everybodys got a water buffalo
stop stop right this instant what do you think youre doing
you cant say everyones got a water buffalo everyone does not have a water buffalo we’re going to get nasty letters saying wheres my water buffalo why dont i have a water buffalo and are you prepared to deal with that i dont think so stop being so silly
Character design and concept art from Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille. Artwork by Carter Goodrich.
Source: Carter Goodrich
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 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, 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’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.)
- 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.
You can’t love her,because you can’t give her what you don’t have. - Fireproof Movie (2008)
I love the reaction I get from the cashier at Target when I check out with some dorky Ninja Turtles Tee shirt. They look up at me oddly with the expression that reads, “Aren’t you a little old for this?” To which I immediately respond nonchalantly, “I’m an animator.” And then they proceed to nod their head without a word.
I love being an artist. I get paid to be a dork and I have a great reason for buying T-Shirts with certain turtle ninja creatures on them. I made the best decision ever.
Some harsh but very very true words
When people let me review their portfolios (on career day or open days at my game design school) I explicitly ban them from commenting during the review… …because otherwise they will follow the impulse to downplay everything I see in an attempt at being humble.
"this is an old image…"
"I’m not happy with that one…"
"this is just a sketch…"
"I did this really quickly…"
"there is better stuff on later pages…"
It’s totally understandable to have those impulses. The quality of art is not empirical data and therefore impossible to measure. Good art, bad art, it all comes down to standards. And you don’t want to come off as naive or self-absorbed.
But just don’t do it. Don’t talk yourself down in front of others. In the best case you have someone supportive who now thinks “damn, this person needs to be prepped up all the time. Do I really want to work with somebody like that” or in worst case “now that you say it, yeah, this is kinda lame/rushed/unfinished/lazy, go away.”
You can only submit what you have. If that is not enough, then it’s not enough. Your attitude will not change that. But if it is enough, you can do serious harm by not being confident of who you are now.
This means appreciating what you are able to do right now and have a clear vision of what you want to learn, be confident that you will learn it in time.
This is really important. Eliminate this urge. Eliminate it professionally, when having contact with people in a position to buy your work. Eliminate it socially, when you just share your work for fun. Destroy this urge as thoroughly as you possibly can.
Because when you have done that, you’ll find that you feel at least 25% less shitty about your own work. You lose the urge to do it. You stop reinforcing those negative thoughts, and they retreat. They may never go away completely (although they might!) but this is good practice for ignoring those thoughts flat-out.
Don’t shit-talk yourself. Even if you can’t be SO PROUD, don’t ever try to influence anyone’s opinion toward your work in the negative.
Try to love your work. Try to see what you learned from each piece, even if it’s a failure. If you feel that you learned nothing, appreciate the fact that just spending time on it is honing your skills and giving you valuable practice.
i used to be super not-confident in my own work. When I stopped pointing out the flaws in my own stuff, I felt better about it almost immediately.
The piece of advice I got that helped me the most with this is; the people looking at your work be it your director or an HR person, trust them to know and see the good work there that you’ve become desensitized to. We all have rushed shots and stuff, they can see the polished diamond inside of a rock, it’s literally their job! So don’t fret too much!