Featured Artist: Brad Groatman

“I’m just here for the polygons,” reads Brad Groatman’s Twitter.

This witty CG artist holds a special place here in the Digital-Tutors community. Not only has he contributed two tutorials---Animated Turntable Techniques in Zbrush and AfterEffects and Modeling a Mech Robot in ZBrush--- Brad was the very first subscriber to Digital-Tutors. This self-described caffeine dependent is a high school teacher by day and artist by night, so we were thrilled when we found Brad had time to let us pick his brain.


Digital-Tutors: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself? Brad Groatman: I have always been a person whose attraction to the creative arts has far outweighed my ability to excel in it.  What 3D programs offer is the combination of unlimited creative potential (there’s nothing they can’t do) and, just as importantly, a forgiving kind of filter for my many artistic shortcomings: while I may have trouble physically getting my hand to draw the character I have in mind, I can usually find my way there using polygons and curves; my animated characters can enunciate far better than I – or better yet, they don’t have to speak at all. And hitting the “undo” button, even if I do it at an embarrassingly high rate, is far less demoralizing than the slow, sad process of my erasing an errant pencil stroke over and over again. In short, the process of modeling, rigging, animating, texturing, lighting, and rendering my own work offers a more direct pipeline into what makes creative endeavors so wonderfully addictive: I get to tap into the spirit of creativity while enjoying a kind of escape from the unpleasant reality of my own limitations. I’d taught English Literature for eleven years, and moved into 3D Character Animation/Design in 2010 when I created the curriculum and got the classes instituted. In the meantime, I had obtained an MFA in Animation and Visual Effects from the Academy of Art University. It should be noted that through my previous years of watching Digital-Tutors training, the material covered by the graduate school classes was well-worn territory. I couldn’t have been better prepared. Digital-Tutors: What are you currently working on? Currently I’m working on a number of projects, some more ambitious than others. I’m in the very early stages of creating another animated short, which is essentially, like most of the work I do, really a glorified training exercise and an excuse to try new things and learn more about the process; and as always, I’m working on developing project-based tutorials, though I’m splitting that time with becoming more familiar with other programs I haven’t used as frequently. I want to become more comfortable with Nuke, for example, as well as MARI, Softimage, and modo. That’s the thing – working on larger projects always tends to compete with trying to become more skilled in using programs which might aid in working on larger projects, so it’s a never-ending cycle of the work driving the training, which in turn inspires the work. It ensures, at the very least, that as an artist you’ll never have a chance to get complacent!


Digital-Tutors: We see you graduated from Princeton, quite an achievement. Had the thought of being a CG artist even crossed your mind yet while you were at Princeton? Brad Groatman: If only! But I entered Princeton as a freshman in 1992 and Toy Story was still three years away, so the idea of CG art wasn’t even really on the radar at the time. Back then, computers were almost exclusively used for writing papers and, well, playing Civilization – we had only just started having computers available which had more than 1 megabyte of RAM! Oh, and there were rumblings of this new thing called the “World Wide Web,” but we figured that would never amount to much. So I, in following the great tradition of animators and modelers before me, majored in Political Theory. It will serve me well if I ever create an animated short about the trial of Socrates. Ooh, that might be an idea…


Digital-Tutors: What advice do you give developing students who are thinking of becoming a professional artist? Brad Groatman: The main thing, for me, is that they ought never to be satisfied. That sounds like a recipe for misery, but I think it’s true. There will never be a time when you have exhausted all you can learn about a modeling technique, or a sculpting program, or the world in general. The singular characteristic that unites all artists, in my mind, is that our minds are always hungry and grasping at something just beyond our reach – whether it be through our obsessing over minute details on a model, trying to capture that little nuance that gives a character’s animation that spark of life, or exploring every last nook and cranny of a software package’s capabilities, the key to creating art that inspires is pushing yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with and into that wonderfully uncharted realm of what you’re capable of. Digital-Tutors: Can you tell us a little bit about the role Digital-Tutors has played in your CG career? Brad Groatman: That’s an easy one! Without Digital-Tutors, I simply wouldn’t have a CG career. I remember when I first learned that programs like Maya were actually available to students and artists who weren’t working in a big studio, and I was both floored by what these programs were capable of and intimidated by the prospect of learning them. Books are helpful, no question, but to someone who had never done anything of this sort, they merely added to the feeling that I may have been out of my depth. When I finally came across Digital-Tutors and ordered the Intro to Maya DVD – I can’t tell you what a feeling it was to be granted access to the possibilities this art form offers. I remember finishing that little orange jet bike and starting at the screen for a long time, amazed at just the idea of how much now lay open for discovery. It’s hard to convey just what a life-changing event that was for me. I’m actually getting a little teary-eyed just thinking about it! Cut to a few months later, I have stacks of Digital-Tutors DVDs all over my office, and I learn that you’re changing to a subscription service in which we could get access to your whole library. The WHOLE LIBRARY! You’re darn right I was the first one to sign up! I was watching the clock until it hit midnight! I can tell you that night was the single least productive night I ever had, because I was like a kid in a candy store. I would watch part of one tutorial and then run to another, and another, just to convince myself that it was actually true – I could learn anything at any time now. Wow. And the rate at which you add new training is staggering. You guys have yourself a lifetime member, I can tell you that much.


Digital-Tutors: What is your favorite piece of work you have done or project you’ve worked on? Brad Groatman: Oh boy. The problem with that is that I tend to learn a little bit with every new project I do – so that by the time I’ve finished it, all I can see is its flaws and I’m already wishing I could do it over and apply what I’d learned while doing it! So it is typically the case that the most recent thing I’ve done is the thing I find least objectionable, and an image called “Illumination” I created for a recent Creative Development tutorial is something which actually turned out close to what I had hoped, so let’s give that one the honors! The image features an old man surrounded by books in a musty, dark study, and he’s peering into an open volume on his desk. The book’s words are giving off a light that illuminates his face – a rather clumsy metaphor, sure, but I like it! This project incorporated my standard beloved triumvirate of Maya, ZBrush and After Effects, with a little Photoshop mixed in for some of the texturing of the books. bh bhjk 5 9

But in looking at the image a little more closely, the repetitive textures of the books bother me to no end. And, in keeping with my tendency to effectively avoid finding anything satisfying, I also can’t help but think that the lighting would be better in more skilled hands. Yes, I know I had just said it turned out the way I had hoped – but the problem is that I suspect my expectations were limited by my comparatively rudimentary understanding of lighting, and as such I can’t help but feel that a more experienced artist could have found a way to make this image far more effectively lit. Sigh. Now I don’t know if I like the lighting at all. See, this is why I have to keep learning – to avoid these routine bouts of post-render self-doubt!

New Image

Digital-Tutors: What inspires or motivates you as an artist? Brad Groatman: Two things: first, the realization that the power of this medium is unlimited, and that there is no environment, character, effect, or concept that cannot be realized if you’re willing to work hard enough to achieve it. For anyone with an active imagination, the idea of an infinite number of possibilities is far too rich to pass up. With that in mind, there’s simply no excuse not to keep pushing forward and seeing what else my little brain might be able to come up with. Second, the work of other artists, which is a testament to the infinite possibilities just alluded to, is more than enough motivation to get me back at the sketch pad or the tablet: when you see what others have done, that’s when the abstract notion of potential discussed above takes on tangible form, and the power of that is hard to overstate. There really is no greater thrill than the feeling that what was initially a mere ghost of an idea can eventually take shape and then be given the capacity to move around in a world of your own making. If the ability to create an entire world’s not enough of a motivator for someone, I’m not sure what would be. Digital-Tutors: Do you have any advice for someone trying to discover their own style? Brad Groatman: I think that only comes with time: at first, when you’re trying to learn how to work in a new medium, your primary concern is getting technique down, and it makes sense to emulate other artists in the process because it removes one variable and allows you to focus on the mechanics. I think it’s only when you have enough confidence in your technical ability with the program in question that you can take off the training wheels, so to speak, and see what you can come up with without the safety net of another artist’s work to guide you.

The one thing I try to tell my students (and myself!) is that the artist him- or herself is typically the worst judge of his or her own style, because to truly assess such a thing you have to come at it from an outside perspective, and that’s the one thing the artist himself cannot do. I imagine many artists can’t help but see less originality in their own work because the process they followed in creating it is, to them, the most familiar one, and so what may strike me as a fresh new approach might seem terribly commonplace to the person who came up with it. The minute you doubt your own approach to your craft is the minute you begin searching for validation through imitation, and I think that will ultimately be an unfulfilling path to take. I may be mediocre in a lot of areas, but at least my mediocrity is uniquely mine!


Digital-Tutors: Where do you see yourself and your art going next? Brad Groatman- I don’t think there will ever be a time when I’m not acutely aware of how much more there is to learn.  I’ve been working with 3D applications now for about seven years, and I still don’t feel like I’m remotely close to unlocking all of their secrets. There is still a ton to learn about color theory, composition, lighting, and scripting. There are still too many rigs out there I cannot yet figure out how to make on my own. Node-based compositing is still a jumbled mess to my eyes. There are entire menus in ZBrush I haven’t explored. And even if I manage to get through ALL of that, by the time I do, there will be new versions of these programs with even more to figure out. Then I’ll go to my fellow artists’ web sites and see more beautifully inspiring work that gets me running back to the drawing board to try new things. It’s a wonderfully unending cycle of discovery and creation, and it’s one I’m happy to be part of. Digital-Tutors: Big thanks for your time. Any last things you’d like to share with the world? Brad Groatman: The only thing more amazing and awe-inspiring than the universe is the fact that we have the capacity to explore and appreciate it through creating art. So what are you waiting for?

 More of Brad's work Be sure to watch for Brad's new course, Creating an Aged Character and Artifacts in ZBrush and Maya, that is coming this month!

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