February 28, 2024

How To Physically Paint What You See In VR

Virtual painting is becoming popular. Here's how to translate the worlds you see directly to canvas.

How To Physically Paint What You See In VR
My desk, featuring a plein air painting: "A Tree In VR", oil on canvas, 2024 (K. Guillory)

Creating art in virtual reality can be approached in many different ways. There's 3D painting, made possible by programs like Open Brush--the works of TanjaV and ReverseButcher are great examples of bringing virtual sculptures to life.

There's also painting directly to simulated canvases in VR. Immersive and illustrative artist Babybonito has a great documentary on this, titled The Painters of Virtual Reality. Programs such as Painting VR, Vermillion, and many more can now offer the experience of applying paint to a digital canvas.

Virtual photography, another method, is a great way to show off VR fashion and recommend cool immersive maps to visit. I personally love photographs taken by Eson, Kosmik, and the map recommendation/photography site VRCList.

You can also argue that virtual worlds are art. This is why programs such as Raindance Immersive and the immersive portion of Venice Biennale celebrate these works every year, along with another art--virtual cinema.

But there's one more way to create art with VR now, and it's through a method I'm going to show you.

This is an extension of the practice of plein air painting. For more information about plein air, click here.

What Is A Virtual Plein Air?

A virtual plein air is when an artist creates a plein air painting with some sort of help from VR technology.

Virtual plein airs can be divided into three categories:

  • A physical-to-virtual plein air is when you utilize a VR headset with passthrough mode, such as a Quest 3 or Apple Vision Pro, and engage with a painting program (such as Vermillion or Painting VR) to create a digital plein air of a physical location. The location is in physical reality. Your canvas is in virtual reality. These painting programs will let you save your work as an image file when you're done.
  • A virtual-to-virtual plein air is when an artist creates a plein air painting in VR, from start to finish. Their subject is in VR. Their canvas is in VR, too. The canvas can either be sourced with a scripted canvas within that VR platform (such as VRChat, Resonite, or Cluster), or using a program such as Painting VR or Vermillion.
  • A virtual-to-physical plein air is what I'm going to cover in this article. Your subject is virtual. Your canvas is physical. Using a physical canvas and wearing a VR headset, you utilize blind contour drawing to lay down the initial composition of your work. Afterwards, you can make quick notes of the color and finish the painting in its entirety. This can even be done alla prima.

First, The Demo

To show the process of how a virtual-to-physical plein air works, here's a video of myself painting a tree in VR:


Gridism is a genre of art that depicts virtual worlds. I recognized this new form of art a few years ago, named it, and am still developing it. I think it’ll become common in about 15 years or so. Painted with a Quest 3 headset. #gridism #art #painting #gaming World in video: “Summer Forest” by Realmlist (VRChat) @Meta Quest

♬ Lavender Cappuccino - Muspace Lofi

Blind Contour Painting In VR

Wearing a VR headset while creating a blind contour drawing actually doesn't take away from the process of blind contour drawing at all. You aren't supposed to look at your canvas anyway, so using this skill for painting a VR scene physically seems perfect.

If you're using oil paints, you can lay down a quick layer of raw sienna to your initial layer. Afterwards, use burnt umber to tighten up the lines and correct the composition as you need. If you prefer another method of this, you can try wildly laying down color on top of the initial layer, and then doing another blind contour drawing on top with a far lighter tone--white, peach, or yellow.

So, What's Gridism?

Gridism is what I call art that's painted about virtual spaces. It differs from video game paintings, as it's about virtual worlds where people spend time, be it in Final Fantasy XIV or Resonite--there needs to be some culture there to get the most interesting results.

Around 2016, I was making art with various collectives and programs in Second Life. There was an active community there with galleries and experimental maps (and a giant art world by Patrick Moya). One summer, I dragged a friend into making art with me at a virtual workshop; I painted her avatar after she told me an amusing story. I then talked to another artist, Bryn Oh, who also said she painted her avatar on a canvas once, too.

It made me realize this was going to be the next step in fine art. There had already been the brain-breaking, Minecraft-famous artwork by Kristoffer Zetterstrand. Paintings were definitely going to begin to incorporate more of gaming and virtual spaces.

At the time, Second Life's nickname was "The Grid", which was nicknamed after TRON. So, I named the movement Gridism.

How Is An Artwork Gridist?

  • It's about a multiplayer world where people "live", or about having a virtual identity
  • It can be photos, paintings, drawings, or sculpture
  • One goal of Gridism is to get people to remember the places they love. Sometimes, worlds don't survive budget cuts. It's nice to have something to remember those worlds by, which is what can sell merch with titles like World of Warcraft.

I Think (x) or (y) Is Gridism Too...

That thing very well may be! I think when I created this name and began trying to classify virtual art around it, there are naturally questions about what's Gridist and what isn't. Is a professional sculpture of a Final Fantasy XIV character inherently Gridist, since it's art and a sculpture? I don't think it qualifies, but maybe other people would disagree with me.

I Think This Movement Should Be Called (X)

I definitely get that and I think one day that might be true. But my intent is to name, and give form to what I see already happening. I named it to help push the message of creating art with VR forward, and for galleries to recognize this movement and give it space on their walls one day.

If you're already a plein air painter and you're looking for a challenge, try painting with the method I've described. I look forward to where this idea goes.