Michael Herrera Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study?

I’m twenty-three years old. I’m trying to teach myself to play the ukulele. I love to cook. I’m not very good at math. I grew up in Orange County California, in the city of Huntington Beach. I spent most of my childhood at the beach or at Disneyland. My family and I watched a lot of cartoons and movies together.

I studied animation for two years at Laguna College of art and Design and then went on to the Character Animation program at Cal Arts. At Laguna, I had a lot of fine art foundation courses like illustration, design, drawing, sculpture, storyboarding, and digital imaging. It was a great opportunity to have fine art classes, in addition to animation courses.
Cal Arts has been an incredible four years. Trying to make a film each year has been the most valuable experience ever. I’ve had an incredible array of classes and instructors. I’m currently in my last semester.

What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

Cal Arts has been the most unimaginably fantastic four years of my life, and I have learned some life long lessons here for sure. While growing up, my Mother would take my brothers and I to the theater whenever she could, or to art festivals, or creative classes of some sort. We were always doing something creative or trying a new activity.

I think it made me unafraid to attempt something new, which is very helpful as an artist. As a teenager, I worked as a caricature artist for two and a half years. It was a pretty wild experience, and it was my first job ever. It gave me a lot of drawing practice that’s for sure.

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

If I’m designing a character, it’s usually because I have a story in mind. Story is the catalyst for design. I usually have some idea of what the character is doing, or what just happened to them, or where they are going, or what they are saying. Something. Anything.

Most often however, I just sit and stare at my desk for a few hours and wait for something to show up on the page. If that doesn’t work, I do some research. I love research, and probably do way too much of it. If I find something intriguing, I try to figure out what makes it unique. Or better put, what is it about this material that excited me in the first place? My goal is to show off that exciting thing in my design.

When it comes time to draw, I just crank out a ton of awful scribbles. Eventually I’ll wind up with two or three that I like. I’ll combine parts of different drawings together, just taking the things I like the best. I’m just mashing ideas together until they feel close to the character I’m trying to portray.

If I’m drawing something unfamiliar, then I’ll start with lots of literal drawings just to try and understand the subject. I’ll start to caricature once I know what the real thing looks like. I do that with everything from animals to costumes to hairdos. These are things I try to do anyhow. Do I always do these things? No. Sometimes, my research will be enough to get the ideas flowing so that I won’t really need to do all of these steps. Research is powerful. One thing I often think about while designing is what role the character plays in the story. This informs pretty much everything about them. How do they compare and contrast to everyone around them? I try to stand my character next to the rest of the cast in my head. This helps me find what makes them stand out.

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

I’m in my last semester of school, so a typical day consists of running to classes, doing assignments, feeling like the world is going to end, then getting over it and working on my film. I get to work alongside my insanely talented classmates and the atmosphere is pure electricity. I love it.

What are some of the things that you have worked on?

Gathering debt, making friends, a few personal short films, and a few larger concepts of my own which I hope to produce in the future.

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

Not yet.

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

Right now I’m working on my own animated short film.

Who are some of your favorite artists out there?

Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Freddie Moore, The rest of Disney’s Nine Old Men, Norman Rockwell, Al Hirschfield, Mary Blair, Herbert Ryman, John Hench, Quentin Blake, Richard Scarry, Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, Carter Goodrich, Peter De Seve, Stephen Sondheim, Howard Ashman. So many more I can’t think of right now.

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

I usually draw with a black pen, ink, or marker. I like drawing with thick dark drawing materials. I’m fond of Tombow brush markers, Faber-Castell brush pens, and Prismacolor markers. Sometimes I’ll use Col-erase pencils for an under drawing. I use markers most often to color, either over my ink drawings or on top of my pencil drawings. Photoshop is great of course if I don’t want to decide the colors on paper. I use Photoshop to draw as well.
If I have time, I like to paint with gouache or acrylic, but I usually save that for special occasions. I also do paper cut-outs from time to time.

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

I don’t think any of it is easy. Drawing sure isn’t easy. I’ll just say drawing is the hardest part.
I have fun doing research. I love books and I love the library. I will tend to do way more research than I need, but in the end, it fuels my design process. I love finding places, clothing, and objects that could be in the world of my character. Then it’s so much easier to design, because I have a real picture of their life.

It’s most difficult to create unique characters. The challenge to do so is fun. I think the most fun is designing performance and the personality of a character. The way they walk, or smile, or how they stand in line to see a movie. Getting specific is fun, and so very satisfying if you can really get an idea across. That’s when I get to feel like an actor. That’s the fun part.

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

I play ukulele. I go for a walk. I believe that creative blocks are caused by a lack of inspiration. So if I’ve hit a wall, then I put everything aside and go out to have some life for a little bit. Finding new music to listen to can really help. Also, if I’m trying to get my creativity flowing on a particular project, I will gather research that is not associated with the world of my character. For example, if I’m trying to design some medieval knights, I won’t just look at medieval art or illustrations. I’ll find images of baseball players or fry cooks or dentists. I don’t know. It’s more interesting to me that way. I’ll look at renaissance paintings, sculptures, sharks, stealth bombers, trees, or railroad workers.

Anything that gives a texture or mood that feels like the character I’m trying to create. I may not use this research as visual influence on the design, but maybe I will. The point is I have a unique source of inspiration that I can pour into a character. I sort of sample bits and pieces of things and they somehow get stitched together into some sort of meaning in my head. It’s hard to explain but there you have it.

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

Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmations is remarkable. Just everything about her is so specific and striking. Her clothes, colors, shape, mannerisms, and even her cigarettes are all designed to tell you something about her character. Really, any character Marc Davis did is amazing.
His character designs for the original Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland are some of my favorites.

I love the designs in the original 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods.
Oh man, and the new production of Les Misérables that is on tour is beautifully designed. I saw it last summer in Los Angeles. The characters in that are designed beautifully. I want to see animation do what that show does.

What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why?

I like monsters and bears. They were my best friends as a kid.
I love history, so I tend to draw a lot of characters in period clothes. I like clothes too much.

What inspired you to become an Artist?

My Grandfather was an artist and I grew up watching him paint, and painting alongside him. He was a tremendous inspiration to me my whole life.
I always wanted to be an animator, even before I knew what that meant. I remember watching episodes of the wonderful world of Disney, or Walt Disney presents; one of the old Disney shows. I remember seeing segments on how animation was done, and how they made their films. I don’t remember understanding anything, except that there were people who did…something to make these amazing films. I remember feeling that I wanted to do whatever that something was.
I had many interests come and go. I took acting classes. I thought I’d try to be a magician. I considered going into special effects. As I got older, I came to realize that all the things I loved shared the same goal: entertainment. That’s how I think about everything I do really. I’m just an entertainer.

If I had to blame one thing for inspiring me to be an artist, it would be my family. They never stopped encouraging me, so I never stopped pursuing art. I’m pretty lucky to have a family that is okay with drawing cartoons for a living. Very lucky.

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

I was encouraged at some point or another to draw in ink so I couldn’t fiddle around with details. It’s not for everybody, but it’s certainly helped me. That really forces me to make strong choices early on.

A former instructor once gave some advice on intuition. She explained that your gut instinct is usually right, and it’s not your ideas that lack worth. The whole journey of the artist might simply be the search for the tools you need to express your ideas more clearly. Thus, every artist has a different journey, because we all need different tools. In the end, trust in your ideas.

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

Wisdom? Oy. Well, when it comes to wisdom, you’ll find dozens of artists out there that have a lot more experience then I, and much more advice to give. Just check out some of the amazing artists on this blog alone. Tips? I can give tips. Not sure if they are good, but I’ll try. Push things to an extreme first. You can always pull it back if it goes too far (but it can usually be pushed farther).

Don’t be afraid to let the things you love saturate your work. It’s what gives you your unique perspective. Don’t censor yourself. This might take several to seventy years. I’m still learning. Maybe ask me again in a few decades.

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

I’m pretty good at checking my blog, so you can always leave a comment there:
Or email me at:

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

I’m hoping to have either a sketchbook or some prints for sale in the near future. I’ll make it known on my blog when that happens.

Michael Herrera Gallery