Modelers Create Life - Featured Tutor Interview with Matthew Kean

Matthew Kean, 2D turned 3D character artist and digital modeler, has done everything from toy and large foam design (we’re talking floats here) to film and game modeling. In this interview, you’ll get great advice on how to grow as an artist. You’ll also see how what started as a way for Matthew to make extra cash in college has turned into a life-long pursuit to push his creative limits, from learning through teaching to modeling beside some of the biggest names in the industry.
Q Thank you for talking with us! Could you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and some of the work you are currently involved with?
Well thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to you guys. I wasn't always focused on being an artist. In actuality I was set on being a zoologist. To this day I credit my knowledge of anatomy to my love of animals. I ended up moving to art when it was time to go to college. There were two career paths in front of me, and though I did have a hand in both (I was always artistically driven), I ended up going down the art path. Thankfully, I haven't regretted that decision! I started in a professional arena fairly early on, getting my first publication my sophomore year of college, and I was teaching private courses in 3D while still in my last year college.

What started as a side job just to get cash in my pockets opened me up to a real love of teaching, something up until that point I really had no interest in. I’m glad it did, because every teaching effort I’ve done (Digital-Tutors included) has always been a real high point in my personal record of things. I think the idea of teaching and being in a communal learning environment has really helped in a studio setting, as well as keeping my head on the ground.

Right now, I’m freelancing on two projects that are, unfortunately, both under non-disclosure agreements. I can say that one is a game though!

Q Your educational background is in illustration but then you taught yourself 3D and made it your new path. What inspired you to make the switch?

Yes, that is true. My BFA is in Illustration. I was doing 3D before I got into college though. I decided that, if I was going to go into an art school setting, I would attempt to learn 3D and 2D art together, as I felt one begets the other. 3D was a self-defined pursuit, and I am truly appreciative for the amazing 3D community in helping me along the way.

There were things that I felt were very limiting about being in only two dimensions. There were parts of me that I thought could be better expressed in a realm where those limitations were removed. I’ve always been attracted to sculpture and so I began looking towards programs that helped emulate what it was that I thought to be really moving art (which in my case was almost always a sculpture). In my mind, 3D had more professional outlets and was a more grounded career choice.

Q Movies, games and even toy designs are under your belt. What project sticks out in your mind the most and why?
My answer is easy: the first beta I did with Pixologic for Zbrush 4r2. I was so young at the time and green. Here I was testing out a new feature they were implementing called DynaMesh. Pixologic set up a special website for us to work and communicate ideas about the program and art in general.
I remember sculpting and modeling alongside some of the biggest names in the industry. And here I was, for a moment, on their level – just for the moment of course! I was so nervous, seeing as, as far as betas go; it was a very unique set up that really allowed for communal interactions. The nerves really helped propel me on, and though I don’t think my work was anything stellar, I do know it was a great learning experience. The exposure from that project really helped start my professional freelance career.
Q How has your experience teaching at the Yard School of Art, Digital-Tutors and even with our friends at Pixologic, benefited your growth as an artist?
I think teaching in general has an amazing humbling quality to it. It truly shows you what you don’t actually know. It also forces you to understand how to genuinely trust others and how to communicate ideas in a concise way. Teaching really grounds all the ideas you’ve learned up until that point. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve actually learned from the classes I’ve taught. It also helps that I’ve taught multiple levels and ages, which tests your ability to shrink ideas into bite-size pieces. For that you must really understand the topic you are teaching.

As far as artistically, beyond what I’ve already said, I’ve learned to trust another set of eyes even if those eyes aren’t nearly as experienced as mine. I’ve also learned to never underestimate myself or anyone else, because I’ve seen greatness come out of my students – even those that some people had given up on. Teaching has been invaluable to not only my artistic career, but also my personal life. The beta testing had me working along side my idols, and showed me that you can always learn another way of doing something.
Q What’s the most difficult part about what you do and how do you “get in the zone” and conquer it?

Hmm. Well, there are a few difficult parts of my job. I would say retopology is pretty tough to get just right. For that I just pop a song on, try to zone out and get taken over by the monotony of it. I think that the key, with any part of the pipeline, is to simply not fight it but settle into it. Concepts can be tough, and sometimes the most difficulty I have is simply creating the concepts I need.

I try and create something every day. It’s really important to not become stagnant in your work. I’ll do maybe four or five sketches until I get one I really like. I’ll still post them all because it’s important to remind yourself of your thought process. You can always go back and sample ideas from one concept into another.

Q Tell us about the work that earned you several editors’ choice awards. That’s pretty impressive!
Well, thank you. Though I don’t really know why I got them! There were four images that received that honor, whether it be a top row feature on a website such as CgHub or actually in a publication such as 3D Artist Magazine. All were final illustrations started from 3D sketches I did just to get ideas out of my head. Committing to an idea is difficult and so it’s best to try and move to finish a few at a time, understanding that usually you’ll end up fully finishing only one. That’s the one you show. There’s really no secret here. Just get your artwork out there! Post as much of your work in as many places as you can. You’ll eventually get noticed. The real skill is figuring out how to do this and not be annoying about it!

Q What is one reason you love to do what you do?
In the pipeline I am the creator. I give life to the concept. Yes, the animator makes it move and feel alive, but the modeler creates life – the ideas from which it all comes from.
Q Is there a favorite piece of advice you like to share to those breaking out into the world of 3D?
Trust the community. The world of CG has some of the most amazing members in it. With free tutorials and low-cost, complete courses (such as the ones provided by Digital-Tutors), as well as the wealth of forums and members willing to give you a hand figuring out a concept or model, it’s the only industry where a legendary veteran and a novice could be on the same forum thread critiquing the same piece. You have a direct line to all the artists you find stellar. Never be afraid to ask for help, or to show off your work. Just make sure you’re polite about it.
Q You’re pretty active online sharing your designs and it looks like you’re always creating art – even to unwind! What do you like to do when you’re not designing?
Eating! I LOVE FOOD. Healthy foods of course though. I enjoy trying new things to sample – food from all over the world. I also do try get out to the occasional zoo and aquarium now and again, same for museums. It’s good to get away from it a bit and reconnect with the world. It also helps to reconnect to other forms of art. As I said before, my illustration begets my concepts in 3D. The ideas you find in the other realms of art really do aid you when you get back and are ready to create.

Q Thanks for your time! Any last things you’d like to share with up-and-coming designers before we go?

Always be open for new projects because you never know what may come of them. I’m always available to talk freelances and new projects.

Also be kind. It’s not really an art idea, but its something that benefits all careers. The world is too small, and time is too short to be anything other than open and kind with others. Bridges get burned far too easily nowadays to be anything else.

See more from Matthew now by visiting his Digital-Tutors Tutor Profile and watching his latest tutorial on Realistic Character Using dDo in Photoshop. Be sure not to miss his other tutorial either on High Resolution Game Character Creation Pipeline in ZBrush and Maya. You can also find him on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and his website –