validity could no longer be questioned."
The art critic responsible for that description, the late James Thrall Soby, could not have imagined that we'd one day reach a moment when Dali's melting clocks and impossibly alien landscapes would become places we could actually visit. But now, at the dawn of commercial virtual reality, that's exactly what we're doing, and a new class of artist is beginning to emerge to help us navigate this new plane of surreality.
After weeks immersed in the new, user-created worlds of Medium for VR sculpting and Quill for VR painting, both made for the Oculus Rift, I've watched as many artists — professional and amateur — have enthusiastically embraced the new tools.
However, during my deepest dives in the rapidly growing, but mostly unnoticed VR communities, one particularly prolific artist stood out, piercing the head-mounted fog of pixels with a distinct visual language that feels native to the new canvas of VR.
UK-based artist Elizabeth Edwards has already begun to master the art of painting and sculpting with light in a way many are still struggling to grasp. Her background may have something to do with that. Edwards is a 3D character artist at Creative Assembly and recently worked on the game Total War: Warhammer.
"I started working in 3D seven or so years ago at university where I was taking a Computer Games Art course," says Edwards. "I mostly use 3DS Max and ZBrush."
That grounding in 3D software might sound like a natural advantage, but it's not quite that simple. Since 2015, I've been closely watching some of the most talented professional artists trying their hand at VR art using tools like Tilt Brush, for the HTC Vive, with colorful but less than extraordinary results. What Edwards has managed to do, that many others haven't, is shed a part of her traditional art training to embrace the new frontier of creating eye-tricking color and light spectrums while working "inside" the screen that many digital artists are still using as a 2D windows into 3D.
"It's difficult to get across just how much of a difference it makes to look at a 3D thing you're making in stereoscopic 3D — as close to how we see things in the real world as we can get," says Edwards. "You're able to comprehend scale and depth very naturally and automatically relate the virtual object to your own body and space — especially since, with Touch or Vive controllers, you are physically manipulating the object with your hands in real space."
But her perspective isn't limited to the amateur VR doodler. From her vantage point, VR tools like Medium could change how our game and film characters are designed.
"In ZBrush and 3DS Max, you're making a 3D thing on a 2D screen," says Edwards. "It's easy to misjudge the proportions for a whole bunch of reasons — perspective differences between a photo reference and your viewport, for example. That kind of mistake is harder to do in VR."
The burgeoning impact of these new tools is immediately apparent to those facilitating the sharing of work from Edwards' and others.
"We live in a 3D world, and until now we've mostly expressed ourselves with 2D mediums (drawing, photography, video) except for sculpture or 3D software, which requires advanced skills and training," says Alban Denoyel, co-founder and CEO of Sketchfab, one of the largest platforms for sharing 3D art online.
"With the new VR creation tools, anybody can express himself in 3D space, which is the natural way to convey a concept or an emotion. What blows my mind is to see 5-year-old kids posting 3D drawings on Sketchfab. When you think about it, drawing a house in 3D is even more intuitive than on a 2D sheet of paper, just because the house is in 3D in the real world."
"Medium is the most accessible 3D software I've ever used," says Edwards. "All traditional 3D software — long before you get to make any art at all — comes with a steep learning curve, even switching between comparable software like 3DS Max and Maya."
But whether this new VR palette will be embraced by most artists, old and new, will be central to how far VR art grows.
"Looking at the work Gio Nakpil has been doing in Medium — work that really pushes the boundaries and rivals what is possible in ZBrush in terms of quality — I'm super excited to see how it changes the workflow of 3D artists in the future," says Edwards.
"Oculus Touch controllers revolutionized the Rift for sure ... I firmly believe that 3D art should be made in a true 3D space, not a flat screen, and Medium and those like it have a huge future."
A trip this week to a few Best Buy stores in New York City, which have dedicated Oculus Rift displays, revealed that both the headset and controllers are sold out, just days before Christmas. A supply problem, or a hint at legions of VR artists to come? We're likely to find out in the coming months.
"I absolutely do think this will encourage more artists to take up digital 3D," says Edwards.
"The biggest barrier to entry at the moment is the cost of the headsets, but in a few years, when headsets are more accessible, software like these will put 3D art in a lot of hands."