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 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.
- 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.
- homuzu said: Can I ask, how do you do that colour shifting effect? It’s subtle but looks really cool!
a friend of mine showed me this effect so there might be a tutorial for this already existing somewhere but i’ll show you
have the whole figure or such on one layer and duplicate it
select blending options on the duplicated layer
unselect any one of these channels. unchecking R will give you a red/blue effect, G gives a green/purple effect and B a blue/yellow effect. you can uncheck multiple ones or whatever floats your boat to get different effects
use the move tool and shift the duplicated layer a little bit in whatever direction. now there’s a 3D/weird colour effect on it!
This is really cool! I want to try it.
digital painting. playing with narrative composition. photoshop
Use colour layers sparingly. It’s very easy to go crazy and make it look filtered and gimmicky. I tend to only use multiply, colour burn and overlay layers. Because of this, I’ve gotten use to it enough that I know how certain colours will effect different tones. In the end if your tones are weak and unreadable (lacking contrast etc) then fancy colour layers won’t save you. For this sketch the focus is on the tonal contrast and composition. I wanted to emphasize the moment between the woman and the knight, using the colours to strengthen the somber mood and suggest a narrative. I like to think that the knight is apologizing to the woman. no ref.
gif of the painting process:
Sorry this was so darn long D:. tried to make it as short as possible. I’ve been asked quite a few times on how I paint before now, and I’ve never made an actual tutorial until now. Hope this helps clear some stuff up :).
say you drew a box and you want this box to become, I don’t know, a building:
and you want to divide the sides of the box in half, so you can know where to put the windows and doors and whatever! if you eyeball it, you’re probably going to miss the halfway point, and it will look stupid:
The answer is: Well, sort of!
I noticed that a lot of things I’ve been recommended or found useful aren’t really in the masterlists of artist references on tumblr - and the same goes for helpful drawing exercises. So I decided to make my own post.
HOW TO KILL ARTIST’S BLOCK
- There is no such thing as artist’s block, if you frequently draw from life.
- No, really.
- If you are really, truly committed to improving your craft, then it does no good to sit and complain that you “don’t know what to draw”. There is so much around you to draw! :)
- In public, try doing gestures of people that walk by. Cafes and shopping malls are great for this, because you have a plausible excuse to be sitting somewhere. Ideally, you don’t want people to notice you’re drawing them— they might try to pose, which makes them look stiff and unnatural.
- The best targets are people studying, anyone deep in conversation, and people at cash registers.
- If there are no people around, draw objects and rooms and practice your perspective.
AWESOME AND FUN EXERCISES FOR ARTISTS AND ILLUSTRATORS
- Draw a portrait where a body part other than the face/head is the focus.
- Do a full spread for a children’s story. It can be a fairy tale or an original story. Make sure to utilize good design principles and pick readable, high quality fonts that match your art style.
- Draw something using only high contrast light and shadow- no lines, no color, no midtones.
- Pick a crime report from the news, preferably an unconventional one. Illustrate it as best as possible, making sure to use a dramatic perspective and lots of realistic detail.
- Choose an object — one you haven’t drawn very much before. Gather lots of reference images. Draw it in two and three point perspective — bonus points if you can take the references and draw them from different angles than they were photographed. The goal here is to be able to visualize it easily without effort. This is a good exercise for product design and ideation, as well as concept art.
- Draw thirty people from life.
- Draw thirty people from your imagination. Make sure they’re just as well proportioned and realistic as your sketches from life.
- Do twenty studies of your hand, in various positions. Bizarre angles and positions are fine, but it’s more helpful to examine the construction of it and get used to drawing hands realistically.
- See above, but with your feet.
- Draw a study of a skull. Do not stylize it. Be careful to pay attention to the proportions and texture.
- Remember your object? Imagine it in a setting where it could be good or evil— perhaps interacting with humans or other objects. Avoid obvious angel/devil associations. Draw 3 pages of thumbnails and sketches imagining it in this way.
- Choose a thumbnail and do two larger sketches of it, and then pick one to bring to completion. Make sure it’s in proportion with accurate lighting for the situation.
- Redesign a fairy tale’s characters in either a modern or non-European setting. Provide costuming references, and make sure to do character sheets and full turns of each.
- Design your own deck of cards — make sure the borders and pattern on the back are paid as much attention as the figures on the fronts.
- Bonus points if you also design and illustrate packaging for the above.
- Do you have a favorite piece of fanart? Draw it as original characters- chances are, you’ve likely put a lot of thought into the relationships and personalities of your favorite characters or OTP, which will show through in an original piece. This is a decently good way to use fanworks in your portfolio, if you feel that they’re better than your original work.
- Draw a car. A really realistic car. Now draw it from a perspective you find really difficult. You are not allowed to take more than half an hour on this total— cars are actually just boxes with some strategic curves, so they should become very easy to gesture once you retrain your brain.
- Draw a table in perspective 5-6 times or so, concentrating on the way it casts a shadow. Make sure to define your light source.
- Design a toy! Draw it from multiple angles — imagine you’re presenting this to someone who has to actually model and produce it. Include as much information as humanly possible. Make sure to include an illustration of its use — you can also create an advertisement, if you’re so inclined.
- If you watch TED lectures, draw portraits of your favorite speakers while you’re viewing them. Try and finish the sketch during the duration of the talk.
- Do an original illustration inspired by two of your favorite illustrators or artists— combining two should help prevent you from directly copying anyone, and force you to think a little harder about solving problems within a work.
- Do 30 studies of animals in motion - housepets or birds are probably going to be the easiest, unless you live by a zoo.
- Fill three full pages of your sketchbook with hard surface studies. (Cars, ships, tractors— you get the idea.) Try to define them with quick, confident lines.
- Make a comic with one panel for each hour of your day. Avoid shortcuts like over the top, animeish emotes and chibi versions of yourself. Make sure to include environments.
- Draw ten illustrations as a series that purposely do not tell a story. They must be as ambiguous as possible. This is really difficult — was originally an assignment from Phoebe Gloeckner, and almost nobody managed to be completely ambiguous. The trick to it is to make sure to create thumbnails of the series first, and look at your work very critically — if anything looks too obviously negative or positive, alter it accordingly.
- Draw yourself combined with your favorite animal, or an animal you feel represents you well. Avoid traditional anthro depictions— try replacing your body parts with the parts you’d find most useful, or thinking of yourself like a sphinx, etc.
- Create a poster for your favorite play.
- Draw yourself at age 7, and age 70. Realistically. Avoid thinking of how cool or uncool you’d be or were. Using pictures of your younger self, or relatives, might help.
- Paint a still life with unconventional lighting or objects. If you must use fruit, use weird fruit, or light it from below.
- Pile books into a tower and draw them in perspective. It’s also fun to make cities out of them, etc.
- Draw yourself every day for a month in the same media to track improvement. Use a mirror, not a photograph.
- Remember your still life? Now illustrate it in the style you’re accustomed to using.
- Draw six busts (head and shoulders) in profile, concentrating on creating an interesting silhouette.
- Do color studies of your favorite movie scenes. If you can’t find screenshots, pause the movie and paint from your television or laptop. Detail’s not as important as strong shapes.
- Draw your favorite place by your home.
- Illustrate a fortune cookie.
- Draw a treehouse or birdhouse and include as many details as possible.
- Design a historical character, and try to make them recognizable by quirks of wardrobe or unique facial features. “Being extraordinarily attractive” does not count.
- Do the 30 day monster challenge!
- Illustrate your favorite recipe. It doesn’t have to be fancy. “How to make pizza rolls” will even suffice. Seriously.
- Make a business card for yourself. Illustrate it. Hey, everyone needs one- and it’s a great exercise for working under strict constraints, since you’ll need to make sure your name and contact info are clearly legible.
- Draw the weirdest object you can possibly find. IKEA is a really awesome place to find weird objects, if you can’t find any in your home.
- Design a knight of the round table, and make sure to research armor, etc— it’s hard to draw! Great practice.
- Draw ten or twenty plants that are currently seasonal.
BOOKS THAT ARE REALLY USEFUL!
- The Art of Ralph McQuarrie. Yeah, this is expensive. But it’s one of the few artbooks that shows an entire process of illustration— if you’re not sure how to proceed from thumbnails to mockups to final pieces, this is probably what you want to be lookin at.
- How to Analyze People on Sight by Elsie Lincoln Benedict and Ralph Paine Benedict. This is available for free online— awesome resource for character design, as it teaches you to think about external characteristics as indicators for personality. Even if it’s not always the most accurate thing ever.
- Leonardo DaVinci’s Notebooks. Yes, I know. Your relatives have even probably tried to get you to look at these. If you can find a good printing of them, though, it’s a really good look at a well used sketchbook.
- The Selected Works of TS Spivet. Not actually a real art reference book, but so many beautiful illustrations and well laid out. Worth a look.
- Drawing with Imagination. Lots of exercises to do if you “can’t think of anything to draw”.
- Any batman artbook. Any of them. I have the OnStar promo one from about ten years back, and it’s still great. There’s a huge mesh of styles going on, and seeing how much thought is put into the character designs and environments is well worth your money. Plus, Batman is cool.
- Any Pixar or Disney artbook that shows the visual development process. The Princess and the Frog is a particularly good example of this, and possibly my favorite, even though I dislike the actual film. They really make sure to show all of their art department’s sketches and preproduction work.
- The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed. Also available on project gutenberg, and will revolutionize the way you think about drawing. It’s a bit wordy and dated, but worth it alone for the lesson that we do not draw what we see, in reality. Go read it.
WEBSITES THAT ARE VERY USEFUL
- behance.net - mostly for inspirational purposes, and worth getting one, if you’re in the industry or trying to be
- http://greyscalegorilla.com/blog/2011/04/fck-you-pay-me/ The most important lesson you will ever learn.
- Noah Bradley’s twitter. Tends to retweet useful advice. Blog is good too.
- http://lackadaisy.foxprints.com/exhibit.php?exhibitid=333 Lackadaisy’s expressions tutorial. Take note, intrepid comickers.
- http://conceptcraniopagus.deviantart.com/gallery/24184227 Here’s some decent concept art tutorials.
- http://galadarling.com/article/i-want-to-be-part-of-an-evil-illustrator-duo Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon talk about working as illustrators and how to do what they do. Sort of overlooked but vastly awesome.
- http://comictool.blogspot.com/search/label/brushes Do you ink? You should probably try using brushes, if you do. This blog is terrifyingly in depth on your brush needs.
- http://www.retronaut.com/2012/02/soviet-space-propaganda-posters-1958-1963/ Here are some awesome retro posters. Retronaut is a great reference resource in general.
- http://freakshow6.deviantart.com/art/Photoshop-Gouache-Tutorial-177890902 Do you want to be cool like Loish or many other people using this brush? Of course you do! Here’s how to do it. Warning: may be addicting.
- What Skin Colors? How to effectively deal with lighting human skin. Doesn’t include any skintones for POC, unfortunately, as is a common problem with many art tutorials.
- Gradient Tutorial Literally one of the most important things to learn when painting digitally, IMO.
- Texture Brushes Some good brushes.
- DanLuVisiArt Some more good brushes.
- Quick Facial Anatomy Tips …with links to other facial anatomy tips. Of course this isn’t a substitute for drawing from life, but it sure helps :)
- http://lostandtaken.com/ Free textures for your work! I would encourage making your own, in the long run, but these work well.
- http://www.watercolorpainting.com/pigments.htm The masterlist of watercolor pigments. Really helpful if you’re ordering from Blick or Utrecht and can’t recall the difference between one pigment or another, god forbid.
- http://minyos.its.rmit.edu.au/aim/a_notes/p_images/walk_2_legs(side).gif How to do various walk cycles. Very exaggerated, of course.
- http://ilovetypography.com/2008/04/04/on-choosing-type/ Nice article on choosing type. You should always be mindful of how your type choice works with your artwork.
USEFUL THINGS TO OWN
- Brown paper sketchbook. Makes defining volume a lot easier, for beginners and advanced artists alike— just get a white pencil and go crazy with highlights.
- Small sketchbook. For all the times you can’t bring an a4 one someplace. Also good for sketching in public. Moleskines are good, as they get mistaken for ordinary notebooks often. See notes on sketching humans in public.
- White pencils.
- Several weights of mechanical pencil— awesome for when you can’t drop pencil shavings places.
- A small package of prismacolor pencils. You don’t need to go crazy, but high quality pencils are really a necessity, IMO. A 12 pack will do. If you find they’re too soft, or keep snapping, try using the Verithin variety instead— they’ve got harder leads.
- A good ruler. At least 6”. Tape pennies to it to avoid bleeding ink.
- Tracing paper, so that you don’t have to completely redraw your semi-final sketch if you like it.
- Masking tape. Keeps paper still on a worktop, and keeps tracing paper in place. Touch it to your clothes a couple times before sticking it to your paper to reduce the stickiness and possibility of your paper ripping.
- Pen and ink. Also some good sable brushes.
- Carbon dust. Not a necessity, but it allows you to “paint” while still getting the effect of a pencil drawing.
- Good kneaded eraser.
- Good white plastic eraser.
- A COMFORTABLE bag. That holds your electronics and wallet as well as all of this.
- Fingerless gloves. If your hands cramp often, these will help.
- A website. Coroflot.com or tumblr will work fine. If using a tumblr, make a separate one for your art.
Wheew. That’s all I have for now, I think!
Hm, I do think that art block exists.
Not exactly in the “I have no idea what to draw” way but in the way that you are either burnt out on drawing or everything you’re currently making is causing an extreme amount of frustration (your illustrations don’t look as good as they used to be / as good as you want them to be / are completely overworked messes, etc) and you just want to quit for a little while.
Although trying to discourage these emotions (ART BLOCK ISN’T REAL!) can be a good motivational force, it could be more beneficial to really examine and address why you feel this way. (Life stresses, harsh self-criticism, not being able to draw hands, etc). But, imo, it’s important to still keep drawing every day even despite not wanting to.
I’m not saying you should be churning out finished illustrations, but breaking out of your current methods could help. If you are completely frustrated with art it might be good to dial back from complex works and start simple over the next few days. Life drawing really is the best tool to get back into the swing of things, I agree with that! But it might be a good idea to mess around with different art mediums or draw different subjects you haven’t tried to before as well.
Take this art block as an excuse to make “bad art” over the next two/three days (giving yourself a break from your inner critic!) and try to fill a few sketchbook pages with doodles / life drawings every day. (Maybe sketch some hands if you’ve been having trouble, don’t worry about getting them wrong. Try taking away the eraser and only use pen!) This is what I usually do and it really helps me gain some motivation and creativity back over time. If I have art block and I just completely stop drawing out of frustration, it seems to just make things worse when I do try again and the cycle of negativity continues.
But of course, do whatever will make you happiest. Some people get much more inspired by taking a full break from drawing and try writing, or read/watch inspiring things and come back to their sketchbook later. When becoming an artist, it’s really important to find out how your mind works and what process works the best for you. Everyone faces art block in one form or another eventually and it’s good to be prepared for when it happens again in the future.
I’m not an expert on anything but I just wanted to add my two cents and mention some stuff that helps me
I was going to review my french and linguistics but then this happened instead.
Except it’s 3.30am so it’s half-assed. //shotdead
But hopefully people will find this of use. \o/ Sorry this took so long, Anon, and I hope it answers your questions.
this is beautiful
My work tends to be super contour-centric, so this was super helpful in terms of exploring new things.