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How to Use Sketchfab as an Artistic Reference

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Is there anything worse than having nothing to draw? It's a tale older than time itself; all of this paper and no love to fill it with.

Sketchfab's gift to the world is a library of professional 3D art, all free to view on its site. It's the perfect resource if you're an artist itching for something new to master, right from the comfort of your own home.

What Is Sketchfab?

Sketchfab popular models

Sketchfab is a community of 3D artists. It's a platform that allows you to share your art with one another in a convenient, bite-sized form. Others may download what you create, either for free or at a premium. They can then take these characters, object collections, and environments, and incorporate them into their own projects.

Some of the models are animated; others are static. Many are interactive and educational—anatomical models of the human heart or models of our solar system recreated in exquisite detail. No matter what you like to make, there will likely be a place and an audience for it here.

Most notable is Sketchfab's in-browser model inspector. With it, you can check out everything on the site closely. This tool ensures that you know exactly what you're getting before you check out.

One undeniably neat way to use its model inspector is as your own personal collection of virtual, 3D reference material that you can manipulate freely without any special software or skills. If you're a traditional artist looking to get inspired by something new, Sketchfab will be an entirely novel experience for you.

Using Sketchfab in this way is especially useful for beginners. When you're able to rotate a model and view it from any distance or angle, you have the opportunity to understand it much more thoroughly than you would otherwise.

Choosing a Model to Draw

A visual representation of the global Sketchfab family

According to the site itself, Sketchfab is currently home to more than three million unique 3D models. Narrowing things down will be a matter of first figuring out what you need to practice.

Here are some broad categories for somebody just looking to warm up:

  • Basic objects and abstract designs: As silly as it may sound, having something very simple like a piece of toast, a teapot, or even just a cube to view from all angles will be a much more engaging exercise to partake in than simply copying a static photo. The novice will acquire a sense of space and recession that can sometimes be difficult to attain through drawing objects in real life alone.
  • Furniture: The spirit of the mid-century movement is alive and strong here, but the good folks of Sketchfab hardly call it quits at Eames. Furniture is geometric and structured without being boring. It's familiar enough to latch onto readily, even as your first drawing of the day, without feeling simple to the point of being banal.
  • Animals: This includes mythical creatures, such as dragons, aliens, and, yes, even all of your favorite Pokémon. Some are extremely cute. Others are much truer to life.
  • Sculptures: While plenty of the work that falls under this heading is totally original, you will also find incredible recreations of some of the most famous statues of all time. Save yourself a trip to the Louvre.
  • Fashion: If haute fashion holds your attention, a worthy specimen will never be far out of reach here. Also worth mentioning are all of the unusual non-fashion accessories that are found periodically amongst the princess tiaras, Guy Fawkes masks, and homemade Yeezies. Does a rusty pickaxe count as fashion? Sketchfab artists think so.

If none of the above interests you, you'll be glad to know that these categories are only the beginning. To find your fancy, simply hit the search bar at the top of the homepage. You can also browse by category specifically through the Explore dropdown.

A small handful of models available on Sketchfab

We recommend creating a free account beforehand so that you can favorite anything that you love for later.

Using the Model Inspector

My favorite model on Sketchfab: the Pretzel, by Baria CG

Once you've found the 3D model that you would like to draw, give it a click to begin. For our purposes, we're going to be referring to one of our favorites: Baria CG's pretzel model.

At first, you'll see your selection in all of its natural splendor, fully rendered and shaded to perfection. Many models are great to draw as-is, the way that their creators intended to have them seen. With others, however, it definitely pays to go a bit deeper.

While this initial window affords you a navigable viewport, the actual model inspector needs to be toggled on. At the bottom right, you'll find a few buttons, including one that looks like three layers. Clicking on it or hitting I on your keyboard will activate the part of the model inspector that you will inevitably find most useful.

To the left, you should now see a black sidebar full of new options. The material channel options, to be perfectly honest, do not offer much if you're just using Sketchfab to draw. You can click through these and the others found above, but things get much more interesting under the geometry overlay options.

Sketchfab's model inspector sidebar

Two of them are indispensable: the Matcap option and the Wireframe option. Let's go over both of these in more detail.

Matcap Mode

Sketchfab's Matcap view

The Matcap option (by extension, the Matcap + Surface option) does away with distracting texture and schemes of design. You're left with a sterile, uniformly-lit version of the model in a pristine chrome finish.

What's great about Matcap mode is that the model will be well-illuminated from any angle. Some models come out of the box with a little bit of attitude. With Matcap mode enabled, it's easier to see and sketch a model that may otherwise be shrouded in mood lighting.

Using the Wireframe

Sketchfab's Wireframe view

The wireframe is the ultimate tool for somebody interested in fine-tuning their fundamental skills, especially when drawing simple objects like a pretzel. The form of the model is broken down into simple polygons that are easy to follow.

If you're struggling with a drawing that you just can't seem to get right, seeing the wireframe will show you exactly what you're doing wrong.

Rotating the Model

Once you've decided on how you would like to view the object or character, you can click and drag on it to rotate it orbitally. Holding Shift while clicking and dragging pans the model left, right, up, or down laterally. Holding Ctrl while clicking and dragging zooms the model in and out.

Rotating the pretzel for a new point of view

We recommend that you take some time to explore your model from every possible angle. A unique point of view will often make a huge difference.

Checking out the pretzel from another angle

Find Your Muse on Sketchfab

Most artists will agree that seeing something fresh and new will often be enough to rouse themselves from even the most mind-numbing stupor of pencil block. When you don't have a muse in front of you, it always pays to have a backup plan.

Luckily, Sketchfab is here whenever we need something cool to chew on creatively. Leveling up your drawing skills has never been simpler.

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