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. I’ve gathered some thoughts and ideas here, though, in case they’re helpful.
First, some general things:
- Relax and 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 heddy 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, 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.
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 as you’re conjuring characters.
- Imitation is 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 this simple mobile game character, 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.
Here’s are some 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.
- Here’s an instructional video by Feng Zhu about doing much the same thing (only way better).
- Shapes are language. They come preloaded with all sorts of biological, cultural and personal connotations. They evoke certain things from us too. If you’ve 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.)
- You might also find it helpful to watch Bobby Chiu’s process videos in which he feels out his character designs as he paints.
- Cohesion and Style. As you move from thumbnails to more detailed 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.
- 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.
- Pose rendering 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 contrition Arthur Dimmesdale would be proud of. 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.
Anonymous asked: Sorry if you've already answered this but what are some good ways to get yourself motivated to write?
We have a lot on this! Augh, let me find some tags.
HEY WRITER FRIENDS
there’s this amazing site called realtimeboard which is like a whiteboard where you can plan and draw webs and family trees and timelines and all that sort of stuff. you can also insert videos, documents, photos, and lots of other things. you can put notes and post-its and, best of all, you can invite other people to be on the board with you and edit together!!
this is really really awesome and a great tool for novel planning, so if you’re doing nanowrimo…. this could be good for you!!
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner—and his colleagues Ralph Erber and Paula Raymond—first began to systematically explore “transactive memory” back in the ’80s. Wegner noticed that spouses often divide up memory tasks. The husband knows the in-laws’ birthdays and where the spare light bulbs are kept; the wife knows the bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo. If you ask the husband for his bank account number, he’ll shrug. If you ask the wife for her sister-in-law’s birthday, she can never remember it. Together, they know a lot. Separately, less so.
Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory.” We’re aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we’re good at intuiting the memory abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you discover that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y. So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to notepads and encyclopedias, because we’re much quicker to query: Just yell a fuzzily phrased question across to the next cubicle (where do we keep the thing that we use for that thing?) and you’ll get an answer in seconds. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter.
that’s an interesting article!
i never worried that technology was eroding my memory. i already knew my memory sucked, and having to remember things cut down on brainspace i could use for things i’d rather think about. knowing i can easily look something up frees me to use my personal memory on things a computer can’t help me with.
Yeah, I’ve known I was relying on the internet to be my backup brain for a while now, since I feel so gutted and uncertain when I can’t access it. But what’s really cool to consider is the part where humans are really good not at remembering information, but remembering where the information is. Like, we cache and store information. We let a partner or a book or the internet store something we need to know for us so we don’t have to drag it around, but we’ll still be able to go dig it up when we need it, and it’s not an acorn or a piece of meat, it’s knowledge. How cool is that?
I came across a very interesting article recently in regard to western society and the use of color, which explores colonial history and historical context.
But consider this: in the things that we make or buy, color tends to be reined in. While there are some rule-breakers out there, generally speaking, we think that bright colors are acceptable in limited doses, but too much vivid color can seem like an assault on the senses, or we just dismiss it as tacky.
For instance, it would be considered fashionable to wear a bright pink tie, so long as the suit is gray, but in general, we would find it eccentric or odd to wear a bright pink suit with a gray tie. And in terms of home decor, we’ve had plenty of heated debates about how tacky or inconsiderate it is to paint one’s home in a “loud” color, and it’s been reported that the most popular color for home exteriors is white.
Chromophobia is marked, not just by the desire to eradicate color, but also to control and to master its forces. When we do use color, there’s some sense that it needs to be controlled; that there are rules to its use, either in terms of its quantity or its symbolic applications (e.g., don’t paint your dining room blue because it suppresses appetite). Please note that I’m not arguing against color psychology; it’s undeniable that certain colors carry certain cultural assumptions and associations, a fact that has led anthropologist Michael Taussig to argue that color should be considered a manifestation of the sacred.
But what I am arguing is that there is a pervasive idea that color gets us in the gut: it’s seductive, emotional, compelling. Color, in the words of nineteenth-century art theorist Charles Blanc, often “turns the mind from its course, changes the sentiment, swallows the thought.”
According to some art critics, sensory anthropologists, and historians, this mutual attraction and repulsion to color has centuries-old roots, bound up in a colonial past and fears of the unknown.
Michael Taussig has recounted that from the seventeenth century, the British East India Company centered much of its trade on brightly colored, cheap, and dye-fast cotton textiles imported from India. Because of the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1720, which supported the interests of the wool and silk weaving guilds, these textiles could only be imported into England with the proviso that they were destined for export again, generally to the English colonies in the Caribbean or Africa.
These vibrant textiles played a key part in the African trade, and especially in the African slave trade, where British traders would use the textiles to purchase slaves. According to Michael Taussig, these trades are significant not only because they linked chromophilic areas like India and Africa, but also because “color achieved greater conquests than European-instigated violence during the preceding four centuries of the slave trade. The first European slavers, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, quickly learned that to get slaves they had to trade for slaves with African chiefs and kings, not kidnap them, and they conducted this trade with colored fabrics in lieu of violence.” Ironically, many of these slaves were then put to work in the colonies cultivating plants like indigo, that yielded dyes whose monetary values sometimes surpassed that of sugar.
In England, contemporaries often called the Indian textiles “rags” or “trash” and scorned their bright colors, and in Europe more generally, bright colors were taken as a sign of degeneracy and inferiority. The German writer Goethe famously stated that “Men in a state of nature, uncivilized nations and children, have a great fondness for colors in their utmost brightness,” whereas “people of refinement” avoid vivid colors (or what he called “pathological colors”).
In short, a love of bright color marked one as uncivilized, as not possessing taste, as being “foreign” or other. Color represented the “mythical savage state out of which civilization, the nobility of the human spirit, slowly, heroically, has lifted itself — but back into which it could always slide” (Batchelor, 23).
This danger of descent, of falling into degeneracy, disorientation, and excess, resulted in a valorization of the “generalized white” mentioned above. According to Batchelor, prejudice against color “masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable,” and the highly minimal, white spaces of contemporary architecture mark an attempt to rationalize and strictly limit an interior, to stop its merging with the world outside.
The “hollow, whited chamber, scraped clean, cleared of any evidence of the grotesque embarrassments of an actual life. No smells, no noises, no colour; no changing from one state to another and the uncertainty that comes with it.”