Digital Landscape Creation 1: Introduction to the Series

Nov 09, 2021 at 10:00 am by -gToon

This is an introduction to a series on 3D landscape creation which will span several months. In this introduction, I’ll share with you the theme of the series, a brief history of landscape art, and a shortlist of applications and game tools we are going to examine. Some of the applications and games will be free others will be moderately expensive. I’ll share my experiences with each one from installation to the final creation of a landscape scene. And, of course, links will be provided in every article. I hope to post every Tuesday of each week, although some applications will take longer than a week to learn and create. 
A Note on Terminology
I’ve chosen the phrase “Digital Landscape” because that has always been the descriptive term for digital landscapes for me. However, if you Google “3D Landscape”, you’ll find the results primarily refer to the creation of house designs for architects and homeowners. Another term that is often used for digital landscape creation is “World Creation”. This refers to the creation of landscapes inside game worlds. So, to be clear, this series is about the tools and workflow in creating digital landscapes for pleasure and art. There will be some cross-over into game engines and plug-ins, but primarily we’ll be looking at standalone applications designed specifically for digital landscape creation.
Tower Mill at Wijk bij Duurstede, Netherlands Jacob van Ruisdael
As the visual arts grew increasingly confident of their ability to compete with most noble human sciences, genres like landscape, which seem to require less intellect , were relegated to the second or third rank
                                                                                                -Landscape Painting by Norbert Wolf
A Very Brief History of Landscape Painting
Landscape art existed before there was even a term for it, but it took a long time before landscape art became an subject in itself. Up until the Renaissance, landscape art was primarily decorative for religious subjects. Italian and Dutch artists made landscape into an individual art form that appealed to emotions. But even with genius landscape creations by artists like Rembrandt and Jacob van Ruisdael, the landscape as an art form was always one of the low arts because it was claimed (by academics) that the form did not appeal to the intellect. 19th-century artists began to change that view and artists like Delacroix and Albert Bierstadt made landscape painting into a high art form. 
The modern era, especially the Impressionists like Monet and the Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, took landscape art out of the realist tradition and began the create landscape art that was more a reflection of their inner response to the natural world. Also, the notion of a “landscape” expanded into urban landscapes and dream landscapes (see Dali) so that the concept of landscape art expanded and changed. 
At present, landscape art is still being created formally, but the world of gaming and digital tools have changed the idea of what a landscape is dramatically. Now, viewers can go inside of a landscape so that it surrounds them. Gaming and game engines, in particular, have brought a real sense of emotion to landscape art. Some of my favorite moments in games involve scenes in games like Half-Life 2 and The Elder Scrolls. Moreover, the ability to create digital landscapes is so much easier than traditional landscape creation the there is a much wider range of creators and tools. 
wave sequence mod Half Life 2 canals
The Goal of this Series
What I want to achieve is a loose overview of the tools and methods an artist or hobbyist can use to create digital landscapes either for free or for relatively lost cost. The idea is to choose an application, learn it and then use the application to create one of five landscape styles: Gothic sunset, sunny desert, afternoon river valley, and snowy mountain scene. Most of the applications we’ll look at creating realistic scenes, but we’ll also delve into one abstract landscape, just for variety. 
Here are the applications we are going to study. I’m leaving some space open for discoveries along the way. Note that I am not including applications like Maya or 3D Studio Max because they are too expensive and beyond the means of most general artists. We are also avoiding tools that simply generate terrain as they are the province of engineers, architects, and scientists for the most part. 
  1. World Creator
  2. VUE
  3. Bryce
  4. Terragen
  5. Unity Game Engine
  6. Unreal Game Engine
  7. Blender 
  8. GAEA
  9. World Machine
  10. NVIDIA Canvas
  11. ?
Schedule of Articles
Every Tuesday, I’ll cover a specific application, what it is, how to download and install, my experience learning the application, and the workflow in creating one of the scenes I’ve described above. I’ll share my successes and frustrations along with plenty of links and information about the specific application. I’ve tried to keep the selected applications free or low cost. The focus will mostly be on Windows-based apps as they are more plentiful, but I will note if any of them have Mac versions. 

Next Week: Digital Landscape Creation 2: World Creator 

Sections: News & Features

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