Even the simplest 3D design apps are very different from traditional digital drawing tools – but  Mental Canvas looks to be a 3D drawing tool that even an artist or designer who primarily uses a pencil rather than Photoshop's Pencil tool could easily master.

In use, the likes of Google's SketchUp 3D 'sketching' app are more like Illustrator than Photoshop (or Corel Painter, ProCreate and the like). Everything is comprised of geometric shapes and lines that you precisely set and adjust using your cursor, and combine to create objects that have a vector look to them - which is great for some projects but not for others. Along with this creative process is a vocabulary of its own, a lexicon that's drawn from these tools birth in the CAD or animation world and can be slightly baffling to those from an art, illustration or graphic design background.

Mental Canvas is a drawing tool through and through. As we saw in a demo from its creator, you draw with a pencil or brush as if you're on a layer in Photoshop (again, or Painter, ProCreate etc). What makes it special is that you can move around the drawing space in 3D, choosing the angle of your layer before you start drawing. Even if you're a 3D artist who knows subdivision surfaces from subsurface scattering, there's a trad-art feel to its output that would take a lot longer to create in Cinema 4D or Maya.

A world of many canvases

In our demo which is still in development, we were shown a street scene being created. The artist drew the side of a building, then changed angle to draw another side. Another movement and there was a roof, then a building on the other side of the street.

Everything had a hand-drawn look, somewhat sketchy but created in the same amount of time it would take to do a traditional sketch. But instead of the sketch being fixed, it existed in a 3D world that you could move through (or create flythroughs of). Okay, everything in that 3D world was flat, feeling a bit like a Victorian paper theatre, but there's a certain charm to that.

Most of the examples we’ve seen of drawings and paintings created in Mental Canvas have a sketchy roughness to them, but it seems possible to create more polished pieces – as its developers add more tools in future update. And even the ability to create rough drawings could appeal to creatives from cartoonists and artists (with a deliberately sketchy style) to architects and set designers – to 3D artists looking for a quick way to sketch scenes that will be modelled, animated and/or rendered using more complex 3D tools.

Born in a university lab

Mental Canvas was conceived by Julie Dorsey, a computer science professor at Yale University in Connecticut, USA, who is also the CEO of its development company (also called Mental Canvas). Its creation began as a research project in Julie’s lab, and grew into a full app through a university programme to help turn such projects into commercially successful products. It was then further supported by Microsoft Research, with Microsoft using the app in the promotion of its new Surface Studio all-in-one computer/graphics tablet (the demo we saw was also on a Surface Studio). Read: Surface Studio hands-on review.

Support for the Surface Studio’s Dial hardware control wheel is well built into Mental Canvas. You can spin the dial to affect certain parameters, but where you put the dial on the screen it can change which parameters you affect. Putting the Dial near where you’re drawing lets it control stroke width, for example – where as moving it to the other end of the screen could trigger undos or different positions in 3D space.

You’ll also be able to use other pen and control systems – such as Wacom’s.

Mental Canvas release date and price

Mental Canvas is currently in a closed beta programme with architects, storyboard and comic artists – and even researchers at Mount Sinai’s Brain Injury Research Center in New York.

Julie says that she expects it to be commercially released for Windows next year, after an update for Windows 10 that Microsoft has dubbed the Creators Update. A Mac version is likely to follow. Pricing has yet to be announced – though Julie expects its to be sold using a subscription model a la Adobe’s Creative Cloud.

Even though Mental Canvas isn’t out yet, Julie already has big ideas for where Mental Canvas could go in the future. Collaborative drawing is a feature she’d really like to add – either with artists collaborating on a big screen like Microsoft’s Surface Hub – or via a Web browser, which she calls “Minecraft for sketching."