Duncan Macgruer, 3D Illustrator

Duncan Macgruer is an Atlanta-based illustrator with a focus on technical illustration and spatial design, including corporate, retail and exhibition environments. During his 25 years of design experience, Duncan has worked with such high profile clients as Coca Cola, the US Army, Colgate and Universal Studios.

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» How did you get started in the graphics industry?

Over time my business evolved from design to illustration. I studied both fine arts and scenography (lighting and stage design) in school, so there was plenty of exposure to the graphic arts, but structure and environment won out. I spent a lot of time in the sculpture studio and backstage at the university theatre. Once I joined the business world, traditional illustration became a part of the process of developing and marketing a project, but the project was always the thing. I've always loved the tactile nature of sketching and painting, but the image had become a means, not an end. That changed, as did my business, when I encountered 3D software. For me it's a wonderful combination of graphic and theatrical elements.

» What made you pick up Strata 3D? Was there a specific problem/need that caused you to seek out a 3D application?

A problem? Well, yes, absolutely. Let's call it an unexpected challenge. I was primarily designing environments; museum and corporate exhibitry, industrial theatre and some retail. This was in the 1980s. I taught myself CAD and was building 2D construction documents on a Mac. Pretty easy to learn, you know; lines. curves, fills. To my surprise, it could also generate three dimensional content, and I still remember how astonished I was when I first extruded a circle into a cylinder. I just kept spinning it around in 3D space, saying "this is so cool!" I had stumbled upon 3D but, with the exception of hidden line drawing, I had no rendering capability. I didn't even know about that.

I began printing hidden line perspective views of my designs with a rattletrap old HP pen plotter that you could hear from my driveway. I would use the plotter output on a light table as an underlay for traditional marker and watercolor illustrations, and that was OK, until I saw a competitor's design submission while meeting with a client. Here's the "problem" - it was rendered with a 3D application, and I was blown away. "How am I going to learn to do THAT?" It seemed beyond comprehension at first; I had never seen anything like it.

» What other applications were part of your workflow, and how did Strata 3D work with those applications?

My first software application was VectorWorks, and I still use it in my workflow. It was called MiniCAD at the time, and it had an "Export to StrataVision" command in it's File menu. That export command was the thing that helped me discover Strata products. I picked up a copy of Vision 3D, an early version of today's Strata 3D CX, and began working with the two apps together, along with Photoshop, which I also learned by the seat of my pants. I made little progress at first, but there was very little to go on. I would bring CAD models into Vision, throw canned textures at the model, turn on lights willy-nilly and toss the finished work at my client. The craft was new enough at the time that anything casting a shadow was just too cool, and everyone was happy. When I look back on some of that work I cringe, but at the time it was as good as anything else out there, so I was encouraged.

» How did you learn Strata 3D, and would you recommend your method to new users?

Ah, that would be the "push buttons until something happens" method. It has it's upside I suppose. When I began with Vision 3D I had no internet access, no reference ... it was a little daunting. So I experimented, and that I will recommend; constant experimentation. I learned by rooting around in the app and trying things every which way until I thought I understood the concepts. One of the keys to understanding the power behind an application like Strata is to attempt to do the same thing as many different ways as possible, and that's what I would do. Figure something out, try again with a different tool, or different geometry. My approach was clinical though; I was engaging the software on a technical level and trying to churn out acceptable images, and they were often antiseptic as a result. Once I had a web connection, that changed. I subscribed to the Stratalist and was astonished at the depth of expression I saw. It was an epiphany of sorts; I was really very energized by the possibilities. So I continued to lurk on the list and experiment with everything that was discussed, and that's when I really started to learn the craft. I still do it. If someone on the list or the Cafe asks a question and I don't know the answer, I'll try to figure it out. If I don't have the time, I'll check back later to see what I can learn. I always am interested in how others approach their craft, and the learning never ceases. My advice to new users is to approach 3D software the same way they (hopefully) approach everything . Experiment, observe, ask questions, have faith in your ability and try to break your own paradigms. Most important of all, approach it with a light heart and have fun.

» Has the introduction of 3D into your workflow caused you to branch out and explore opportunities you wouldn't have otherwise?

Sure it has; my business has changed dramatically, and I've managed the change intentionally. I used to be a design resource for my clients. Now, I run a hybrid business, with design occupying about 40 percent of my workload. Sometimes less. The balance of my projects are illustration assignments. Some come from environmental design firms without quality illustration capability. That works out well, because my design background gives my clients the confidence to let me run with their concepts and flesh them out. There are general illustration assignments of all kinds too; architectural, product, technical and so on. I no longer solicit design projects, though word of mouth and long term relationships keep them coming in, which is fine. I enjoy the variety, and it keeps me on my creative toes.

» Have you tried other 3D applications? How did Strata 3D compare?

Yes, and I use them still, but Strata remains my tool of choice. It's primarily a matter of familiarity, excellent output and a good workflow. Strata's comparatively shallow learning curve and very good rendering capabilities have always been it's strengths. No 3D software is easy to learn, especially for a beginner, but Strata's interface is easily grasped, especially for those familiar with Adobe products, which is just about everyone. You can be up and running at a basic level very quickly. I can think of a few professional illustrators with no 3D experience who have produced solid work in a matter of weeks. The renderer can stand up against more expensive, esoteric software. Many users consider Strata as their rendering tool; that's certainly the way I thought of it for years.

The knock on Strata has been it's comparatively lackluster modeling toolset, and I think that was a justified observation. I modeled much of my work in VectorWorks and Electric Image Modeler and then imported them into Strata for scene composition and rendering, and I think many users continue to do the same. We can't make the case for this anymore though. When CX was introduced, the modeling tools had made tremendous strides, and they continue to develop . It's exciting. I do entire projects within Strata now, without using external modeling solutions, and that wasn't a consideration for me a few years ago.

» Do you use any other applications to compliment Strata 3D?

On the front end, I still use VectorWorks for space planning and massing models for architectural and environmental work. It can export it's content so that it's Classes open up in Strata as named Shapes, tucked away in the Resource palette and ready to go. Very nice workflow. For complimentary modeling I will use VectorWorks and Electric Image NURBS tools for this or that, but I prefer subdivision surface modeling, and have Silo and Wings for that. Photoshop and Painter are more frequently coming into play as tools for enhancing the final rendered output. Some of my clients are requesting non photorealistic presentation imagery, so I'm taking renderings from Strata through a post process that gives them a natural media character with a little implied spontaneity. Of course, Photoshop is always open in it's usual post production and texture building role, Illustrator fills it's needs, and a variety of other applications help with file translation, texture work and animation editing.

» How has your personal style and workflow changed since learning Strata 3D?

Well, the workflow changed, yes, but that was by the introduction of 3D to my business life, so everything changed in that respect. As far as style, I don't think so. Strata has been transparent in that respect, and I think that's best. It was a fluid enough learning experience that it didn't get in the way, and I just kept on doing my thing. It has allowed for broad experimentation though, and the opportunity to try anything sure allows style to flourish.

» Was there anything else regarding your experience with Strata 3D that our readers would find interesting or useful?

It's fascinating how my university training was suited for the eventual foray into 3D. How could I have known, while sculpting, building scenery or focusing lights that I would be doing the same thing in Strata 30 years later. I'm struck by the similarities all the time. The lessons learned from sketching, painting and the study of art history come into play as decisions are made about camera placement, composition, color and lighting. I suppose the intellectual process is the same for me in any medium, and that's where much of the satisfaction lies, but I do prefer the digital medium. I can experiment and backtrack and the never ending variety of astonishing tools keeps the process alive. It can be exciting. It has an Undo command. And it doesn't smell like turpentine.

It's vitally important to keep traditional skills alive though. I sketch all the time, not simply because I enjoy it, but because I believe it keeps established synaptic connections firing, and makes my mind a more articulate, nimble and capable creative resource. There's no question that the years I spent with traditional methods had a profound effect on my ability to think dimensionally and visualize accurately. To communicate. You know, I have a concern that many aspiring digital artists aren't receiving, or giving themselves, the exposure their craft needs to flourish. Not long ago I sat at an organization's conference table with the creative director and a young graphic artist. The CD and I passed a legal pad back and forth across the table, sketching in perspective and adding to each other's ideas, fleshing out the direction of a project. The graphic artist, fresh out of some art school, was astonished by the fact that we could draw. AAAARGH! How depressing is that? She added what she could to the conversation, but her creative vocabulary and visualization skills were constrained by her purely digital experience; when she offered creative thoughts, she had trouble expressing them verbally or on paper. Sigh...

I wandered off track there, but I think this is important for digital artists, especially young ones. Get your keester out of the chair and turn off the computer every now and then. Take a life drawing class. Get a few pounds of modeling clay and go at it on the kitchen table. Pull out your camera or your kid's crayon. The tiny movements of a mouse or stylus do little to cultivate or enrich a creative mind, but including broad kinesthetics as a part of our creativity keeps our gray matter very busy, and make us, I believe, much more capable artists. Don't forget to visit galleries and fill your head with form and line and rhythm and color. It's the best thing you can do for your craft.