Meet Clio Wolfensberger: A Visdev Artist and Scientific Illustrator

Iva Mikles
Meet Clio Wolfensberger: A Visdev Artist and Scientific Illustrator

Clio Wolfensberger is a Visdev Artist and Scientific Illustrator from Zürich, Switzerland who has worked for zoos, museums, veterinary hospital, and DreamWorks animation studio!

Nowadays, anything is possible. You can live in a small town/city and work for a big animation studio in Burbank, California, without ever having to be there.”

Artwork by Clio Wolfensberger

Can you please tell us a bit about your background? Please add at least one random interesting fact about you.

My Name is Clio and I have been born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland.

I currently work as a Visdev Artist and Scientific Illustrator.

A random fact would be that I almost graduated as a veterinarian! It’s almost hard to imagine now that I love drawing and designing characters so much. I’m crazy about animals but I am also crazy about the world of animation!

What inspired you to make art?

As a 90’s kid, I loved watching cartoons and animated movies A LOT.

I knew almost every show at the time and I rewatched them as many times as possible. I even learned a bit of English and French at a young age because I used to watch cartoons on foreign channels. But it didn’t seem enough for me to watch them so I eventually learned to draw the characters for myself. It almost felt like a secret power to be able to reproduce my favorite characters on a piece of paper.

Most of all, I loved the world of Disney Animation. I admired the high quality of the animation itself and how much magic they would bring to my daily life.

My parents, originally from Argentina,  grew up watching early cartoons themselves as well as the original Walt Disney show back in Buenos Aires. We also visited the Disney theme parks which were also very inspiring as an experience.

Aside from cartoons I also watched a lot of blockbusters as a kid as well and those are still my favorites to watch. Three movies that I could rewatch forever are: Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Home Alone!

Did you study at art school(s) or are you self-taught?

As someone who was basically born with a pencil in her hand, I learned and have practiced drawing for many years. Drawing was my favorite subject at school so I had to attend a high school that had an artistic profile – luckily there is such a school in Zurich, the Liceo Artistico, which is also bilingual in German and Italian. We had classes in painting, sculpture, and architectural drawing in addition to all the other subjects. Later I realized how many art fundamentals I actually learned during those years.

As a final project, I decided to make a 3D animated short film myself. This was a bit crazy as I had never worked with any 3D software before. This project was way too much to handle for a beginner and I didn’t have the best time doing it either. This was Blender in 2010 when there were hardly any Youtube tutorials or 3D courses around. I had to learn the software with a manual which sounds almost crazy nowadays!

Finishing the project was certainly painful but it also was very successful and it got a lot of attention from different outlets. I got a price for the „Best Matura Work of the Year“ in all of  Switzerland and I was also invited to the Youth Film Festival. However, I decided that I was „done“ with the creative side of my life and pursued studies in veterinary medicine instead. I could talk for hours about this chapter in my life but let’s just say that I missed my creative side so much that after 5 years of studying I decided to leave it all behind and go back to the drawing table. In the end, that’s what made me the happiest!

I was then successfully admitted to study Scientific Illustration at the University of the Arts in Zurich.

This seemed to be the ideal study subject for me as by then I already had so much insight into scientific illustrations from my previous studies. I enjoyed these years very much, especially because of my fellow students, who are still very good friends of mine. One student asked me during the first week of uni what my real dream job was – and I replied that I hadn’t thought about it in a long time but it would probably be doing visual development for an animation studio.

Right after that, I was introduced to another student who had a similar dream. However, he was so far along in his skills that he would eventually get a job as a concept artist on “The Last of Us 2” right after graduation! I was blown away because I never thought you could „make it“ in Switzerland, because there is almost no entertainment industry to speak of. So in the end, knowing that things which seemed impossible before were indeed possible made me want to pursue my dream.

From that moment on I started drawing characters basically every day and posting them on my Instagram account. I realized that drawing characters came very naturally to me so I continued in that direction. And people were interested in buying prints and other goodies with these illustrations as well, so I kept producing and eventually started getting jobs as an illustrator.

Artwork by Clio Wolfensberger

How did you develop your own art style?

My „style“ comes mostly from 90’s Animation. This is the design language I know best from my childhood. I memorized a lot of characters from back then, which comes in handy now!

I enjoy drawing female characters the most. This is not only because I can identify with them better on a personal level but also because I missed female characters in many cartoons when I was young. They were always underrepresented and not really diversified either. That has changed for the better a lot in recent years and still keeps changing, which is great.

I think every kid wants to identify with their favorite cartoon heroes at some point.

One of my favorite film and book genres is science fiction. The form language of these worlds seems limitless and free to experiment with. Even though the genre is full of clichés, it fascinates me more than for example high-fantasy worlds. Also in my designs, I look for a clear, almost graphic language that fits perfectly with the science fiction theme at hand.

Generally, creativity comes easiest to me when I’m relaxed. I can’t work well when I’m stressed or don’t find the time to sit down and draw. But more than anything, watching a cartoon is THE thing that most inspires and motivates me to produce something.

In recent years I have also really enjoyed going to art-related events where people from all over the world come together and share their passion and professional experiences in the entertainment industry. The talks and masterclasses of my favorite artists are a great inspiration to me!

How did you start making a living as an artist? What was your first paid art job?

After attending the University of Arts in Zurich I worked locally as a scientific illustrator. In Switzerland, most of my jobs were done for museums, exhibitions, and animal illustration. When I graduated in Scientific Illustration my final project was a collaboration with the Zoological Museum of Zurich, where my sister ( an interaction designer ) and I created an interactive installation of a sea turtle. After graduation, I continued to collaborate with their great team and worked further along as a concept illustrator for their newly planned prospective museum.

Also after attending the THU event  (Trojan Horse was a Unicorn) in Malta, I was invited to show my character drawings to a recruiter from Walt Disney Animation. This was a BIG deal for me. There I learned how to put together the right portfolio for my dream job. So, doing a project like that on my own without having people around who were already working in the industry to give you suggestions or critiques took quite a while. But I finally did it and after I uploaded it to my website and Instagram I eventually got a call from DreamWorks. It was a dream project where they wanted me to design a couple of main characters for an upcoming television series. 

So that’s really where I got my first start in the industry and I now basically work in Visual Development and Scientific Illustration at the same time because I love doing both.

What do you live from as an artist now? What are your main income streams and what is the approximate % split of each?

I currently work part-time as a Scientific Illustrator/3D artist at the Veterinary Hospital in Zurich and before that I worked for the Basel Zoo.

On the days I have free time, I either work on smaller projects for museums or for commercial clients.

And whenever I can, I try to refresh my skills as a character designer and update my portfolio.

I also own a small Etsy store with my prints and some other goodies that can be found on my Instagram feed. This is something I consider a passion project or hobby that I wouldn’t want to miss. Every item sold makes me happy and really grateful!

What are you currently working on?

Besides updating my portfolio, I always try to find some time to set up my own Patreon channel. I would love to do tutorials and other things more routinely and be in touch with followers and students.

On the other hand, I’m working with the Veterinary Hospital in Zurich to develop a digital learning platform for their students. I’m creating 3D models of their anatomical collection so they can have easier access to animal anatomy

What do you think are the most important characteristics of an artist?

Making pretty drawings and working as a professional artist for clients are two different things. So the best thing you can do is know exactly what you want to do and work towards that goal to make it happen. It’s even better if you know exactly what position you’re aiming for, be it in character, prop,s or environment design.

Many artists tend to enjoy a thousand different art styles and media – but that’s not helpful in building your skills for the industry. This may sound harsh, but you’ll end up developing much faster if you know what you’re really good at and what skills you’re still lacking. You’ll need to be very disciplined to keep learning new things and keep up with your peers. The industry has a lot to offer these days but it’s also much more competitive than ever before.

Most importantly don’t forget to have fun on your journey towards your dream job!

Artwork by Clio Wolfensberger

What are the art tools and other products and services you can’t live without?

Even though I worked with traditional media for well over 20 years I now only use digital media for drawing.

My favorite tool is my Wacom Cintiq Pro, which I use every day for all kinds of creative work. Alternatively, I also use the iPad Pro with Procreate – I can travel with it and also use it to show my portfolio or draw live on it for clients. Even if it’s just sketching I love having everything on one device!

I usually don’t find much time to work with traditional media. Even though I have many (empty) sketchbooks, different pens, and so on, I would say that probably anything can be used. What really matters is choosing the right paper for the right medium!

What are your favorite art and other books (fiction, non-fiction)?

I collect a lot of art books from animated movies that I like the most or whose content I find very interesting. So on my bookshelf, there are a lot of art books from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks.

I would recommend having making-of books like these to anyone working on a portfolio for the animation industry because you almost don’t get to see these artworks anywhere else! Art books can sell out quickly and not be reprinted. So if you like the visuals of a particular film you should get the book fast. 

What advice would you give yourself as a beginner artist? Or alternatively please include your favorite quote and the author.

Nowadays, anything is possible. You can live in a small town/city and work for a big animation studio in Burbank, California, without ever having to be there.

Though it takes a lot of work, time, and patience. It’s easy to get discouraged or sidetracked but in the end, you have to ask yourself what you want to spend your time on and go for it.

Get in touch with Clio

Thank you, Clio, for joining us today!

All artworks by Clio Wolfensberger, used with permission.

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