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Journal Entry: Sat Nov 30, 2013, 1:24 PM
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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 question

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...

- Relax.
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 or shouldn'ts 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.

cat sketches

- 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.

- Imitate.
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.
horse reference horses

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.

Carl the goblin accountant cyber-monkey-death-bots

- 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.

Lucky Charms rejects

If you don’t have intent, take the opposite approach - draw some shapes and see where they go. (It’s stupid fun.)

monster shapes

- 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.

And for potato shaped characters, use potato shaped shapes.

- Expressions.
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):


- Poses.
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.

line of action

- 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.

Add a Comment:
BillieMac Featured By Owner 2 days ago
Books never went away.

Back in the late '90s, when people were asking, "where did The Future go?" I saw a show where a computer programmer was asked why books hadn't been replaced by computers.
His Reply? "Because what people want is technology they can read in the bathtub- and that's a book." 
Sevore Featured By Owner Dec 18, 2014  Student General Artist
Thank you so much for this! :heart:
Anton42 Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2014
Excellent recommendations, thank you!
Daisyvayle Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I saw this journal when I first watched you, I think, But I don't recall ever commenting on it. So here you go lovely ^.^

This tutorial is literally GOLD. Every character design artist and every visual artist in general should read through this. It is so helpful, Not only with character design, But with drawing in general. Your work has always inspired me that some day I'll be an amazing artist and will hopefully be able to make a living off it.

I absolutely adore Lackadaisy (the fact that is has my name in it makes me smile!) and all of the characters, Especially Freckle! They all have such unique designs and as an artist who is pretty much obsessed with the subject, I really do appreciate such lovely designs in comics. Just the fact you've made tutorials to help others with their designs, Poses, Expressions etc. is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your stunning artwork with us all, I'm sure everybody appreciates it very much.

I agree with everything you've put into this journal, And by the way, The design process of that goblin character you did is very inspiring (as is all of this of course). Character design is something I'm really interested in doing as a profession when I'm older, So I love seeing other peoples' take on things as well as all of the fantastic tutorials here on DeviantArt. I keep coming back to this particular one in fact.

I'm not sure if you'll read this, But if you do, Thank you for your time! And I look forward to the next page of your beautiful comic! ^.^ 
stishly Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
This is incredibly helpful, on so many levels. Thanks for sharing your skills, you're a great teacher. :)
Izz-noxfox Featured By Owner Oct 24, 2014  Professional General Artist
This is a really, really great tutorial, and I'll be sure to link it to if someone ever asks about character design!
TechNijui Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This has to be one of the best tutorials based on art and character design I've seen in quite a while, not to mention very describtive, but also short and clear. I also like the visual assistance. A definite favourite by a very inspiring person. Thank you very much!
Faeleena Featured By Owner Oct 15, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Tracy, I hope you make an how to art book. Your sense of humour combined with well thought out directions that are intuitive and of appropriate length. I want to this in book or poster form. Or both!
totallyvisceral Featured By Owner Oct 2, 2014  Student
this is such an awesome helpful gift to the world! your work is nothing short of incredible @_@
bupaje Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2014  Professional General Artist
Great post.
miyuu1chan Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I have the same problem i'm trying to make a caracter of my dog and this would greatly help me with the progress.
Thank you :happybounce: 
tracyjb Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2014
I'm glad you found it helpful! =)
miyuu1chan Featured By Owner Aug 4, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
aRBy125 Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2014
This is a wonderful guide.  Thanks a lot for posting!
Tazi-san Featured By Owner Jul 20, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
Yup, it's a journey.
YellowRavenInk Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I truly thank you for this, you are always a great inspiration. Can't wait to see the second volume of Lackadaisy printed in Italy :)
SirQuacky Featured By Owner May 29, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Brilliant! Absolutely useful information there. Thank you so much for putting this together, :3
legathin Featured By Owner May 22, 2014  Student Filmographer
thank you for this.
KemikLy Featured By Owner Apr 23, 2014  Professional General Artist
This is so very useful! Thanks a tonne for putting this together! :heart:
KaguramiRen Featured By Owner Apr 23, 2014  Student Digital Artist
this is wonderful 
i tried to do like what you did and it was so hard to do
my draws become scary anyway 。◕ ‿ ◕。
Dracold Featured By Owner Apr 23, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Faved it, gonna read it later when I get some time. It looks really interesting and inspiring.
Sarosna Featured By Owner Mar 27, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you so much for this encouraging post. I've been trying to improve my drawing skills lately since I find my drawings horribly sketchy and scribbly. It has been a frustrating process and I'm having a hard time figuring out what I'm supposed to do. I've been using scribbly lines and "chicken scratch details" for so long that it's hard to push through and learn something new. I'm going to try some observational skecthing and playing around with shapes sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you again for these words of encouragement :)
Lazer-Cut Featured By Owner Mar 24, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I would like to thank you for the tips! Being a writer and all, I often end up putting up my character ideas in a word document, and try to create them there in words, this includes how they look like, act and their background. This does make out well rounded and cohesive characters, but unfortunately creates a stumble when I'm tasked to describe their appearance and facial reactions on events. I'm trying to correct this as of now, and I picked up drawing a half year ago as of this purpose, to increase my spacial skill. Though, I'm pretty inexperienced, and per my perfectionism, I end up using a long time on perfecting one speciality before moving on to the next. As of now, I'm stuck at portraits, with plans on moving on to non-perspective clothing and armor next. Maybe after then I'll try my hand at anatomy, poses and the like. 
Xeleny Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2014
Thanks for the tips, but it's honestly impossible to draw like you
Azleah44 Featured By Owner Mar 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
I am so using this as a reference.
Have you ever though about helping with project educate?
You'd be a great teacher. :)
Yanialch Featured By Owner Feb 17, 2014  Professional Digital Artist
Thank you very much for this journal! 
Pyrokitsune777 Featured By Owner Jan 24, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks! This has been a great help.
AziaMae Featured By Owner Jan 15, 2014  Student General Artist
Ohh... Wow... Thank you so much... I needed to hear this.
tianlei0108 Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2014  Hobbyist
IT IS AMAZING!!I like it very much ~
Saiyen Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2013
Thank you very much! It was exactly what I needed to hear / read.
CrypticMachine Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2013  Student General Artist
Thanks for posting this!<3 This is just what I needed. :D
Darkness-flowers Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2013  Student Digital Artist
Thank you so much! I've been having artist block for a while, and I think this'll help me draw some unique looking things again!
Imaginer-Fox Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you!! ;w;

*locks self in room and draws for 34567890 years*
ShadowOfSkills Featured By Owner Dec 18, 2013   Traditional Artist
An infinitely helpful article. No matter where you are as an artist... this is a beyond useful resource to have on hand.
nintensony Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow... your first journal in 2 years....... rad
MidnightDestiny04 Featured By Owner Dec 15, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks or sharing!
This is very insightful!
BTW, I love Lackadaisy!
kirlanda4ever Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2013
Thanks so much for the inspiration!!!
mae4632 Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2013
That was really interesting, thank you :D
3Fangs Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2013
I'm glad you posted this here as well as tumblr, because this has worlds of inspiration...=D
Every single tutorial you've done I love; you have a wonderful honesty in your writing and advice--and it's easy for a fellow artist to RELATE.
And it's as miraikazuya said--it's not so much your technique as it is the whole general vibe behind it. You have never once said that there's only "one" way to do something. You've never said your way is the "best" way, and you've never preached either for or against art classes...You have been encouraging artists to find THEMSELVES. Their OWN answers. You can give advice about the struggles you've went through, and people can relate in their own way. You've been encouraging artists to think for themselves, to find what works for THEM. And I think that's why so many can come away from one of your tutorials feeling like they really learned something. I think one of the most important messages that I've found within your work is that, in the world of art, none of us are alone. It's easy to give in to that struggle for the elusive idea of "perfection" and stop seeing the progress that's been made...But taking a moment to realize this is something that EVERY creative mind has fought with...THAT'S where it's truly inspirational.

Seeing how successful YOU are, and knowing you've felt the same exact  frustrations--I think that gives a nice message of hope.

I admit I've fallen out of art and into a blue funk--it's not been easy trying to find the motivation to get back into it...
But you've been a positive influence and I like to think I'm finally starting to move away from those inner demons screaming for "perfection"--because they're only holding me back. Coming to terms with the fact that the goalpost is a MOVING one has actually been a great comfort. It's been told to me, many times and from various sources, that "perfection" in art is a lie, because it's not a point we ever really GET to...(Because it keeps shifting away from us.) But it seems like I never fully believed it or understood it until I was reading your words and I realized the truth behind them.

So I just want to thank you. :thanks:
Thank you for the message of perseverance in art.
Thank you for taking the time to answer such questions as these!
And this is why Lackadaisy has such a loyal fanbase--it's heartening when a creator honestly CARES about their readers.

I'd also like to say thanks for having such an interest in wonderful words--Lackadaisy has been a positive influence on my own vocabulary as well. ;)
Caffinated-Cossack Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
THis will be very, very useful! Thanks so much!
Maellenkleth73 Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013  Professional General Artist
Awesome how your advice also translates into costume design for stage. 
sharkbyte3827 Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013
Thanks for sharing your experience with character design here. 

It's true that everything does take time and patience, especially withdrawing. I've forgotten that at times myself.  
This has been a helpful and encouraging read too get myself back into the work. I still have ways to go with my characters and a style for myself. But this has helped me break a few barriers I've made on myself when designing a character. 

Thanks again for sharing. 
BlackRavenKuria Featured By Owner Dec 7, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you so much for sharing this here from where where you answered that question. I found this most helpful. Thank you so very much.
MoonlightTyger Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
This is fantastic.  Thank you so much :)
KindCritic Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2013  Student Writer
You, m'am, are a genius.
Mattismen Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This was a good read, indeed.
GardevoirtheShroob Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2013  Student Digital Artist
Thanks a lot.
I am constantly frustrated over my art, everyone in real life says its good, and my watchers say too, but somehow, it just won't register as 'good' in my brain. I always see something wrong with it. I make a game using my characters too, programmed myself and drawn myself too, called Indigo Story (no 'free advertising' intended, I'm just talking 'bout it), and whenever I look at the retro-styled graphics, the characters, the worlds, the story, the gameplay (it's an RPG) I am most likely to see something that I want to change or improve, being the perfectionist I am. It is really getting annoying often. Why can't I just appreciate my art?
I'll take this guide and advice into consideration, and read everything thoroughly.
I'll fave this immediately.
AzureAmbition Featured By Owner Dec 4, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
THANK YOU! This is so helpful :D
dwilliams Featured By Owner Dec 4, 2013
Definitely something I need to hear of late...
Lemondiplomacy Featured By Owner Dec 4, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist

Plain excellence, what else needs to be said?

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