Learn and Grow
Character Drawing: 10 Beginner Tips To Take It To The Next Level
Great characters make great stories.
Character drawing is one of the first steps to bringing your character to life.
Sketching out your idea on paper is a great way to turn an idea into a real, tangible concept before molding it into its full potential. Learning how to draw characters that go with the voices in your narrative is definitely not an easy job, but it is one of the most important ones. After all, great characters make great stories.
They are the boats that carry us through the wavy oceans on The Titanic, that swing us through the skyscrapers of Spiderman, and they bridge the gap between our lives and a completely new world. They keep us engaged and connected.
If you’re a creator who’s interested in getting started with illustrations and learning how to draw characters that fit your vision, we’ve rounded up ten of the biggest drawing tips to help inspire you, starting with:
10. Know Your Character’s Story
Writers know everything about their character and, as the artist designing them, you should too!
Try to focus on building a design that reflects the character, personality, backstory, and current situation. That way, your character fits into its own world and its own personality. When doing this, the small details can really make all the difference.
Sometimes small, hidden visual details of your drawing can add a whole new layer to your story. Try using symbolic elements, colors, and shapes. The details are what can really take your drawing from good to great. But it’s also equally important not to overdo it, and to not force symbolism when it just doesn’t suit the drawing.
An easy way to start this process is to make a list of adjectives, features and personality traits – this will help you know your character and decide what you want it to look like” This way, you can understand who they are and how your drawing can incorporate those elements. You can add other columns that might help you understand your character even better, but here’s a simple example of an exercise you could do to get started:
9.Use Other Character Drawings As References
We believe in helping each other learn and grow. And part of growing is looking to other artists for inspiration.
Yet, there seems to be a certain stigma around artists using tools like reference images for their work. But really, every artist does it – and every artist should do it!
Just keep in mind that you don’t have to follow them exactly. Don’t put yourself into a box or restrict your artistic eye because of them. Find your own unique take on the picture, and let yourself adjust elements as needed to make your drawing the best it can be.
Better yet – switch up your references. Compile a bunch of pictures together that give you a rounded out view of what you are drawing and create your own interpretation. You can even create your own reference images by taking photographs.
Especially when starting out, learning from the work and experience of past creators is how we can get inspiration and ultimately grow as artists.
This goes for any creative work including character drawing. With character design, sometimes looking at other people’s sketches and processes can be a really great tool to spark some new ideas. Then, you can apply that to your own work.
Combining elements, helping one another, and sharing ideas is how we gain momentum and inspiration to move forward; it’s how we make progress.
As they say, the greatest things are never created alone.
8. Give The Pencil The Power
Sometimes we just don’t know what to draw. And one of the best ways to improve our creative drawings is to just let the pen take over.
Just try things and pull yourself out of that restrictive mindset of forcing yourself to be creative. But if you struggle with the blank page and still need a bit of guidance, you could pick a very general topic, color, mood or a theme and just see what you happen to come up with.
Draw from your imagination, even if your drawings don’t turn out as planned. That is the whole point, after all – to find those hidden gems you know are buried in you somewhere, but just need a little light to help them shine.
Pushing through a lack of inspiration and just letting your creativity run wild, might just be what you need to help improve your design and character drawing. By allowing yourself the space to be free and creative, you’re allowing the space for solutions to present themselves and for your character to speak for itself.
“It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover, to your surprise, that you have rendered something in its true character.”
7. Divide Your Character Into 3 Different Sections
If you’re stuck on where to start for your character drawing, some artists like to divide up their character into three different sections: The head, the torso, and the bottom.
Once you’ve done this, decide the height of each section. Then, decide the width.
You can draw them just as boxes like this:
6. Mix And Match Your Shapes
When you’re first learning how to draw characters, it’s great practice to try and design them with as much of a unique look as possible. This will help them stand out in the sea of content. So, when you dive into your character drawing, make sure to use your creativity!
People are always looking for new ideas. The creator economy is so large, and the amount of talent out there is overwhelming. Using your perspective and your creativity, and applying that to your character drawings, will make your designs feel fresh and unique. And that’s what will catch the eyes of your audience and keep them interested.
Most characters can be drawn by just stacking simple shapes and then adjusting them from there. So, a technique that many artists use to make their characters unique is mixing shapes – like circles and triangles – to combine a look of harsh angles and soft angles. This can be a great way to create a cool contrast within your character drawings.
5. Try The Silhouette Test
Part of great character design is having your characters be memorable.
And making your characters memorable means being able to recognize them even without their inner details. In other words, you should be able to tell who your character is by its outline alone.
To make sure you’re on the right track, it can be great practice to turn your drawing into a silhouette or outline (to see if you can still distinguish their unique features). This can show you whether or not they’re recognizable enough against the other characters in your story, or against other characters that are already out there in the world.
Turn them into silhouettes and try using the “squint test” to see if you can identify their outlines. If it starts to get messy or questionable, you may need to work on it more. Create exaggerated hairstyles, clothes, heights and widths of your different characters that will show up clearly in their outlines.
Similarly to brands that we can recognize in any color or setting, this helps your character be recognizable the moment your audience sees them.
You can see in the picture below that the most popular characters start with great designs that can still be identified even if you can’t see their face.
4. Show All Their Sides
Drawing every side to your character is important to really get a rounded feel and look for your character.
Most character designers and artists will display the character in multiple drawings, with different expressions, movements, clothes, and more. They will also create what’s called a character turnaround, which is a 360 view of each character.
It usually consists of 5 different views. The front, back, left profile, right profile and a 3/4 pose. This process is made easier by starting with the front side and also creating guidelines to keep the right proportions for all of the angles of your character drawing.
It gives you a chance to decide whether or not you are happy with the way your character looks in action before they’re brought to life in your story.
3. Step Away
Just like with any kind of content creation, sometimes we just need to take a break.
In today’s world, we are so focused on productivity that we forget to take breaks and take care of ourselves too.
It’s been proven that taking downtime is essential in order to develop our understanding of others, grow as people and even properly build our own code of ethics. It allows us to think, reflect, process information we’ve learned and apply it to our lives.
The best ideas are drawn from experiences, so taking time to let our brains rest and reflect can actually make our work better. It helps give it meaning. It’s in that time off that we get those “ah ha!” moments that we’re always looking for when we’re sitting at our desks trying to create.
If you find yourself stuck or struggling during your character drawing process, you might find it really helpful to just take a break from it for a while. Sometimes you need to let yourself gain a bit of perspective.
Then, once you come back, you’ll be able to look it over with fresh eyes. You might find you have a completely different outlook on your character afterwards, and you might realize that a simple break is enough to give yourself the space you need to see an answer that has actually been there all along.
2. Start Over
Sometimes, if the design isn’t there – it just isn’t there.
You’re going to have to face a lot of challenges as a content creator, and it takes a while to get through the not-so-great ideas to get to the great ones. Starting from scratch when you’ve worked so hard might feel impossible, but remember: being a creator is a process. A lifestyle. And that means you’re constantly going to be reinventing and improving.
All storytellers have to find a way to be okay with scrapping ideas. Part of learning how to draw characters is learning to let go of a design if the concept isn’t strong enough, and moving on to something new. No matter how strongly we might feel about it.
You’re not a “terrible” artist just because something you made doesn’t work. It means you’re human, and it means you’re learning. And it means you’re on the right track. Just take some time to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go well and then move on.
In the end, part of being a great content creator is knowing when to hold on, and when to let go.
1. Learn to Draw From Your Imagination
Learning how to draw characters, like anything else, is a skill we can all build. An ability we can practice and turn into a strength.
It all starts with understanding and practicing techniques.
Understanding shading, shapes, textures and color are all going to help you pull ideas from your mind, and put them on the page. You have to get used to drawing things from what you see around you, in order to be able to draw from your imagination.
One of many great exercises you can try is focusing on drawing just one subject for a whole month. Practice and practice again until you’ve understood its shapes, shading, color and form. Then, next month, move on to a different one. You could start with something like dogs, then move onto people and so on.
Once you’ve mastered drawing these subjects from reference, try drawing them from a different angle without a reference image. Getting used to drawing something that is already somewhat familiar without guidance will help you draw subjects directly from your imagination much easier.
Drawing from the imagination is exactly what Anthony Fransisco, a Senior Visual Development Artist at Marvel Studios, believes is crucial to successful character drawing and design. He believes everybody has the ability to draw, and he follows a three step method for teaching artists how to draw from the imagination. By focusing on these steps, you are bound to learn how to take your drawing abilities to the next level.
These 10 tips for character drawing are only simple starting points to consider on your illustration journey. If you want to learn drawing tips and learn how to bring a character idea to life with Anthony’s three step process, be sure to check out the Anthony Francisco Academy course.
How to Design Characters with Bold Fashion and Strong Silhouettes
There are many angles we can look into before we design a character. Drawing the design depends on what our goal is: Is it for an animation series? Maybe a game? How detailed can we go?
Maybe we want to focus on the silhouette to make our character memorable for a comic/story we are creating, or maybe we just want to show off our fashion sense. Maybe we want to do all of them at once!
For this tutorial however, we’ll focus on fashion and silhouette.
We can show a character’s attitude simply by their design. How we decide the pose also helps reinforce that. Let’s say our character is mostly one of these attitudes:
1. Calm and Cool
Unless the character is meant to be over-the-top unique, a “calm and cool” character tends not to wear neon rainbow-colored trousers with memes and unicorns printed on their shirts, with small fluffy wings growing out their backs. This kind of character exudes… eccentric, or even annoying, yet quirky happy vibes. Definitely not our goal! Instead, we might want them to wear a red jacket, a gritty thick black cape, silver light armor, wielding two blood-red long swords, and gold and silver accessories all over.
2. Shy and Girly
“Shy” is a bit hard to show design-wise without the help of posing, but if we really want to show that our character is shy without facial expressions or body language, then we can consider what shy people do—they “hide” a lot.
This gives us ideas of “covering up,” maybe they have really thick, layered clothes. A hat to hide their faces. A fan or an umbrella to hide even more of their faces. Or they live in a big pot with a small crack on it while their pet wendigo carries them around.
“Girly” on the other hand is easy to show, for example with pastel colors, pink, and flowers:
What about “Girly” but more emo?:
3. Angry and Brutal
If someone asks us to show “angry and brutal” simply through a character design, we tend to think about a big character and how they execute this brutality. They crush skulls with their bare hands. They wield a hammer or a chainsaw. They have big jaws and sharp teeth.
To show that they are exclusively using their bare fists to fight, it’s a good idea to give them muscles, and make them big or tall. A well-trained body means the character is strong and has the realistic capacity to intimidate just standing in front of us — even without wielding weapons at all. Which is why big monsters or beasts are usually boss fights in video games.
The sample below is a “gentle, but scary when angry, treant that likes taking care of nature and plants, but get in the way and it will stomp you”-type character:
Of course, this applies only when we want to show the personality through the design only.
Posing is an important factor in character art.
Anyway, it’s time to look for inspiration! If our character is a knight, obviously we look up warriors. Inspiration is everywhere. We can look at other people’s photos or art. Sometimes we get an awesome idea when we’re in bed about to sleep at 3 a.m. (Grab your phone and write that down before you forget by the way!)
Character Design: Portrait
For this tutorial, we are using food as inspiration, because who doesn’t get inspired by food? Our inspiration for this character is matcha, whipped cream, waffles, and sweets.
A portrait character design focuses on the face and hair features. Let’s start!
Basic head shape
With the word ‘whipped cream’ in mind, I draw her hair fluffy and curly.
I add more details to the sketch to make her hair look even fluffier until I’m satisfied with the level of details.
Since our inspiration is matcha and whipped cream, our colors will also end up as green and white. On another layer, I draw the division of these colors as a “splat” shape. This shape is inspired by chocolate drip on ice-cream toppings.
I draw the details on separate layers, taking inspiration for her hair clips from sweets. So the remaining themes are ice-cream and waffle.
Then I add wafer biscuits, cherry on cream, strawberry, and chocolate drip (on top of the waffle)
Next are fruit loops and three macarons.
And finally, some wafer and biscuit sticks, and three ice cream scoops. Phew, that’s a lot! We can have fun populating our design as much as we want, but make sure not to overdo it!
Once I’m happy with the hairclip designs, I can proceed to colors. Make a layer below the lines. I use matcha green and whipped cream white. I use brown to reflect the color of waffles for her skin.
On separate layers, I color the hair clips. Notice that no strong colors like saturated reds, dark blues, bright purples or neon greens were used. That’s because I’d like to stick to a ‘sweet’ image, so I chose colors that will not attack the eyes. Basically, more muted or pastel colors.
However, to bring attention to her face or eyes, using a strong color is an advantage. In the end, I am drawing a character, not a dessert. So even if our viewers’ eyes look at the yummy hair details, we still want them to go back and look at the character’s face.
Add some light and shadow and I’m done!
Character Design: FULL BODY
This full-body design will focus on the character’s outfit, so we will make a front and back view character sheet. Our inspiration this time is nabe, a Japanese hotpot!
We can go as crazy as we want when drawing the silhouette. As long as we can make it work, nothing is wrong in the art world.
While silhouette is really important when it comes to character design, I will have a preference on style and fashion over silhouette. (This may make the design weaker, but personally aesthetic is much more important to me!)
Inspirations for the major shapes:
- Rice noodles for her hair (the flat noodles)
- A chopstick for her weapon.
- A bowl for her jacket and collar
While sketching, think of a rough idea of the colors. Make it a part of the design process. Using my imagination, I assign colors on the clothes while I sketch.
If you feel that the colors are too monotonous, you can add accessories like a bag, a gadget, a weapon, a toy, etc. then plan for that item’s color as well.
Also, plan what sort of fabric it is to help us decide how to draw the clothing folds. Fewer folds generally indicate thicker or heavier fabrics.
You can also plan the texture or material (leather, cotton, etc.) if you want to render later on.
For this design, let’s include what the character’s clothes look like underneath her jacket, so viewers don’t conclude that she’s only wearing undergarments or a plain white shirt. Since her jacket is detailed and bulky, it is cool to have contrast and make her a simple skin-tight suit that shows off her shapes when she’s without her jacket.
Detailed – Simple
Bulky – Fitted
Now that we’re done with that, let’s start designing the jacket. I draw a separate sketch for the jacket’s print. The print includes ingredients that usually found in Japanese hotpots: green onion, carrots, mushrooms, thin-cut beef, etc.
I’ve designed lettuce leaves and a simplified shrimp soft toy for her hair tie if you have noticed. Choosing green and red colored items is deliberate, because these colors make up a large portion of the nabe ingredients’ colors, thus are likely to work well.
‘Blending’ colors is one way of choosing our colors.
If the jacket print features cacti which are largely pale green, her hair tie can be the flowers of blooming cacti, which are commonly white, fuchsia or yellow.
Or I can draw three giant cactus spikes, then color them white, fuchsia and yellow.
But why did I not choose green when cacti are largely green, you ask? That could work, but:
Largely pale green + Sudden burst of bright colors = Contrast.
This is another way of choosing colors.
Base colors. Having knowledge on color theory will help a lot upon deciding our colors. The choice of yellow and blue is also deliberate. Like red and green, these are hot and cold colors.
Front and Back:
The jacket’s colors: The rest of the jacket’s colors are inspired by cup ramen labels. The design is so that if the print was pasted on a cup ramen container or label, it would almost pass as one.
I add the chopstick weapon, some shadows and lights, and I’m done!
Rynn (also known as midorynn) is a self-taught artist who mainly uses digital tools and software such as Clip Studio Paint and Photoshop. Having worked five years on various freelance projects on animation, illustration, and design, she has learned a variety of techniques and know-how that she is enthusiastic to share with other self-taught artists.
Character design is a tricky thing to master. It’s one of those tasks that seem very simple when you look at them from afar and that turn out to be quite more difficult when you try your hand out at them for the first time.
Most of the characters you’ve seen along the years are extremely simple. Think about most cartoon characters, for one. Well, as it turns out, there’s a lot of work going on in order to properly design a character.
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So you have the blank canvas in front of you, and you want to create a great character. How do you go about doing that? It it’s your first time doing that, you probably have no idea where to get started. Don’t worry, though. Help is here! We’ve created a list of 10 tips that will get you started on successfully designing great characters easily.
From Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Betty Boop to Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and Finn & Jake, the key element seems to be simplicity. One thing you know you need are clean lines and easily readable features. But there’s a lot more to it than that, as we’ll see further on.
You need to know more than that, that’s a fact. You need to know which elements of their anatomy to exaggerate and which to play down. You need to know what to include to give the character depth and how to easily let the characters’ personality show through the design.
For instance, did you know that the design for Bugs Bunny is based on the “Screwball” archtype? This archtype features an elongated head, a not too big, skinny neck, exaggerated features (in this case, the ears, that reflect the characters’ mood), a pear-shaped body, low forehead and skinny legs.
This archtype is one of many developed by Preston Blair, the guy who literally wrote the book on cartoon character design and animation. He wrote it in 1947 and used the characters he created for Disney and MGM as references. Here are only a few images taken from his book documenting archtypes such as The Screwball, The Cute Character, The Heavy Character and The Goofy Character. You can take a further look at the book over at Animation Resources.
The Cute Character
The Heavy Character
The Goofy Character
Okay, that’s enough introduction. Blairs’ guide is great, but it isn’t really all that modern, is it? Well, let’s take a look at what you need to do in order to create great character designs in the 21st century.
1. Don’t Use Too Much Color
Color is great. A good character will be colored. But take a look at any of the characters we’ve mentioned so far or any of your own favorites. Starting with Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck and up to Scooby Doo and Dexter from Dexters’ Laboratory, all the greatest characters use color sparingly.
This is because too much color will confuse the viewer. When you use many colors, the people viewing your character won’t know where too look at, as you’re providing them with too many points of interest at once. Ideally, you should stick to no more than three base colors and some value variations.
2. Be Inspired When Designing
All the greatest cartoon characters are inspired by one idea and one idea alone. Everything about their design serves to further that idea. You can look at virtually anyone, but let’s talk about Gambit from the X-Men.
Look at him, everything about the character design tells you what his personality is. He’s been designed as a scoundrel, like Han Solo in Star Wars, or Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. All his accessories are made to match his personality. You can tell by his facial features he has quite a bit of success with the ladies, the playing cards accessory only serve to add to his loveable rogue mystique. His weapon of choice (other than the exploding cards) is a staff, proving he has the agility most thieves do, the overcoat furthers his personality as a shady character and so on.
You need to know exactly what the main trait of your character is going to be and make sure everything you include in the characters’ design, from hairstyle, facial features and posture to outfit and accessories, serve to get this trait across.
3. Give Them a Distinctive Shape
Nothing is more boring than a lineup of characters with the same body type. You need to make sure your character stands out from the others. Ideally, you should be able to recognize your character when presented with nothing more than their silhouette.
Learn to draw different body types. Personalize your characters’ body shape according to their personality and their main trait. For instance, if your character is mostly agile, you should make them small and wiry. If they’re exceptionally strong, you may want to make them look more like heavy-set characters. The illustration above is a great example of different body shapes properly used in character design.
4. Keep Everything Simple
No matter how intricate your character design is, you should be able to break it down easily. That is to say, if you can’t convey the overall shape of your character and clothes in ten strokes or less, then you’re not thinking simple enough.
The best character clothing & design is always simple when broken down. Follow this rule and you’ll have no problems with your character art.
5. Make Sure You Can Draw Them Again
You should be able to draw your characters over and over. If they’re successful designs, you may just have to. Draw them in a few postures, seen from various angles and make sure that drawing them again and again isn’t tedious.
As a rule of thumb, you should stay away from designs that include elaborate patterns on clothing or tattoos. Those will probably be impossible to duplicate and get right from all angles all the time.
You should definitely exaggerate your characters’ defining features. That will help it stick out and help the viewers easily identify their key traits. For instance, if your character is strong, give them ridiculously oversized muscles. If they’re cool and thin, make them ridiculously thin and give them oversized sunglasses and accessories and so on.
7. Make Them Expressive
Remember that bit about Bugs Bunnys’ ears we had at the beginning? Well, those ears of his are the primary way the rabbit conveys its emotions. Make sure your character includes certain features that make them expressive and that can help the viewer easily pick up on what the character is thinking or feeling.
While keeping your design simple is important, so are the accessories. Remember when we looked at Gambit? Most of his personality came through from the accessories attached to their person. You should definitely include accessories that are illustrative for your characters’ main features and their background.
Not only can you convey the characters’ background with accessories (like diamonds and gold to reflect that a character is rich), but they can also show what their personality is. With Gambit, a deck of cards handled adeptly show you he’s a charismatic hustler and one who will not shy away from a gamble. With a pirate, you can make their particular social station much clearer by drawing a parrot on their shoulder.
9. Use Colors to Reflect Their Personality
Your characters’ color scheme will tell your viewers what their alignment is. Traditionally, black and dark colors are associated with villains or evil characters, while light colors are associated with the good guys. Use neutral colors to convey a loveable rogue. Strong colors like reds, yellows and blues are traditionally used for heroic characters in comics. Make sure you use the proper color scheme for your character.
10. Make Them Unique!
Most importantly, your character must be unique. All their facial features, their body type, their posture, their scars and other deformities should come together to create a completely unique character that you can instantly recognize.
Don’t base this uniqueness solely on accessories and hair, these aspects can change over time. Ideally, you should design your character so you can recognize them even if they were naked and bald.
Use their height, their body type, their weight, their scars, their posture, their skin tone, the length of their limbs and that of their neck, the shape of their mouth, that of their nose and that of their eyes, the placement of their eyes, nose, mouth and ears to create completely unique and instantly recognizable characters.
That about wraps up our list of 10 tips & tricks to create awesome character designs easily. Keep them in mind and you’ll be creating memorable characters soon enough. Now it’s your turn! What are the things you keep in mind when designing a new character? What are your dos and don’ts? Let us know in the comments section below!
If you are a designer or artist looking to build their portfolio, check out Pixpa.com
7 Tips for Character Design - Drawing Better Characters
I’ll elaborate on some of the tips below:
Sketch them small at first (thumbnail drawing):
Creating tiny drawings sparks a flurry of ideas, and they’re really fast to make. Refer to the video for a demo.
Mark the best ones and draw them larger:
The most appealing thumbnails will generally make the most appealing finals. When you scale up the little drawing, all those ideas can be more fleshed out. Take the things you love about the little one, and keep their essence strong as you re-draw.
Create variants on your second drawing:
Once you’ve done the drawing, keep trying different variants on the charcters hair, clothes, accessories, skin color, etc…You might not fall in love with just one of the versions, and have to mix n’ match for the best result.
Think in terms of shape design:
Shapes inform the viewer. They say things like “This character is sharp.” or “This character is round and approachable.” Or even “This character is detailed and dangerous.” Shapes will permit us to access these feelings. A triangular hat, a square wristband, it’s all about knowing when to deploy each shape for the effect desired.
Write down or mull over the backstory:
If you’re feeling stuck visually, then thinking with words can generate more ideas. in the “Modern Druid” example, I was verbally musing, and it helps as well. If you can write down stats like height and weight, or even a paragraph or two on the character’s bio, you’ll feel more assured on the picture plane.
Explore the Character in various other drawings:
Portraits, action shots, quiet moments, expressions…all are valid ways to test the character out. Disney artists were great at this, and many Anime artists have sheets upon sheets of these types of character drawings.
Never get too attached:
Be willing to start over, or renovate large parts of the work. It can get to the “too fussy” point, but I’m more than willing to bet that the design will be stronger for it. Don’t worry about demolishing the work if you know you’re not happy with it yet.
Pretty fun, no? This was a really exciting process to go through. It’s one of my favorite things to create new characters, and it’s usually far more exciting than rendering a painting for 20 hours or something.
Once you’ve got a solid character, you can begin to showcase them in various ways in a series of works.
Or, you can weave them into a larger story of your own imaginings.
Regardless, I hope that these tips serve you well as a creator. However, If you find you’re struggling too much, it’s likely you need to study up on your character drawing basics.
As a matter of fact, why don’t you have 2 our of the 8 lessons of my character drawing course to do so? Sign up below and I’ll email them directly to you. You can unsub any time for any reason.
Tips character drawing
27 top character design tips
The process of tackling character design is often full of hurdles. You need a whole lot of creative thinking to create your own character from scratch, although many of the well-known characters from cartoons, advertising and films look straightforward. Actually, a vast amount of effort and skill will have been exerted to make them so effective.
From Mickey Mouse's famous three-fingered hands (drawn to speed up production when he was first developed for animations in the 1920s), to the elegant simplicity of Homer Simpson, creating character has always been about keeping it simple. To explore these, and other iconic characters, further, see our guide to Disney Plus).
But what do you need to consider for your character design? Aside from clean lines and easily readable features, there's knowing what to exaggerate and what to minimise, how to give a hint of depth and background and what to do to develop personality.
Then, of course, there's the matter of the technicalities of how to draw your character design. If it's going to be used in motion or as part of a comic strip, you'll need to make sure it works from any angle.
For this article, we asked a range of leading artists and illustrators their advice on creating memorable, unique character designs. Many of these tips come from Pictoplasma, an annual character design festival in Berlin.
Tips for brilliant character design
01. Don't lose the magic
Many character designers will start their project with a sketch. And most agree designers agree this is often where the essence of the character is captured. So when you're working up your design, make sure you don't lose that magic.
"I try to stick to my original drawing style, because the instinct is to try and clean it up," says Laurie Rowan. "I don't like to feel like I've created by characters; I like to feel like I've kind of just encountered them."
"When starting out on your character design, don’t get caught up in the details," says Pernille Ørum. "Decide what you’re trying to communicate, then create loose sketches with movement, acting and flow. As soon as you start to tighten up the drawing, you’ll automatically lose some of the dynamic, so it’s important to have as much life in the early stages as possible. Movement is all but impossible to add later, so make sure it’s in the initial sketch."
02. Step away from the reference material
While inspiration needs to come from somewhere, the aim is to create something original. So Robert Wallace – known as Parallel Teeth – suggests not having the reference material right in front of you as you work.
"If you look at something and then you try and hazily remember it in your mind, that's when you end up making something new, rather than a pastiche of something," he says. Above you can see Wallace's new take on well-known festive figures, created for a Hong Kong department store.
03. Research other characters
For guidance, it can be helpful to try and deconstruct why certain character designs work and why some don't. There's no shortage of research material to be found, with illustrated characters appearing everywhere: on TV commercials, cereal boxes, shop signs, stickers on fruit, animations on mobile phones, and more. Study these character designs and think about what makes some successful and what in particular you like about them.
"When you work with characters you need to be inspired," advises Ørum, "and you can do this through research. Your mind is a visual library that you can fill up. Try to notice people around you – how they walk, their gestures, how they dress – and use that in your design."
04. ... but also look elsewhere
It's also a good idea to look beyond character designs when hunting for inspiration. "I like birds' mating rituals a lot," laughs Rowan. The odd movements can spark unique character behaviour.
"When I begin a project, I often start with the feeling I want to evoke," he adds. The process begins with the designer taking videos of himself as a reference, trying to capture something of the character idea's movement or posture.
Other inspirations include ceramics – an organic texture and muted colour palette stop his work feeling too clinical – and folk costumes.
05. Don't lose sight of the original idea
It's easy to subconsciously let our favourite designs influence us. Cornelia Geppert, CEO of indie games studio Jo-Mei, is a huge fan of The Last Guardian, with its unique aesthetic and great video game character designs.
At one point one of her team members had to say to her that their Sea of Solitude design was looking a little too similar to The Last Guardian. She looked back at her initial artworks, and it brought back the feeling she had when creating them. The project shifted back on track.
Exaggerating the defining features of your character design will help it appear larger than life. Exaggerated features will also help viewers to identify the character's key qualities. Exaggeration is key in cartoon caricatures and helps emphasise certain personality traits. If your character is strong, don't just give it normal-sized bulging arms, soup them up so that they're five times as big as they should be.
The technique of exaggeration can be applied to characteristics, too. Anna Mantzaris' hilarious Enough film (above) shows everyday characters in mundane situations, doing the things we've all dreamed of doing on a bad day. "I think it's fun with animation that you can push things further, and people will still accept it as real," she says. "With live action it would look absurd. You can also push the emotion further."
07. Decide who your character design is aimed at
Think about your audience. Character designs aimed at young children, for example, are typically designed around basic shapes and bright colours. If you're working for a client, the character's target audience is usually predetermined, as Aussie artist Nathan Jurevicius explains.
"Commissioned character designs are usually more restrictive but no less creative. Clients have specific needs but also want me to do my 'thing'. Usually, I'll break down the core features and personality. For example, if the eyes are important then I'll focus the whole design around the face, making this the key feature that stands out."
08. Make your character distinctive
Whether you're creating a monkey, robot or monster, you can guarantee there are going to be a hundred other similar creations out there. Your character design needs to be strong and interesting in a visual sense to get people's attention.
When devising The Simpsons, Matt Groening knew he had to offer the viewers something different. He reckoned that when viewers were flicking through TV channels and came across the show, the characters' unusually bright yellow skin colour would grab their attention.
09. Create clear silhouettes
Another good way to make your character distinct and improve its pose, says Ørum, is to turn it into a silhouette. "Then you can see how the character ‘reads’ and if you need to make the gesture more clear. Do you understand the emotion of the character and see the line of action? Can things be simplified? Try not to overlap everything, and keep the limbs separate."
07. Develop a line of action
One key aspect to consider when creating a character design is the line of action. This is what defines the direction of your character, as well as being a useful narrative tool and bringing a feeling of movement.
"Try to bring the line of action all the way out to the extremities," says Ørum. "A ballet dancer is a good example: they emphasise the line from the tips of their toes to the tips of their fingers. The line of action is also easier to see in creatures with fewer limbs, which is why mermaids are an ideal subject for developing a strong line of action."
08. Make it personal
Geppert's Sea of Solitude video game is an exploration of her experiences of loneliness. Intensely personal though it may be, the game hit a chord with audiences when it was previewed at E3 earlier in the year, because it deals with an experience that is so universal yet still strangely taboo.
"The best art is based on personal experiences. People can relate better if it's based on the truth," says Geppert. "It's not a made-up story, even though it's based in a fantastical setting."
09. Find the posture first
Félicie Haymoz has worked with Wes Anderson on both of his animated features: Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs. When embarking on a new character design, Haymoz likes to start by finding the individual's posture. This element can start the ball rolling on the whole feel of the personality. "I try to capture the stance of the character. Are they hunched over, or are they sitting straight and proud?" She also notes the face is important to get right.
Read more of Haymoz's film character tips here.
The drawn lines of which your character design is composed can go some way to describing it. Thick, even, soft and round lines may suggest an approachable, cute character, whereas sharp, scratchy and uneven lines might point to an uneasy and erratic character.
Ørum recommends balancing straight and curved lines. "Straight lines and curves gives your character design a rhythm. A straight line (or a simple line) leads the eye quickly, while a curved (or detailed line) slows down the eye.'
It's also worth considering the balance between stretch and compression. "Even a neutral pose can lead the eye by applying these two approaches, resulting in an effective character design," says Ørum.
11. Use a joke structure
Rowan grew a name for himself by sharing humorous clips of his characters on Instagram, and went on to work on projects for Disney, the BBC and MTV, and earned himself a BAFTA award and nomination in the process. However, it was his less successful years doing standup comedy that provided inspiration for his trademark character animations.
"It's through standup I learned brevity. It's kind of a joke structure," he explains. Knowing how to frame the clip comes from past failures and successes on stage: "You very quickly learn how to hit certain points," he laughs.
12. Keep it simple
As well as knowing when to exaggerate, Ørum is also keen to highlight the importance of simplicity. "I always try to communicate the designs with the fewest lines possible. It doesn’t mean that work hasn’t been put into creating the volume, placement and design of the character, but I try to simplify as much as possible and only put down the lines and colours that conveys the necessary information."
Depending on what you have planned for your character design, you might need to work out what it will look like from all angles. A seemingly flat character can take on a whole new persona when seen from the side if, for example, it has a massive beer belly.
In the Character Design Crash Course workshop at Pictoplasma 2019, Jurevicius and Rilla Alexander asked attendees to sketch their character in poses held by other attendees, life drawing style.
And if you're going to turn it into a comic strip, a la Luke Pearson's Hilda, it'll need to not only make sense from all angles, but look good too.
"How to draw Hilda from behind without her hair swallowing her silhouette", how to draw her beret from above; a long and drawn out battle with how her nose should look… these were all issues Pearson had to deal with when creating his character. The problems all ultimately led to design solutions.
14. Build it in 3D
If your character is going to exist within a 3D world, as an animation or even as a toy, working out its height, weight and physical shape is all important. Alternatively, go one step further and create a model.
"Even if you're not someone who works in 3D, you can learn a lot by converting your character into three dimensions," says Alexander. It's a key part of the process the students follow at the Pictoplasma Academy.
15. Choose colours carefully
Colours can help communicate a character's personality. Typically, dark colours such as black, purples and greys depict baddies with malevolent intentions.
Light colours such as white, blues, pinks and yellows express innocence and purity. Comic-book reds, yellows and blues might go some way to giving hero qualities to a character design.
"To choose effective colours, it’s important to understand the basic rules of colour," explains Ørum. "Become familiar with the primary, secondary and tertiary colours, as well as monochromatic and complementary colours. One technique for generating an effective colour palette is to chose two complementary colours and work with them in a monochromatic colour scheme."
"You’ll create balance because complementary colours create dynamism, while monochrome colours invoke feelings of calm. You could also try a tertiary colour scheme, which adds a third colour (for example, violet, orange and green), and then work with monochromatic versions of those colours, but it demands more planning and skill for it to work well. If you’re new to colour, try and keep it simple."
To read more on this, see our post on colour theory.
16. Don't forget the hair
"Some years ago I went from hating drawing hair to loving it," Ørum. "Previously, I used to view working out all the details and directions of the hair as a tedious endeavour. Now I think of it more as a large, organic shape, which like a flag in the wind indicates and emphasises the movement of the character or its surroundings.
"Start by creating a large shape and divide it into shorter sections, while thinking about where the hair is parted and where the hairline is. Every line should help to define the volume, shape and direction of the hair."
17. Add accessories
Props and clothing can help to emphasise character traits and their background. For example, scruffy clothes can be used for poor characters, and lots of diamonds and bling for tasteless rich ones. Accessories can also be more literal extensions of your character's personality, such as a parrot on a pirate's shoulder or a maggot in a ghoul's skull.
Next page: More top character design tips...
18. Focus on facial expression
Expressions showing a character's range of emotions and depicting its ups and downs will further flesh out your character. Depending on its personality, a figure's emotions might be muted and wry or explosive and wildly exaggerated.
"When you know the basics of drawing a face, play with the expression of the character," says Ørum. "Use a mirror to read your own face and notice the subtle changes. Push and pull the eyebrows to show emotion. Avoid giving the face symmetry. The mouth will always favours a side and it gives life to the drawing. And give the head a tilt to add nuance."
Classic examples of exaggerated expressions can be found in the work of the legendary Tex Avery: the eyes of his Wild Wolf character often pop out of its head when it's excited. Another example of how expressions communicate motions is deadpan Droopy, who barely registers any sort of emotion at all.
19. Give your character goals
The driving force behind a character's personality is what it wants to achieve. This missing 'something' – be it riches, a girlfriend or solving a mystery – can help to create the dramatic thrust behind the stories and adventures your character gets up to. Often the incompleteness or flaws in a character design are what make it interesting.
20. Build up a back story
If you're planning for your character design to exist within comics and animations, then developing its back story is important. Where it comes from, how it came to exist and any life-changing events it has experienced are going to help back up the solidity of, and subsequent belief in, your character. Sometimes the telling of a character's back story can be more interesting than the character's present adventures.
"If you’re experiencing problems when attempting to nail the essence of a character, try thinking of them in a certain situation," Ørum advises. "Use the story to think about your character’s emotions before tackling the design, and add the details afterwards. Setting the scene is the best help when staring at a blank piece of paper, and it makes the process more fun, too!"
21. Remember it's not all about the face
Yukai Du is not what you'd call a typical character designer: none of her work features faces. Instead, her body part of choice is the hands. Having found she wasn't good at capturing specific emotions within a facial expression, she turned to a different body part: the hands. "Hands are very expressive. You can tell a lot of stories with hands, and do it in a very subtle way," she says. Hands became her way of telling stories.
22. Make your character design flexible
Having decent software and materials to work with is useful, but not essential, when it comes to bringing your character to life. A lot of amazing characters were successfully designed years ago when no one had personal computers and Photoshop CC was just a dream.
If you character is really strong, you should be able to capture it with just a pen and paper. Or, as Sune Ehlers puts it: "The character should still be able to work with a stick dipped in mud and drawn on asphalt."
23. Get feedback from others
Show people your creations and ask them what they think. Don't just ask whether they like them or not. Instead, see if they can pick up the personalities and traits of your characters. Find who you think is the suitable or ideal audience for your work and get feedback specifically from them about it.
24. Make it honest
"A lot of my commercial project come out of my personal work. That's why I try to make my personal work so honest to what I like. I think it comes through to the viewer that I'm not just ticking boxes," says John Bond. The illustrator recently launched his debut picture book, NOT LOST, based on his Mini Rabbit character design.
25. Create the right environment
In the same way that you create a history for your character, you need to create an environment for it to help further cement believability in your creation. The world in which the character lives and interacts should in some way make sense to who the character is and what it gets up to.
26. Fine-tune your figure
Question each element of your creation, especially things such as its facial features. The slightest alteration can have a great effect on how your character is perceived.
Illustrator Neil McFarland advises: "Think about the meaning of the word 'character'. You're supposed to breathe life into these things, make them appealing and give them the magic that will allow people to imagine what they're like to meet and how they might move."
27. Don't be afraid to make changes
Hilda has changed over the years, from book to book, but Pearson explains that no one has pulled him up on it. "I like to think it means the design is strong enough to withstand being pulled in all these different directions," he says.
This article contains content that was originally published in Computer Arts and ImagineFX magazine. Subscribe to IFX here.
Rosie Hilder is the acting editor of Creative Bloq. Before joining the CB team in 2018, she worked as operations editor on Computer Arts, 3D World, Paint & Draw and Mac|Life magazines. Her interests lie in branding and illustration, tech and sexism, and plenty more in-between.
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