Paul McMahon is a 3D artist based in Ireland, specialized in colourful, vibrant and very playful illustrations, as he defines himself.
I discovered Paul’s work some time ago, with his project “On the Run”. I found his cars very interesting for several reasons: they were fun to watch, very well designed, creative, and also highly detailed. This last part was interesting too. Paul didn’t take the same path as other 3d artists, making simple 3D cute models. He created a story for each car by adding many details in each texture he made. As a result, each vehicle seem to have lived for many years, seem in a way alive, and that’s the reason why I like them very much 🙂
But Paul McMahon has a lot of others great projects too that you’ll discover below, something with other 3D artists. And that’s not enough. Paul is a very generous guy, who will tell us in depth and honestly how he came into the 3D world, how he began his career, Cinema 4D, how he loves Nick Campbell and Andrew Kramer, and will explain to us his successes, his difficulties, and a lot of good tips and anecdotes.
Paul McMahon – Digital portrait of a playful 3D artist
Hello Paul. Can you describe yourself for the readers?
Hey Nicolas, sure thing! I’m Paul, a designer and creative director living and working remotely in Donegal, Ireland. My work tends to be very playful and stylized. It’s usually very colourful and vibrant. I always try to make my work look good enough to eat! 😀
I studied classical animation in Dublin for three years and did my final year in Wolverhampton University. By time the fourth year dragged around, I hated animation. I learned that I couldn’t draw and the course was fundamentally built around classical animation. I felt I had to leave with something so I stuck around for the degree, but really I wasn’t happy by the end of it. I came back home to Ireland and got a job in a factory to repay my student loans.
The recession hit Ireland pretty hard and lots of factories closed. I was one of the unfortunate people to be hired last so I was the first to go. After two years of factory work and no income, I had to move to the west of Ireland so I could find somewhere more affordable to live…it was either that or back home. I chose the west!
In Leitrim, I was unemployed for quite a while. Six years in fact! I didn’t know I was going to be jobless that long. I moved to a tiny village of 300 people. I had a very affordable place to live on my benefits but there was no work to be found. The months rolled by and things go worse. I was stuck in a catch 22 situation. I had no money or savings left to move to some town or city with jobs and where I lived was so small – there was one shop and one pub!
I started back into creative things. I picked up Photoshop and then remembered people in class talking about After Effects and how great it was. I gave it a try and found it a fun way to make the days go by. I really started loving motion graphics and discovered Andrew Kramer. I remember getting really excited about each new tutorial. I would refresh his blog so often to see if I missed a new one! He was a savour of mine in a time when I was feeling very low. He would mostly do 2D tutorials and whenever he did tutorials that required 3D, I would dread them haha. He would open 3ds Max and I just sat there and watched it.
I remember in college, we had some 3D animation classes and we had to learn 3ds Max. I found it impossibly hard. I hated it. Whenever Andrew would create a tutorial using Krakatoa or Fume FX I would just sit back and watch, and wish he was doing something more fun! Then one day, he was doing a 3D tutorial and I was about to switch off, when he said he was trying out this new software. He was saying how it’s different to Max. He opened CINEMA 4D R11.5 and I was absolutely blown away.
I remember getting goosebumps just watching it. I couldn’t believe it. If he had to create something simple like a cube it was right there! No dragging and drawing out and adjusting. Just there it was. It sounds like a silly thing to be amazed by but to me it was incredulous. I couldn’t believe there was a 3D application that was accessible to people who found Max and Maya too difficult. I was hooked immediately.
Within no time at all I then started searching for C4D tutorials and was introduced to the great Nick Campbell. I owe so much of my career to GreyscaleGorilla. There’s no way I can thank him enough for what he’s done for me and for the community…if you’re reading this Nick, thanks man! 🙂
I would rely on tutorials from GreyscaleGorilla for a very long time while I was striving to become a better artist. I was amazed by the new (at the time) MoGraph engine. I loved learning as much as I could but I knew deep down that something was changing. Nick loved his fresnel spheres back then! I’m pretty sure he still does now, but I just remember vividly scrolling through comments left on tutorials of other artists saying how much they also love fresnel spheres.
I wasn’t such a fan and I would look for comments to see if anyone else agreed. They were few and far between. I started to feel I needed to do something different. I needed to express myself differently because I just wasn’t getting the same kick from perfectly reflective surfaces. I loved aged and worn stuff at the time. I loved retro toys and kitchen appliances. I was drawn to more rounded, fun shapes with layers of paint.
I remember watching an animation called “Lost and Found”. It was one of those animations that the BBC play on Christmas Day. They still do it. “Lost and Found” is a beautiful, warm story written by Oliver Jeffers about a boy trying to help a Penguin get back home. I adored the textures that Studio AKA created for the piece. I knew there and then that I had to try recreate them but I also knew what it entailed. It meant I had to learn UV mapping.
So I sat down for six months and searched YouTube for every BodyPaint tutorial. When I learned enough about UV mapping I started painting them, first trying Photoshop but quickly moving over to Corel Painter. The brush strokes in Corel Painter were far more realistic and fun to use. Once I started painting my work I felt I had to brand myself. I didn’t like fresnel work. I like something that was layered and aged. I loved worn and used items.
From then I decided to call myself “The Rusted Pixel”. That’s pretty much the origin of my brand.
Phew! Pretty long answer covering a long time period for one question!
Can you tell us more about your clients and which projects you mostly work on? in which areas?
Last year I worked with Google LA and Google San Francisco for three months on a pretty exciting project.
Before that, I worked for Hotel Trivago on some advertising campaigns for Spain.
I was very fortunate to have the help of Ruben. He’s a wonderful 3D artist with great design and rendering skills. I actually worked with Ruben on a client project the month before. It was the first time we worked together. We’d been friends on social media but that was our first time. I was amazed by Rubens speed of work and the quality he output. When I heard this job was for Spain I jumped at the chance to also get him onboard to help out. It was an intense job with lots of shifting time scales but I think the end result turned out very well. It’s something we’re both very proud of.
I’ve worked for other brands such as Snapchat, Disney Jr., ESPN and Three mobile, but I generally find the more exciting projects are the smaller brands or less well known labels. The big companies have a very strict idea of what they want and they seem to move slower and change even less. The smaller companies are always up for something fun and innovative. I worked with a toy company in San Francisco last year and I had two months of freedom to pretty much create whatever I want!
” All good collaborations and good personal projects
will have you come out the other end a better artist than you started! “
First of all, I would like to talk about your project All The Things. I laughed very hard while watching it! It’s very funny, very well executed. And you were several artists working on it as it seems. Can you tell us more about the genesis of this project and its goal?
I’d love to tell you and your readers more about “All the Things”.
It’s a pivotal project for me and means a lot to my brand and the other artists who worked on it too. So best start at the start!
My good friend and extremely talented animator Chris Guyot and I were working on “On the Run”. We were doing test animation scenes trying to get a nice blend of 3D and 2D animation. “On the Run” had taken me months to complete the first stage of it and we were trying to nail down a good story while creating fun animation tests. It was a slow burning project and really was just not going anywhere. I needed to work on something else to break free from it and just work on something smaller for a bit. I decided, rather than make something brand new, I’ll dig out a hard drive and start reworking some unfinished projects. I didn’t want to get pulled away from “On the Run” but I needed a break.
I found fifteen or so projects that I liked. I was trying to decide which to complete. I was thinking about the main scene of each piece. The money shot! The most interesting and fun shot. I wasn’t overly interested in the story before or after the main shot. I started thinking if it was possible to tell a whole bunch of different narratives really quickly without having them tied to each other in any way. Sort of like “The Fast Show”. It’s a comedy show in the UK with very fast paced scenes. I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work. At the time I was calling the project “A Common Thread”. It wasn’t til a year later into production that Chris renamed it “All the Things”. The name was one of the very last things we decided upon.
I was working on this project for a week or two when I mentioned it to Chris in a casual conversation like we’re always having each day. He was immediately hooked on the idea and really wanted to put it to work for us. Within a very short time we cut the scenes down to twelve then nine and finally eight. We picked out our favorite eight narratives and began designing and animating.
At the time I was unemployed (again!) while Chris was freelancing so I had more time to design and throughout the day I’d send Chris new model ideas and screenshots. Chris was extremely dedicated to the job as he always is. I’ve never seen anyone with so much passion for what they do. It’s a real credit to him. He would come home from a long day of work and animate the models for hours. He’d redo work without hesitation just to make the shot perfect. He was such a driving force for the piece.
Over the months we found both our skills improving. It was worryingly noticeable at times. We’d look back on earlier scenes we created months back and the quality no longer matched. They were too bare or too simple. We had to go back and bring them up to the quality of the newer work.
At the time we both worked in Vray and we wanted to render out work quickly so we worked in just clay renders. When, one day, I just used yellow to shade everything in the scene we were both in agreement it was going to work. Our main worry at the time was how to bring 8 different stories together. My original name “A Common Thread” was going to be something running through the scenes. We were going to have a large ribbon running in the background of each shot.
For robots it would be wires or a circuit board. It would become a flag for the turret scene or a pavement for the city shot. When I stumbled on this idea of colour blocking the entire shot we felt we found or mechanic to tie the project together…the thread idea was dropped instantly.
Towards the end of the project Chris brought John Poon aboard and I couldn’t be happier to have been introduced to him. John added a layer of magic to it that neither of us could have done alone. We tried creating our own sound and we tried soundtracks we liked but when John got his hands on each scene he lifted it to a whole new level.
He made it seem completely effortless. As the scenes were pumped out we made some suggestions but gave John the freedom to create what he felt best. It was my first time working with a sound designer so I didn’t really know how to give feedback. I never really thought of sound and how to use it. By the end I had a much stronger understanding for it. All good collaborations and good personal projects will have you come out the other end a better artist than you started!
As I can see, your style is very colorful and a bit childish. Where did you get that taste for cartoon cars and pop colors?
I think I’ve always been drawn to childish and colourful work. I always try to get that Saturday morning cartoon vibe running through my work. Cartoons like “Dexters Laboratory”, “Angry Beavers” or “Rocko’s Modern Life”. Funky little cartoons with lots of hard shapes and corners. I grew up on those cartoons and watched them long into my teens and twenties too! I never grew out of it. I like to try add an edge to my work to differentiate it from other well known and established 3d modelling artists.
Regarding the colour, that was a later thing. I started out on muted, handpainted textures for “On the Run” but as time passed my taste changed and I pushed more towards vibrant primary colours. Instead of going for soft palettes I went more dramatic and used large slabs of colour to really burst off the monitor when viewed.
Your “On the Run” cars seem made for paper toys. It’s a really cool project, where each car is hilarious. What strikes me the most on one hand the basic shapes of the cars, and on the other hand, the meticulousness of the textures and all the funny details. How did you come up with this great idea?
I think the idea of handpainted textures came out of stubbornness of all places! It sounds strange but as I was working on the vehicles, and uploading work in progress images to social media everyone would comment or message me saying they can’t wait to see the cars in shiny, bright textures.
I would tell close friends I’m planning to paint them in a water colour style, and the reactions I got was always one of confusion. I could see it in my head how it would turn out but when I was trying to explain it nobody would get it. Most were certain that the typical cartoon styled car should be bright and colourful so I decided to do something different. I try, when I can, to not do the usual thing and surprise people with something new.
I had hand painted a few projects here and there but none to a vast extent. I was working on the cars at the time and felt maybe I should just go for it. The family saloon model turned out so well that I was convinced it was the right way to go.
When I was modelling them, I wanted this idea of large areas of no detail at all. Just big side panels or long bonnets followed by areas of concentrated detail around the wheel and wheel arches. Most designers at the time were doing the low poly thing of hexagon wheels. They allowed themselves to be pigeon holed into a style…”if the car is low poly and I’m going with as few details as possible that means the wheels have to be low poly and I can only use a hexagon wheel”. This thinking used to annoy me so much. I hate seeing low poly wheels they look terrible. So I just used very high detail, tiny wheels and that was the signature for the project. If it needed to be detailed it was going to be detailed and I wasn’t conforming to the idea that everything must be low poly.
Then months later as I was still on the project and I was thinking whether or not to paint everything as it’s not really a done thing, I remembered my thinking on the wheels and the level of detail and thought, I’m not conforming to what people expect. I’m doing something different! I’m glad I did. It turned out pretty nice, very labor intensive and time consuming. Which is the main reason I haven’t returned to the project or that style but I found it hugely enjoyable to spend ten hours just painting rough edges along every seam. It didn’t feel like a chore at all.
” It’s good to have a stylistic theme
running through your body of work “
You have another collaborative project called “Bottled up”, also with great names of the 3D community. It’s a very cool project, with lot of great ideas. Beyond the desire to work with other artists, what are you looking for when you do collective projects? Is it important for your own notoriety and helps you find new customers?
When I first started out in design it was just me learning. I wasn’t moving in any particular direction nor did I want to achieve anything much. I was just really enjoying doing something new and creative.
As time passed and I started etching out a style that felt fun and exciting, I moved more down those paths. I moved away from mograph and own the modelling route then down the UV mapping route in BodyPaint. I would attempt to make small projects to trial a style or painterly look.
By time I pushed out enough small scale projects, I was ready to do something larger so I made “On the Run”.
It was a huge project that took months but being a designer I wanted to stay true to my own vision, so I would work for hours into the night and not go out at weekends. Instead staying at home painting and scratching worn edges on a model. It was really intensive and really slow but I was totally closed off to the idea of someone else joining to help out, as I was really worried they would take too much creative control and take the project in a direction I wasn’t overly pleased with.
As ideas grow in size and complexity – because really you have to keep trying to up your game to attract new customers! – I came round to the idea that maybe instead of trying to learn to animate, compose, edit and all the other things that I didn’t know, that I would collaborate with other friends and designers. It allowed me to work on the modelling and design while Chris could work on the animation and everything that it involved.
Neither of us were great at rigging and weight painting at the time, so it was something we both benefited from in that regard.
“Bottled Up” was a different beast altogether. It was a really interesting concept cooked up by Chris Guyot. He wanted to get his favorite artists to work on one large project. Everyone was given a scene file with a glass jar and base with shelf and wall backdrop. We then had to choose an emotion of any kind and represent it in 3D.
I chose to create a bee on a flower but all the objects are made from computer parts. The idea of objects made from components was something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I wanted to create an entire museum of objects that would work through perpetual motion. Usually my ideas are quite upbeat and carefree, but I’ve always wanted to do something a little darker. The story was that all plant and animal life has been pretty much eradicated from earth and so, to try save some ideas of how these ecosystems used to work a man creates his own museum to how the world used to look. He uses plastic objects left lying around to create intricate worlds.
It’s just something that’s always interested me and I wanted to create that project in some form or another. When Chris approached me with “Bottled Up” it was the perfect opportunity.
Having such a stylized, colourful and vibrant style means you pretty much always have to be producing that style of work. Your followers have come to expect it and your clients pay you for that work so deviating too much from it isn’t always the best idea. I do try to experiment with work that I don’t post to my portfolio but the past twelve months or so I’ve learned it’s best to push your style on and evolve it rather than doing something entirely different. It’s good to have a stylistic theme running through your body of work.
What is your ambition as a 3D artist? (I know, hard to answer ^^). Are there new creative territories and ideas that you would like to explore in the following years?
There’s always an endless list of software that every 3D artist wants to learn. It’s like a level of professional happiness that is always just out of reach. You eventually master one piece of software that you’ve wanted to know for years but instead of being proud of that achievement there’s now a new piece of software that needs conquering.
Right now I’m working hard on three short personal projects that will showcase my animation abilities. I feel I have design and modelling pretty well covered. I can create somewhat complex models with clean topology and I know how to create models that are animation ready and efficient but my next goal to to animated them. I’m finding the process of animation not that difficult.
What I am struggling with it story and making objects move in an interesting way. Right now I feel very stilted and safe, my animation attempts are all very simple but I’m really hoping to improve in the coming year and create something more complex and daring. Along the way I’m hoping to showcase some other skills with each of these new projects. I’ve been studying Redshift, Substance Painter and Zbrush. I’ve also been a member of the Shane Olsen Character Design course. I’m hoping each short project to show small snippets of what I’ve been studying. I’m a huge fan of Octane but Redshift is growing rapidly in our industry.
What’s the harm in buying a licence and learning the software on some free weekends right? Always good to be prepared I guess! Substance Painter has always been of interest to me. Painting in Corel Painter is less than intuitive. It’s actually very involved and takes lots of planning. I’m hoping with Substance Painter it will take a lot of pain out of the painting process.
Can you tell us some achievements you are particularly proud of? And why?
I think I’m most proud of “All the Things”. It turned out far better than I had anticipated. It’s one of the most true to concept things I’ve worked on. The community’s reception to the piece was really overwhelming. Myself, Chris and John were certainly excited about posting it, no doubt. We had planned a day of the week to post it and we all waited eagerly for the date but I really don’t think anyone expected it to be as big as it was. It still works hard for me. It still brings in offers of work and it helps me to push myself.
I’m also very proud of getting myself out of unemployment and into a field of work that I truly love. My parents were always very supportive but were also concerned that the amount of work available was limited without moving to London or New York.
I’m a country boy at heart so that was out of the question. I moved from small village to small town within the west of Ireland but always dreamed of becoming a freelancer like so many of my friends on Facebook and Twitter. I would post work and it would draw other artists in and we’d become good friends. They would always encourage me to just take the plunge and go freelance but I guess I never really believed it could happen. It was a life that other people were fortunate enough to live but I always felt I’d just have to be content with it being a hobby.
The years rolled on and bit by bit things fell into place and with enough opportunities I finally threw myself at it and it’s been good so far. I’m coming into my third business year in March of 2019 and I have to say I’m actually starting to love the business side of things! That’s something that I never thought I’d say.
Do you have artists that you admire and who inspired you?
They really had a huge impact on what I wanted to do with my life. When I started figuring out what I wanted to do I moved more towards stylized artists. The absolute biggest influence came from a guy called Jose Manuel Linares López. If you haven’t seen his work and you like fun and stylized work I urge you to check out his site. I still visit his site regularly to be amused by his ideas and amazed by his ability to craft such wonderful work.
I love artists like Shane Olsen, Petri Aaltonen and Max Grecke who create the fun and fantastic characters and creatures. I’m always amazed by character artists, it’s something I find difficult to do.
Danny Mac is also another artist I admire. He has a great YouTube channel where he shares his process on how he creates characters in Zbrush. I think I love process more than the final piece so any artist who shares process is all good in my books 😀
Speaking of which, another artist I’ve admired for a very long time and he shares a lot of his process is Rich Nosworthy. I’ve been a long time fan of his work. I mean who isn’t? The guy can do anything and everything! He can design, model, UV, rig, animate, edit and now he’s teaching Redshift tutorials! Modern day savante in my opinion. If I could have 10% of the talent that Rich possesses, I’d be very happy indeed.
To those who would love to create works like yours, what advice would you give them?
To any artist starting out I would strongly advise trying a little bit of everything before settling into any particular field. I had no idea at all I could model in 3D: I am a dreadful 2D artist. I literally cannot draw anything but stick figures, so I was pretty sure I couldn’t create models in 3D. It took some time and trying out different things before I realized where my talents lay.
I use the term talents lightly though! I don’t like when people give up on something because they don’t feel talented or gifted enough. It’s simply not that, not in my experience anyways. It’s all about dedication and perseverance. The longer you try something and the harder you work, the better you will become. It’s that simple. If there’s some are of 3D that you want to improve on, but you keep “failing” or not reaching your goals or creating what you can see in your mind but you keep trying, it means your on the right path. It means you’re willing to fail but keep trying. That’s what it takes. That’s what passion is. To care about something so much that you’ll put up with the frustration of failing just to eventually achieve. That’s what I believe.
For more practical terms, if someone out there reading this wants to create work in a way that I do, I would strongly recommend starting with the Shane Benson Introduction to Subdivisional modelling on Vimeo. They are free and there are dozens of really well presented tutorials. Shane has recently started producing new tutorials after a few years of a break and the guy is a genius. He shows how to work around difficult shapes with ease.
Jose and Shane are the two single people that have biggest impacts on my style. After you’ve watched Shane’s tutorials I would suggest you try making your own simple models and try add some flair. Try add some design element that you may think is fun or tricky to make. Challenge yourself!
For instance I’m working on a personal projected called “Dinner is Served”. I’ve always loved retro objects and I’m using 1970’s styling as a reference for how objects and textures will look. It can be something that simple. Taking an era of design or a culture and trying to apply them to your work to see what you come up with.
Furthermore, do you have any resources to advise beginners?
It’s ok to replicate another artists work for your own self teaching but if you do that you really should mention where you got the reference from. I see it so often where artists replicate work but don’t say where they get the reference from. When I do see it it’s really refreshing. It’s nice to see honest designers. Thing is, it’s not a huge community really with the amount of work shared so if you do replicate work but pretend it’s all yours, chances are people viewing the work have seen the original artists work so really you’re doing yourself no favors. I like honest artists, I’m drawn to them more quickly.
Behance is my baby where I post my work and promote myself. I will always promote my Behance page on Twitter and LinkedIn, but I never go to it for inspiration really. I never look at other 3D work for inspiration. I don’t know why but I guess when I see 3D artwork I feel that story is told. The artist has represented that idea and I just go to admire the work. If I’m in need of inspiration I always use Pinterest. I’ll search for anything I need but always with the tags “illustration” or “game art” or “sketch”. I find illustrators to be a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration. I’m in awe of how an illustrator can, with the flick of wrist, draw very few lines but convey so much character and emotion in a piece.
For new artists I think, if you like or are interested in the business side of things, you should start a Linked In page. Linked In is a weird social media site that takes a lot of work to get any traction. It’s not like any other site and that’s why I like it. You can find lots of great artists on there and also people working in studios you admire. Linked In takes a lot of effort to build relationships. It’s not like facebook where everyone is friends with someone, Linked In is more about professional relationships. It’s about making connections with people that may eventually lead to work years down the road. I love long term goals so maybe that’s why Linked In suits me?! I’m happy to play the long game.
Anything else to add to this interview?
Nothing other than a thank you for the opportunity to tell my story. I’d also like to thank everyone for supporting my work over the past few years. I really do think social media is a good thing and it’s helped so many artists out. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. There’s so many other things people can be doing with their time so for artists and supporters to share my work and recommend me for jobs really is something
I’m very grateful for and I just want to say thank you to everyone. Being a 3D artist isn’t a lonely journey, it’s something you need to do with good friends and I’m so lucky that I can count on some of the best artists in the world as friends.
Thanks for your time again Paul McMahon for this great interview! 🙂
See more of Paul McMahon works here:
Twitter : be.net/therustedpixel