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If you were a child of the 1980s, you’ve probably read a few comic books or spent at least a few Saturday mornings watching cartoons on the local television channels. For Jose Ciceraro, watching cartoons and reading comics sparked a lifelong love of drawing comics and characters, leading to a career as an artist in the gaming industry. If you’ve ever wondered how an interest in art can turn into a career in the gaming world, I invite you to read about Jose’s unique journey.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in the eighties, which was the peak time for cartoons. I come from a military family—my dad is in the Air Force—so I moved around a bunch. I was born in Texas, then I was in Florida for a minute, then Puerto Rico, and then from second grade to the summer before ninth grade, I lived in Panama in Central America. We moved to Virginia when I was in high school. I only did one semester of college, and then I left to play in a band and tour.
I’ve always been into cartoons and comics. I think it’s mostly because they were the consistent things in my life, like Saturday morning cartoons. We didn’t even have cable; we just watched whatever was on the local channels, like Hanna Barbera. I had four or five X-Men comics that I bought on a rack at the little on-base shop, and I took those everywhere with me. I just always loved that stuff. When I was in high school, I got really into skate culture and punk rock music. That paired nicely with the aesthetic that I liked and video games. I somehow managed to never grow out of that, and now I do it professionally for a living. It’s been a pretty wild ride.
My wife and I have been married for 12 years but we’ve been together for 22 years; we were high school sweethearts. We have three awesome kids who are amazing and challenging. They’re like all the emotions in one. We have a four year old, a seven year old, and my oldest is turning 11 on Halloween. We homeschool them all.
Which cartoons did you watch when you were little? Which ones were your favorites?
For some reason, in Panama, there were a lot of Japanese cartoons, which was really cool. So I watched Dragon Ball a lot, and Robotech, which was the first cartoon that blew my mind. My older brother was always passing that stuff down, and I’m super thankful for that. Robotech was the first cartoon I ever watched that was actually a serialized story. All the cartoons that were in the US at the time were little 10-minute shows, like Magilla Gorilla. But Robotech was super long and crazy intricate. It was so different from the Disney stuff at the time, too. Plus it had airplanes that turned into robots so I was sold. I still love it to this day. Even today, if I’m just gonna hang out and watch stuff, it’s still cartoons. We’re in a really good time for animation right now. Between all the computer stuff and the resurgence of traditional stuff, it’s just so good.
When did you realize that you were an artist?
I always liked to draw. I remember the first time it kind of clicked for me. I was in Puerto Rico, and I had all my toys lined up, like my Transformers and robots, and I just started drawing what they were doing. I discovered that drawing what they were doing was more fun than playing with them. I didn’t know Spanish all that well, and I didn’t have friends, so it was a great outlet. I was always looking at cartoons and trying to draw them. In high school I still drew a little, but then once I hit skating and music, the art stuff took a backseat, but it was always there a little bit.
I started picking it back up in my twenties, but not seriously. It was more in service to the graphic design work I was doing. Then once I got into games and saw that visual development was an actual thing where people sit there and do conceptual art, something clicked in my head. I would track down the concept artists at work and say, “Hey, can you mentor me and show me stuff?” I was just starting to see how to study art. What’s cool about production environments is that you have to be so versatile. It’s not just mastering one technique. If someone says, “Hey, we’re doing robots today, and we’re going to do cuddly popsicle monsters tomorrow” you have to be able to pivot. But you have a process and tools at your disposal to be able to make that stuff.
How did you get into the gaming industry?
I was out in California for music stuff, and my wife was going to get her masters degree. She said to me, “You know, in case the rest of the band doesn’t follow you, you might want to find a place to go.” So I thought that probably wasn’t a bad idea. I was always doing posters and stuff for the band, so I found this cool little private tech college called Platt. They had an accelerated program that lined up with the time that we were going to be there for my wife’s masters degree.
I decided to go there for 3D, even though I didn’t know anything about 3D and I didn’t even have a PC. But I liked games, so I thought I’d give it a try. Once we started doing typography, print, and graphic design, I just got super into it. It’s so amazing what you can do with that visual medium. Then I hit the web courses. I ended up with a degree in graphic design and another one in web design.
After we both graduated, we moved from San Diego to Austin, and I found my first job at a game company on a web team. I was like, “Oh, this is the best. I’m in a space that I like, and I’m doing something that I really care about.” Then it turned out that the game teams needed help in their interface department. And I was like, “Oh wow, you’re basically building menu systems in the game. This is exactly what I do.” So I started splitting my time, doing web stuff and helping them build the game. I didn’t even realize this was a job. Eventually I transferred over to the interface department, and that’s what I still do to this day. Being an interface designer for games is so crazy, especially compared to just doing it for the web, which is pretty standalone. With games, you’re doing illustration, iconography, animation, 3D . . . you’re doing all this stuff in service of this one goal.
When my first game shipped, they laid off a bunch of people. I survived it, but I was like, “What is this culture?” I went to another game studio, and that was not too great. Then I actually left games for a little bit to see what the terrain would be. I ended up as a graphic designer at Whole Foods, in the corporate group. I went from working crazy overtime hours to working 35 hours a week. It was a really nice break, and the people there were so creative. It was really nice to be around people who aren’t immersed in just one thing. You had people from all different walks of life, and I was really inspired. But I was the only artist so I started to feel a little lonely. So I got back into games. I actually ended up in North Carolina because I wanted to apply at Insomniac because I love the game Ratchet and Clank. I applied on a whim, and I got the job. I ended up working with some of my art heroes. I’ve been in the industry 12 or 13 years, and I’ve been at Insomniac going on eight. It’s been a wild ride.
What is it like to be an artist within the gaming industry?
There are so many different studios and so many different processes for making game art, so as an artist, it really keeps you fresh and inspired. I remember having stacks of paper from my first couple of games at Insomniac because I was hand drawing all of the icons, just roughing them out, because it was faster for me. Part of my drawing process is using a number zero gray marker. I just throw down lines with a chisel tip. Because I’m not thinking about detail at that point, it’s just this thing. By the time it dries, it’s almost invisible, but you can still pick out the shapes. It’s a cool way to do under-drawing.
I’ve always integrated handmade stuff into the way I work. We did a horror game for virtual reality, and it was post-World War II, or something like that, and there was all this handwritten stuff. So I brought in my quill pens, made all these textures, and digitized them, essentially turning them into framing and strokes. It was all real textures. Or I would get a paper towel, crush it up, and scan it to use it for a background texture. I try to do stuff like that to keep it fun. I jump at any chance I can get to draw. The thing that I like about my specific discipline is that it’s so multi-disciplined. On days that I’m not feeling up to drawing, I can do some motion graphics, or some 3D stuff, or assemble something else. There are other days where I just have a giant list of things I need to draw so I’m like, “Ok, headphones on, let’s do this.”
It’s really challenging to make games, but it’s just mind-blowing to look at what people can make. If people could really see what it takes to make games, they would just smile even bigger when they play.
What type of art do you do in your spare time?
Two years ago, I realized I’d been in an art rut. I had been a production artist for so long that I’d forgotten what I liked to do. So I started doing all this traditional art on the side and posting to Instagram, trying to find what I like. I put out a couple of art books. To this day, my sketchbook is my happy place. Sometimes I’ll wake up at 5am, and I’ll just start drawing. Since no one’s telling me what to draw at that hour, I can just mess around or study.
Given how digital the production process is, it encourages me to make more traditional art on the side. I have my digital space on one side of the room and then right behind it is all of my traditional materials, like watercolors and graphite. There’s just something about it. I could download the best watercolor brush in Photoshop, but nothing is as good as dropping some ink into a puddle and just watching it. There’s nothing you can do to control how it’s going to look, to a certain degree, but I can undo that digitally.
People often want to put a hard line between digital and traditional these days but to me, working, studying, and learning traditional every day makes me confident in my digital work. I’m not dependent on constantly erasing because I have the confidence to make something. Then the freedom of digital to erase and experiment all the time and save different versions makes me take more risks.
For example, it’s so easy to design a character by doing really quick color thumbnails digitally and then take it over and just paint it traditionally. Then I’ll scan it in, print it out on an illustration board, and then paint on top of it. It’s a hybrid process. If you can get it to go, they’re all in service of each other. I’ve noticed that all the drawing and sketching that I do makes it really easy to draw on the computer. It makes it a lot easier to color with markers or paint or anything like that because I’ve had the safe space to mess up a lot without wasting materials or paper.
Drawing has always been hard for me. It’s always been work, and it still is work. So I try to be very open about that and embrace that with people. I think some people get discouraged when they just see all this beautiful work and they don’t realize that it was a labor of love to get there. There was so much erasing, editing, and process behind that piece. So it’s always cool when I have a table at conventions, and I’m able to talk to younger artists. I tell them not to be too hard on themselves. It’s okay to like your work. It’s okay to have a good attitude about the things you’re making. It’s the best you can do right now, and that’s worth something.
How do you design a character?
I think because I come from a graphic design background, I’m always really big on shape, and shape language is crucial with character designing.For example, and this is speaking super broad, if I’m going to make a villain, I’ll use pointy shapes. If I’m going to make a hero, square shapes are nice and sturdy and strong. Friendly characters are going to be more rounded. A practice that I like to do is just do silhouette studies, using those shapes to convey the character’s personality.
I often draw people a lot. I like the journeyman; he’s all beaten up but happy. That’s how I feel going through life a lot. You’re all nicked up and scarred, but it’s part of the process.
What are you working on now with your watercolors and sketches?
I try to put out an art book every year. I have two physical books out now. I usually show at Comicon, too. I still do a lot of graphic design. I’m always exploring, but it’s always character-centric. I have hundreds and hundreds of characters, comics, and comic ideas that I’m working on. I’ve been wanting to do watercolor for a long time. I took a couple of classes when I was younger, but I just did not understand what was happening, and the teachers weren’t big on the importance of the materials. So I’d do it on copy paper, and of course it just melts, and I’m like, “I don’t get this.” But I’m super curious all the time. I’m always taking drawing, painting, or clay courses online. I just went down this YouTube hole a month ago watching a guy doing silicone molds from home. My wife is super supportive, so that’s helpful.
Who inspires you?
I actually work with two of my favorite artists now, Greg Baldwin and Dave Guertin, who have a thing called Creature Box. I have been a huge fan for a while, and I used to follow them when I was in school. They did all the concept work for Ratchet and Clank. Getting to work with them is just so cool. I probably annoyed them with how much I’ve picked their brain about stuff, but I didn’t know when I’d get the opportunity again. I remember once I stopped Greg when he was walking to get coffee, and I was like, “Hey, can you show me how you draw skulls?” I am also a big fan of artists in the visual development arena like Jose Lopez, Akira Toriyama, Brett Bean, Justin Rodrigues, Brittney Lee, Iraville, Beatrice Blue, Lorenzo Etherington. Some of my other favorites are Charley Harper, Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, and Carlos Meglia. So many more, I just love artists.
What’s next for you?
I keep trying to plan for that. There are two comic ideas that I want to get out. I want to put out another art book, and then I want to start doing more mentoring. I’ve been mentoring some people, and I want to grow that and start trying to help people demystify production so people can get a realistic sense of how the production process can inform creative making. In my opinion, making production art is so different than making art for yourself. I just feel like I’ve been doing it for so long, and I want to put that knowledge out there and just keep making things and learning for as long as possible.
For more information about Jose’s work, visit: