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[Exclusive] Draw in 3D with the ‘Mental Canvas’ Illustration App

The new app combines traditional illustration with 3D computer-aided design software.
Images courtesy of Mental Canvas

There are apps like uMake that rather easily turn 2D sketching into useful 3D models for prototyping, but the new app Mental Canvas takes a different approach. It fuses the illustrator’s need for aesthetics and style with 3D modeling, giving the resulting illustrated worlds some wondrous depths.

Originally developed by Yale University Professor Julie Dorsey and her research team, Mental Canvas’ creators describe the app as “drawing in a new dimension”—a tool that lies somewhere between current “2D digital drawn-and-paint systems and 3D computer-aided design systems.” While other 3D drawing apps focus on being prototyping tools, Mental Canvas is a new medium for artists who really want to concentrate on 3D art and design, though it can be used for prototyping as well.


“There are loads of different programs that allow you to create 3D models and renderings, but Mental Canvas is the only true 3D drawing platform that lets you project your own strokes into space,” Dorsey tells The Creators Project. “This preserves the artist’s hand so that drawings carry a personalized style.”

“All content generated in Mental Canvas is hand-drawn, which gives the user the ability to refine ideas quickly without the burden imposed by 3D geometric modeling systems,” she adds. “Mental Canvas allows you to quickly switch between viewing and drawing modes so that creators can refine their designs at all stages of the creative process.”

Dorsey, who studied architecture before becoming a computer scientist, is fascinated with built environments and the challenges they present, like real-time rendering of urban scenes, photorealistic rendering models, lighting and acoustic design algorithms, and modeling systems for early conceptual design. She sees Mental Canvas as addressing a “holy grail-type challenge” that’s been on her mind as a researcher for a very long time: to allow the user to gradually develop coherency in 3D, which doesn’t happen in CAD systems.

For Dorsey, drawing really hasn’t been brought into the digital age—at least not the way she envisions it three-dimensionally. She points out that while technology has revolutionized media like text, photography and music, drawing has remained largely unchanged since the Renaissance, as today's illustration tools only simulate drawing on paper.


“Mental Canvas reimagines the sketch and brings an entirely new set of capabilities to accelerate the creative process and enhance idea sharing,” Dorsey says. “Mental Canvas lets you sketch ideas on canvases situated throughout space so that you’re able to communicate far more than any single drawing ever can.”

“Entire canvases can also be rotated in relation to each other to create a richer illustration that can be explored,” she adds. “Artists can even bookmark views so they can share an animated tour and share the exact navigation that they are seeing.”

Despite these new capabilities, Dorsey insists that Mental Canvas won’t replace 3D modeling. The goal is to elevate the sketching process and give it new value.

“In many applications, a 3D sketch or spatial drawing, can convey far more information, than either a 2D drawing or a 3D model,” she says. “And our drawings can be completed far more quickly than 3D models, allowing for the rapid sharing of concepts. Artists will be able to share ideas in 3D that are based on their own drawings—not a computer’s.”

For Dorsey, current technology is just scratching the surface of what’s possible with drawing. Going forward they plan to give Mental Canvas a variety of enhancements. And the ultimate goal is to fundamentally change the way drawing is conceived, so that artists, designers, visual thinkers and advertisers can start and conclude the creative process on the computer.


The Mental Canvas viewer software is currently available on Microsoft devices running Windows 10, including the Surface line of products. The authoring software, which will allow creators to make their own designs will launch soon in limited beta, and broadly in 2017. Click here to see how artists are currently using Mental Canvas.


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