On Art, Life and Shadows with Kent Trammell

  It’s January, and the small town of Geneva, Illinois is bitterly cold. We see our breath condensing in the freezing air and squeeze our fists to get the blood pumping into our numb fingers. With the annual CG Cookie company retreat in full swing, the main thing on everybody’s mind is how to get back from breakfast into the warm studio. Everybody’s - except Kent Trammell, who stops in his tracks: “Have you noticed the shadows on the snow? They are blue.”

Shadows on Snow

Say what? “It’s because the sky is blue, and blue fill-light on white surfaces makes the shadows look blue,” explains Kent with the familiar patience and clarity that resonates through his Blender tutorials.It is his calm, structured teaching style, together with his deep knowledge of 3D that has won him a wide following and praise as one of the most accomplished artists in the Blender community, but getting Kent to acknowledge his skills is not easy: “I still have a lot to learn,” he shrugs off compliments, “And sometimes I just get lucky.” You almost get a sense that he attributes his achievements to a higher power - and you may be right. Spirituality is a major theme in Kent’s life and has influenced his work since his childhood. Think nothing could be less spiritual than creating in 3D? Mr. Trammell begs to differ: “Spirituality is everything to me and it defines my work.” It certainly shows when meeting him in person; finally back at the CG Cookie studio and warming up in front of a fireplace, Kent radiates a composed, relaxed cool that instantly puts you at ease. He is quick to laugh but talks slowly, paying close attention to each word - the same level of attention, one might add, that you find reflected in his artwork - and elsewhere.And so, with Kent, even a chat about Blender and CG Cookie tutorials turns into a light philosophical debate about creativity, the meaning of art and, inevitably, his favorite dessert: rum cake. You begin to understand how Kent’s passion for matters of the spirit permeate into his creative process; for Kent, art is not an end in itself; rather, it’s his way of expressing his deep appreciation of the world and its beauty, his child-like awe at the minute details - just like the blue shadows cast on freshly fallen snow. “Spirituality is about having a sense of purpose and I am a big believer in art being purposeful,” explains Kent.


From Drawing to 3D

His propensity for spiritual matters may not come as a surprise given Kent’s Southern-American upbringing by choir-singing, deeply religious parents in Virginia. In addition to instilling traditional values, they fostered Kent’s love of drawing and creativity.“My mom tells a story of my 3-year old checkup at the doctor; he asked me to draw a circle and I picked up the pencil and drew a full figure of a baseball player, down to the last detail,” laughs Kent. “It seems that I really had an artistic bone from very early on!”But it was a long way from his pencil-wielding days to 3D; drawing remained Kent’s main medium of expression until high-school. And you wouldn’t find abstract artwork in any of his old sketchbook: his desire to capture the world around him truthfully has been his goal since the early days: “I very much come from a place of realism. Those who follow my CG Cookie tutorials are familiar with my Shader Forge series, which is all about re-creating realistic materials. It’s something I’ve spent my life doing: training myself to understand how light works and how materials behave.”With his family and friends commissioning him to draw their portraits, Kent honed his portrait drawing skill and acquired a deep knowledge of human faces, something that will come in handy later on.IMG_0285 (2)

The switch to 3D came in his teenage years and removed some of the limitations he was feeling when working with a pen and pencil: “I had a nerdy friend who was working on a computer game and asked me to help him create a weapon. It sounded like fun, so I opened my first-ever 3D program and couldn’t get enough of it. It gave me the feeling that I could just do anything and that fascination has lasted me to this day,” says Kent.

Starting in the Creative Industry

His passion for 3D has taken Kent a long way from Virginia; first, to Full Sail, a digital art college, with his graduating demo reel making top row at CGtalk.com and landing Kent his first gig in the industry. A dream come true for a fresh graduate, perhaps, but for Kent, something was missing: “In the industry, you are inevitably just an extension of somebody else’s creative vision, which started to wear on me.” In his free time, he found an outlet in creating online tutorials, the first of which, the “Realistic Head” series, caught the attention of CG Cookie’s Wes Burke. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Kent is CG Cookie’s head Blender trainer, together with Jonathan Williamson, and is responsible for the Blender tutorial production pipeline.sadEyes_02

For the Love of Blender

It is Blender, of course, that has made Kent a household name, but it has been his main tool for less than 4 years. Previously, Kent worked in Maya and 3D Max, but was quick to realize that the cost of commercial packages can be a serious hurdle: “Blender compliments the original draw that 3D held for me; it is limitless. Because it is open-source and free, it really embodies the no-boundary feeling you get when creating in 3D,” explains Kent in his usual style of connecting a particular observation with a wider context.Despite having worked in the 3D medium for over a decade, Kent is just getting started: “I feel like only in recent years did I start transitioning to actually being an artist. I’ve always been doing digital art, working at a commercial studio, working on movies, but I realized that a lot of of it was re-creation: enjoying a movie and re-creating a character without any input of your own is craft, more than it is art.”cobra_wip-1024x474

So does Kent consider himself an artist at this stage of his creative career? With his famous humbleness, he won’t even admit to that much: “I am just beginning to learn to express something genuine, something that is mine. That is still new to me and incredibly exciting.” It is this shift in thinking, from re-creation to making something uniquely his own, that has prompted Kent to explore his internal motives for making art and, owing to his inquisitive nature, ask himself what art is, in the first place. But it’s not all serious: “Sometimes, you just have to do something that’s cool and fun,” he adds. “I don’t think that my sci-fi helmet made me touch the innermost core of my artistry, but I sure as hell had a blast making it!”In search of his own voice, Kent has an aspiration that he is working towards: creating a full short film, which he considers the pinnacle of creativity for a digital artist.And what comes next? Kent is very clear about that: “With Blender becoming more and more respected in the industry, I see a bright future for the community and I will definitely stick around. I can’t really imagine any other kind of career.”

Seeing the World Through Fresh Eyes

In a path defined by transitions - from pencil to 3D, from Autodesk to Blender, from following the vision of others to creating his own - Kent recently stepped into another new role: he became a father. And as usual, his favorite role is that of a respectful observer, watching his 1-year old son toddle and explore the world. IMG_2666

It wouldn’t be Kent if he didn’t see this as a source of inspiration: “I love watching my son touch and explore different materials. As artists, that is how we should always approach our subject; not taking anything for granted or as being simple. Everything deserves study, respect and appreciation. That process taps into the spiritual sensation that is so satisfying and meaningful to me.”And coming from Kent, it rings true as a piece of advice to live by.

For the latest training by Kent, check out his Texturing of a Game Asset within the comprehensive Game Asset Learning Flow.  

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  • Mark Smith (me1958424)

    way cool piece... and peace!

  • Jody Stocks (jodyls27)

    This is very inspirational, thanks so much for the post.
    Congrats on your New Baby Boy Kent, Now everything changes for the better :)

  • anarchymedes

    When I was at school, in a different time and different place, our visual arts teacher forbade us two things. First, he never allowed us to *copy* anything, like sketching a vase. That, he said, was a purely physical skill and anyone can practice it. He wanted to look at our work and *feel what we felt when we created it* - even if technically it was as crude as the dubs of a three-year-old. And second, he told us never, ever to use so-called "achromatic" colours: white, grey, and black. He said that in nature, there are *no* such colours: just open your eyes and look. When I read about the blue shadows on the snow, I remembered it. And yes, when I feel - and like - *what* the artist/author is trying to say, I tend to forgive a lot about *how* he/she is saying it. Too perfect materials in 3D. Dodgy grammar and syntax in self-published books. Hoarse sound of the jamendo.com tracks. And so on. Those can always be improved; having nothing to say cannot.

  • Jonathan Fisher (jfishe25)

    Thank you, this is a great piece. Kent, keep up the good work-I've learned a lot from you.

  • designbybeck

    Great write up! Kent is my favorite Blender Instructor. Not only does he have amazing art and inspiring art, the way he delivers his instructions in the videos is top-notch! He's got the gift! I love his delivery, he doesn't go on tangents or try to randomly feel dead space by talking. He edits that out in a cut scene or timelapse. Even if he has keystrokes turned on, he still walks you through what node he is adding, or what setting through the entire menu tree. I find this very important in that, when you are trying to watch and listen to a tutorial at the same time you are trying to do it yourself, it is very helpful!!! I've watch many of his tutorials many times and if HE is still learning, boy do I have a long way to go! ;) Thanks!

  • Stanley Leland (wanderingmonk7)

    Thank you Kent for again sharing your knowledge in a fun concise style. I think you nailed it when you said you talent was showing at 3 years old. While study makes us all better able to utilize the gifts we have it is our God given talent that sets the greater boundary. This and a belief that there is more we don't know then we do know feeds our perpetual hunger and humbles us all.
    Once again, Well done.

  • Jasmine Wongus (jazze)

    I love this article, and I've only been here a little while. Kent, you are an amazing artist! Wow, from 3 years old you just knew a direction to follow! I think, to be able to both hone your skill and share it so others can further our own paths, is a beautiful thing. You and many other mentors really have been helping me understand things that I really wasn't able to grasp before. Thank you so much!

  • Ryan Sweeney (sweenist)

    Kent is a well defined mix of teacher, artist and entertainer. While Kent may not realize it, he is easily the most quotable of CG Cookie instructors. I'll think of some odd quip he said and I'll remember which course it was from, which, in its own way reinforces learning for me.

    Thanks for sharing this bio, Pavla! I love hearing about the personal side of the CG Cookie Crew. I'd love to have coffee or beer with any of you guys anytime! Ya'll're so neat!

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    Haha that's some of the most memorable feedback I've ever received, Ryan - Thank you! I truly hope we arrive at the day where we're enjoying a [sour] beer together.

  • billy-mabrey

    It's great to read a little bit about the man behind the curtains. I've learned a tremendous amount from Kent's tutorials. His Piero series is what brought me to CG cookie a few years ago.

  • Neil Jenkinson (daddios)

    I would agree with all the above comments I've learnt many or probably most of my limited 3D skills from Kent's tutorials. One day I will attempt a realistic head of my own. Keep up the exceLlent work.

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    So many kind comments. Thanks, guys :)

  • Ethan Hansen (hansen)

    Kent, we've only met once but I will say, that Saturday morning in Black Dog Coffeehouse was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The encouraging conversation with you and the rest of the CGC crew gave my creative motivation a huge boost, and is one of the reasons I'm working on my BFA in Graphic Design right now. Keep up the great work, I'll keep coming back for more.

  • Omar Domenech (dostovel)

    That part of the snow's blue shadow made me laugh out loud, I've watched the Snow Shader Forge tut a couple of times, and now seeing that characteristic written on the blog, told as a behind the scenes real life conversation, that fact feels like how a character in a movie makes his entrance. :)

    Wonderfully written Pavla. Stay awesome Kent, glad to have you as part of our lives, even if it's just virtually through the interwebs.

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    That's incredibly humbling to hear. Twas a good time at Black Dog! Hopefully we'll make it back to Kansas sooner rather than later, perhaps for the sequel :)

  • crew
    Kent Trammell (theluthier)

    Haha you've in turn made me laugh :D It's an honor to be a part of virtual interweb life!

  • v0rt3x

    I think Kent has been an amazing addition to the cgcookie team and his care and attention to details really shows in the professionalism of his tutorials and finished products. Honestly I stop following along with some of the tutorials when I get my model to its own meek satisfaction but I still watch the rest in awe of what can be done when you really begin mastering the tools. (I agree rigging is very polarizing activity). Congratulations on fatherhood, it is a big responsibility and takes a lot of hard work. I have given my own children pencils and crayons and they give me the gift of writing on the walls, doors, chairs hehe.. Sooner or later they will begin harnessing the power of the tools soon. Take lots of pictures, they grow up fast.

    Good luck on the short film. I will definitely watch it, even though I saw free birds(j/k).

  • kaninepete

    Articles like this really out my experience of this site. Peeking behind the curtains make me feel like I'm among friends. Similarly, the chat feature bring an intimacy to CG Cookie, that I don't feel very often.

    Thank you all.

  • crew
    Pavla Karon (pkaron)

    Thanks so much and you are most definitely among friends here in the Cookie oven! :)

  • Tyrone Hunt (tyrone7)

    See its articles like this that make me happy that blender exist. I've used other 3d software in the past which has nice features and all but doesn't really seem to be geared towards the artist. Blender I believe was made for artists like kent, Johnathan, myself and my others on here in cgcookie. I to am searching for my own voice ans have for years. I've been away from art for far to long and as of last year getting back into it. I re picked up blender back in July and with Johnathan and Kents help I have gone way further in this awesome program then I ever did using it back in 2006 when I was using it to me things in secondlife

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