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Notes on Character Design
I received the question pictured below at my tumblr
blog. In case it's useful to anyone here, I decided to go ahead and use this otherwise dormant journal to share the article I put together in response.
Character design and drawing are tome-sized topics and even if I had all the answers (I don't - I have a lot to learn), I'm not sure I could communicate them effectively. Here are some thoughts an ideas that might help, though.
First, some general things...
Let some of that anxiety go. This isn't a hard science. There's no wrong way, no rigid process you must adhere to, no shoulds
except those you designate for yourself. This is one of the fun parts of being an artist, really - have a heady good time with it.
- Be patient.
A design is something gradually arrived at. It takes time and iteration and revision. You'll throw a lot of stuff away, and you'll inevitably get frustrated at times, but bear in mind the process is both inductive and deductive. Drawing the wrong things is part of the path toward drawing the right thing.
- Learn to draw.
It might seem perfunctory to say, but I'm not sure everyone's on the same page about what this means. Learning to draw isn't a sort of rote memorization process in which, one by one, you learn a recipe for humans, horses, pokemon, cars, etc. It's much more about learning to think like an artist, to develop the sort of spacial intelligence that lets you observe and effectively translate to paper, whatever the subject matter. When you're really learning to draw, you're learning to draw anything and everything. Observing and sketching trains you to understand dimension, form, gesture, mood, how anatomy works, economy of line; all of the foundational stuff you will also rely on to draw characters from your imagination. So, spend some time honing your drawing ability. Hone it with observational sketching. Hone it good.
- I don't think I've ever seen anyone do this sort of thing better than Claire Wendling. In fact, character designs emerge almost seamlessly from her gestural sketches. It'd be worth looking her up.
- Gather inspiration like a crazed magpie.
What will ultimately be your trademark style and technique is a sort of snowball accumulation of the various things you expose yourself to, learn and draw influence from. To that effect, Google images, tumblr, pinterest and stock photo sites are your friends. When something tingles your artsy senses - a style, a shape, a texture, an appealing palette, a composition, a pose, a cool looking animal, a unique piece of apparel, whatever - grab it. Looking at a lot of material through a creative lens will make you a better artist the same way reading a lot of material makes a better writer.
It'll also devour your hard drive and you will try and fail many times to organize it, but more importantly, it'll give you a lovely library of ideas and motivational shinies to peruse when you're conjuring characters.
It's a powerful learning tool. Probably for many of us, drawing popular cartoon characters was the gateway habit that lured us into the depraved world of character design to begin with. I wouldn't suggest limiting yourself to one style or neglecting your own inventions to do this, but it's an effective way to limber up, to get comfortable drawing characters in general, and to glean something from the thought processes of other artists.
- Use references.
Don't leave it all up to guessing. Whether you're trying to design something with realistic anatomy or something rather profoundly abstracted from reality, it's helpful in a multitude of ways to look at pictures. When designing characters, you can infer a lot personality from photos, too.
And despite what you might have heard, having eyeballs and using them to look at things doesn't constitute cheating. There's no shame in reference material. There's at least a little shame in unintentional abstractions, though.
Concepts and Approach:
- Break it down
Sometimes you have the look of a character fleshed out in your mind before putting it to paper, but usually not. That doesn't mean you have to blow your cortical fuses trying conceive multiple diverse designs all at the same time, though. You don't even have to design the body shape, poses, face, and expressions of a single character all at once. Tackle it a little at a time.
The cartoony, googly eyed style was pre-established for the simple mobile game goblin character below, but I still broke it into phases. Start with concepts, filter out what you like until you arrive at a look, experiment with colors, gestures and expressions.
- Start with the general and work toward the specific.
Scribbling out scads of little thumbnails and silhouettes to capture an overall character shape is an effective way begin - it's like jotting down visual notes. When you're working at a small scale without agonizing over precision and details, there's no risk of having to toss out a bunch of hard work, so go nuts with it. Give yourself a lot of options.
Above sample silhouettes from an old cancelled project in which I was tasked with designing some kind of cyber monkey death bot. I scratched out some solid black shapes then refined some of them a step or two further.
- Shapes are language.
They come preloaded with all sorts of biological, cultural and personal connotations. They evoke certain things from us too. If you’re ever stuck about where to go with your design, employ a sort of anthroposcopy along these lines - make a visual free association game out of it. It’ll not only tend to result in a distinguished design, but a design that communicates something about the nature of the character.
Think about what you infer from different shapes. What do they remind you of? What personalities or attitudes come to mind? How does the mood of a soft curve differ from that of a sharp angle? With those attributes attached, how could they be used or incorporated into a body or facial feature shape? What happens when you combine shapes in complementary or contrasting ways? How does changing the weight distribution among a set of shapes affect look and feel? Experiment until a concept starts to resonate with the character you have in mind or until you stumble on something you like.
If you don’t have intent, take the opposite approach - draw some shapes and see where they go. (It’s stupid fun.)
- Cohesion and Style.
As you move from thumbnails to more refined drawings, you can start extrapolating details from the general form. Look for defining shapes, emergent themes or patterns and tease them out further, repeat them, mirror them, alternate them. Make the character entirely out of boxy shapes, incorporate multiple elements of an architectural style, use rhythmically varying line weights - there are a million ways to do this
Here's some of the simple shape repetition I've used for Lackadaisy characters.
Let them emerge from your design. If your various characters have distinguishing features, the expressions they make with those features will distinguish them further. Allow personality to influence expressions too, or vice versa. Often, a bit of both happens as you continue drawing - physiognomy and personality converge somewhere in the middle.
For instance, Viktor’s head is proportioned a little like a big cat. Befitting his personality, his design lets him make rather bestial expressions. Rocky, with his flair for drama, has a bit more cartoon about him. His expressions are more elastic, his cheeks squish and deform and his big eyebrows push the boundaries of his forehead. Mitzi is gentler all around with altogether fewer lines on her face. The combination of her large sleepy eyes and pencil line brow looked a little sad and a little condescending to me when I began working out her design - ultimately those aspects became incorporated into her personality.
I discuss expression drawing in more detail here (click the image for the link):
Rendering poses is another one of those things for which observational/gesture drawing comes in handy. Even if you’re essentially scribbling stick figures, you can get a handle on natural looking, communicative poses this way. Stick figure poses make excellent guidelines for plotting out full fledged character drawings too.
Look for the line of action. It’ll be easiest to identify in poses with motions, gestures and moods that are immediately decipherable. When you’ve learned to spot it, you can start reverse engineering your own poses around it.
- Additional resources.
Here are some related things about drawing poses and constructing characters (click the images for the links).
Tortured rumination about lack of ability/style/progress is a near universal state of creative affairs. Every artist I have known and worked with falls somewhere on a spectrum between frustration in perpetuity and a shade of fierce ongoing contrition that'd make Arthur Dimmesdale wince. So, next time you find yourself constructing a scourge out of all those crusty acrylic brushes you failed to clean properly, you loathsome, deluded hack, you, at least remember you’re not alone in feeling that way. When it’s not crushing the will to live out of you, the device does have its uses - it keeps you self-critical and locked in working to improve mode. If we were all quite satisfied with our output, I suppose we’d be out of reasons to try harder next time.
When you need some reassurance, compare old work to new. Evolution is gradual and difficult to perceive if you’re narrowed in on the nearest data point, but if you’ve been steadily working on characters for a few months or a year, you’ll likely see a favorable difference between points A and B.
Most of all, don’t dwell on achieving some sort of endgame in which you’re finally there as a character artist. There’s no such place - wherever you are, there is somewhere else. It’s a moving goal post. Your energy will be better spent just enjoying the process…and that much will show in the results.