Claire Hummel Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study?  What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

I grew up in LA, but ended up attending RISD all the way out in Providence, RI- as much as the animation geek in me wanted to end up at Calarts, I was completely wooed by New England.  I majored in Illustration, which was probably the best bet at that school for someone looking to get into visual development- tons of focus on rendering, design, storytelling, and all the other skills that help pave the way towards a career in the entertainment industry.

Some of my favorite classes were Artistic Anatomy, during which we got to handle actual corpses and muscles at the Brown morgue, and any of my classes with Nick Jainschigg and Shanth Enjeti- two professors who ended up becoming my good friends, and who I owe for a lot of my philosophies about character design.  I also got to take classes on Egyptian hieroglyphs up at Brown, which were amazing- I still do a lot of Egyptian work, so it’s been a weird and invaluable skill set to have.  Also really fun to bring up at parties!

In terms of what prepared me to become an artist, I think I owe a ton to my parents. My dad was in the film and animation industry when I was growing up, and we tended to travel to museums quite a bit- they completely backed me when I voiced interest in pursuing art school, and then a career in art.

How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

My process always starts with an idea or a prompt I want to work with- sometimes it’s brought on by some amazing reference I’ve stumbled across, but I usually want some intent or purpose to motivate my character design process.  Who is this character?  What’s their role, social standing, personality, career, genre, and universe?  What do I want to get out of this piece?

From there I jump in with loose thumbnails and brainstorming- there’s absolutely some value in getting that raw, unadulterated idea for a character onto paper.  Stupid little sketches in your moleskin or on the back of a napkin Granted it’s rarely usable in its current state, but it can be easy to lose sight of those initial seeds during the design process!  Trust your instincts, or at least get them down on paper to refer back to.  Sometimes there’s some weird genius hidden in there that you would have over thought.

Once I’ve done a few sketches, I move on to research and reference.  I’m a huge sucker for research, so gathering images and reading books is a huge part of my process- this can mean art, anatomical diagrams, photographs, museums, books about your subject matter, anything.  The larger my body of reference is the better and more plausible my work is going to be.  Not everything needs to be the mirror image of something that already exists, of course (that would defeat the purpose of character design), but knowing what I’m drawing- knowing how to consciously deviate from the source material as needed- will make for better, more unique character designs.  Know the rules before you break them!  That’s all I ask.  Don’t let your work be motivated by ignorance and assumptions.

If I have the time and I’m working from reference I’ve never used before, I usually try to do some quick studies from my reference- how this particular face rotates in space, how this bodice fits at the waist, etc.  Studying my reference means I’m internalizing it- I’ll discover things about my subject matter that I wouldn’t have otherwise understood with just a cursory glance!  It’s awesome.

From there I start integrating the reference into my loose thumbnails and initial ideas- tightening up the structure and design elements, adding details and specificity, taking into account things like shape language and silhouette.  If I’m at work, I’ll usually churn out several variations on any given idea- my personal work doesn’t cast quite so broad a net as I’m zeroing in on a design, for better or for worse.  For the sake of speed and value, I’m usually working in black and white up to this point; no amount of good color can save bad design or bad value structure, so it helps to put some of those stakes in the ground before considering color schemes.  For initial color, I work pretty fast and loose- throwing down colors as overlay colors on thumbnails or layer underneath line art.  No point getting into fiddly details- you just want a color scheme that reads clearly, and reflects the character.

Once I settle on a design and color scheme I like, it’s just a matter of taking it to finish.  At work this usually means a finished painting, but my personal art tends to skew more illustrative- clean line art, flat colors, etc.  My priorities in finishing a piece are just whatever the end game is- an early character sketch for a pitch meeting is going to be much looser than a fully-painted turntable that I’m going to pass off to a modeler.

What is a typical day  for you, and who are the people you work with?

I work as an associate production designer for Central Media, a central publishing group within Microsoft Studios, and so we’re an odd duck in that we don’t have a “typical day”- not in the traditional sense, anyway.  We’re regularly being pulled onto new projects that are in need of help in the Microsoft docket, and so any given day could be spent jumping around onto three, four different projects.  There are pros and cons to this kind of team, of course- we rarely get to spend several years dedicating our blood, sweat, and tears to a single project, sure, but we do get the chance to work on a myriad of projects in vastly different styles and genres.  I can be designing stylized characters in the morning, realistic roman soldiers in the afternoon, and then kicking out a logo design at the end of the day- it’s rarely boring, just occasionally disorienting.  We all have our particular specialties and subject matter expertise- but we are expected to have a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to working here.

I work with some pretty amazing people, so it’s going to be impossible to list them all- Colin Foran, Pat Loughman, Kevin McNamara, Noel Hanson.  Joel Mongeon and Mark Kobrin are both amazing sculptors.  My art directors Han Randhawa, Jeremy Cook, Dave Johnson, Cad Greene, Louise Smith.  Although they’re now over at 343, it’s worth mentioning Justin Oaksford and Bridget Underwood- two young college hires who have amazing things ahead of them.

What are some of the things that you have worked on? (Books, Movies, Games, Comics)

So as I briefly mentioned in the previous question my job entails working on a lot of projects, so I’ll stick to the highlights.  So many Kinect Games- Kinect Adventures, Kinect Disneyland Adventures, Kinect Star Wars, Kinectimals, Pixar Rush, Kinect Nat Geo TV.  Alan Wake, Iron Brigade (née Trenched), and most recently Ryse and Powerstar Golf for the Xbox One.

I previously worked at Neopets for seven summers, and then at Turbine Technologies on Asheron’s Call and LOTRO.  I haven’t done a ton of freelance outside of Microsoft- they keep us busy, but I did get to design young Elizabeth and the Lutece twins for Bioshock Infinite.  I was a huge fan of the franchise, so it was an absolute delight when Irrational Games approached me to work with them.

Is there a design you have done that you are most happy with?

Oh god, that’s a tough call- I know that the stuff I’m most happy with is rarely the most popular.  Probably some stuff I’m working on for Fable Legends?  But we’ll see how long that lasts before I’m disappointed with it again.

What projects are you working on now? (if you can tell us)

I’m doing some character and costume work for Sunset Overdrive, and I’m working with the amazing team at Lionhead on Fable Legends.  I’m a huge fan of the franchise, so getting to design with Mike McCarthy has been an absolute treat.  I have a ton of other irons in the fire, but it’s Microsoft- a lot of this stuff is still under wraps.

Who are some of your favorite artists out there?
Oof, this is a tough question.  Let it be said ahead of time that this list is probably going to be very long, and yet vastly shorter than I want it to be.  Some artists that first come to mind- artists whose work I return to over and over again- are people like Jemma Salume, Cory Loftis, Mindy Lee, Chris Sanders, Tomer Hanuka.  People with insane linework and draughtsmanship.  To that point, Moebius and Geoff Darrow!  And Paul Felix, because he’s Paul Felix.  I make horrible deathly groaning noises while I look at his work.

Also comic artists like Erika Moen, Dylan Meconis, Emily Carroll, Yuko Ota, Kate Beaton, Lucy Knisely, Noelle Stevenson, Scott Campbell- I don’t have the patience or motivation for sequential work, especially when it’s loose and from-the-hip, so I have immense respect for these folks.  Kevin Wada, Kris Anka, and Joe Quinones are all rock stars when it comes to mainstream superhero work.

James Gurney and Terryl Whitlatch, who I grew up idolizing and are industry leaders when it comes to animal and creature design.   Have had the pleasure of meeting both of them now, managed not to entirely embarrass myself!

Aaaaand of course the classics- JC Leyendecker is a personal favourite, but also Charles Dana Gibson, Franklin Booth, Sheilah Beckett, Earl Oliver Hearst.  I love Mucha but have also become pretty overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of his work in recent years, so Ivan Bilibin is a pleasant alternative on the Art Nouveau front.  Zurbaran, Sargent, Zorn, Waterhouse, all of his pre-raphaelite brethren.  For classic landscape illustrators, you can’t beat the likes of Alfred Joseph Casson, Eyvind Earle, Hiroshi Yoshida.  Very literally cried in front of a Thomas Moran painting a couple weeks ago.

And of course I’m surrounded by amazing, talented friends who I’ve met at RISD and beyond- Nicholas Kole, Justin Oaksford, Kai Carpenter, Colin Foran, Lissa Treiman!  And that’s just the 2D artists.

...Oh and Olly Moss!  I can’t leave him out.  Okay.  If I don’t stop this list now we’ll be here for days.

Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?

I’m a Photoshop girl through and through.  I’ve flirted with Painter in the past and am trying to give programs like Sketchbook Pro and ArtRage the ol’ college try, but after some seventeen odd years with Photoshop I’m pretty faithful.

My process depends- it varies pretty dramatically depending  on what I want my final result to be, and I’m constantly experimenting with new techniques, brushes, tools.  If I’m painting/fully rendering a piece, I work pretty flat- just a couple of layers, and occasional overlays that I’ll then flatten down and work on top of.  More like using oils than going all-out-blend-mode-digital.  If I’m doing a more graphic piece, my layer count goes up exponentially- I get very anal about my file when I’m trying to keep track of clean line art and shading.

What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most difficult?

Costuming takes a while, but comes easily- especially in the early design stages.

I think painting unique, realistic faces is still a hell of a challenge for me- it’s an enjoyable challenge, but it can be tough not to rely too much on the reference you’re looking at.  Working in video games has forced me to get better at that, but there’s always room for improvement.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

Plein air art where I can just turn off my brain and paint, reading a lot of reference and non-fiction books for inspiration, trying new things!

What are some of your favorite designs which you have seen?

Chris Sanders’ designs for Lilo and Stitch will always stand out to me as exemplary.  They rotate well, they’re insanely appealing, and they were so strikingly original in the animation landscape at the time- definitely hadn’t seen a character like Nani in mainstream animation.

What is your most favorite subject to draw?  And  why?
Costumes, I’m sure it goes without saying.  A lot of the work I do falls pretty heavily into the “costume design” department, so it’s definitely (and unexpectedly!) a passion of mine.  I also love drawing props, weirdly enough, even if it doesn’t show up a lot in my personal work; there’s something about communicating a narrative passively through inanimate objects that completely floats my boat.

...Also tapirs.  Gotta love drawing tapirs.

What inspired you to become an Artist?
Animated movies in the 90’s, Dinotopia, Myst, X-Men, and museums.  Simple as that.

What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?

I think the best thing about working alongside other artists is learning different techniques to get to the same destination- what if you block something out in 3D, what if you roughly paint something initially instead of working with line?  It’s helped to broaden my methodologies while designing characters, and learning not to get stuck in any particular stylistic rut.  Keeps you fresh!

What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

Constantly strive to become a better artist, and never feel like you've peaked to the point that you can't improve your work!  Don't focus on developing a "style"- look at nature, look at old, dead artists, let it come to you naturally.  Trying to mimic the "style du jour" that may be popular at any given time is a fool's errand- focus on the fundamentals that make your art strong no matter the style or genre.  Constantly surround yourself with better art and better artists!  Draw a TON, all the time, draw more than I do because even I need that occasional kick in the pants.

Specifically in regards to the field of visual development, learn how to communicate ideas visually.  Coming up with a cool design is definitely part of the process, but the heart of it is learning how to interpret ideas and stories through characters, costumes, props, and environments.  There are tons of amazing renderers/illustrators out there, but also learning to have that intent and substance behind your designs can definitely set you apart from the crowd.

Also, remember that good art only goes so far- learn how to play the game, how to market yourself, how to network and make connections within your given industry.  Have a good portfolio, website, business card, and learn how to get your work in front of people without scaring them off or being rude about it.  It’s worth it in the long run.

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted? (Email, Web page)

My website is, and I keep a blog over at,
and anyone is more than welcome to shoot me an e-mail at shoomlahATgmailDOTcom.

Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?

I do have a store, but it’s temporarily closed while I’m catching up with work and personal projects.  You can grab both of my (unsigned!) art books over at Magcloud, though:

Claire Hummel Gallery