Cartoon Character Design
When I was a kid, the first thing I would do in the morning was rip open the newspaper and flip to the comics sections. Multiple bowls of cereal and lots of orange juice were spilled while scrutinizing the latest Calvin and Hobbes or Doonesbury. What still amazes me is the ability of Bill Watterson and Gary Trudeau to convey the emotions and thoughts of their characters through simple, clean line drawings. Artists like those guys (and certainly many others) are the real deal.
While I’m no Bill Watterson, I strive to bring complexities to my character design with clean lines. I think the single most important aspect of drawing characters is to develop their background. Give them a story. Write it out or just go through it in your mind. This doesn’t have to be complex, but it will give a better idea of what the character should be wearing, how they should be postured, and whether or not they need any props. This is an excellent way to get those development juices flowing if you hit a dead end.
Many other artists like to sketch out their characters. They’ll draw out the ovals and rectangles to represent various body parts. Not me. I like to jump right in. I picture the character in my mind and it seems like I can’t get the character on the paper quickly enough. Even though I may have to draw the character multiple times, my drawing process seems to just flow and it either clicks or it doesn’t. However, I would caution anyone starting out from using this technique. Even if you don’t want to sketch out the entire character, I would suggest trying out a few body parts before jumping in headfirst.
I like to begin with just a paper and mechanical pencil. Mechanical pencils do a great job of providing smooth lines, rather than the rougher and easily smudged lines left by wooden pencils. Also, never underestimate the power of a quality eraser. This is where the fun begins.
I start with the eyebrows. When you are designing a 2D character, and especially in comic or cartoon styles, the eyebrows are your best expressive weapon. Image 1 shows how you can convey many different expressions with the same eyes and expressive eyebrows.
Once the eyebrows and eyes are settled, I will naturally complete the rest of the face and head. The mouth is almost as important as the eyebrows, and Image 2 shows how various mouths can really seal the deal on your character.
Hair always seems to give me some slight hang-ups. Short hair is relatively easy, but longer, flowing hair is difficult to draw to look natural. Here it is just practice makes perfect. Usually, if there is a particular style I am shooting for; I like to have a picture in front of me. This is one of those places the eraser comes in pretty handy. (Image 3)
From here, I will move down the body creating the torso and arms. If the clothes are tightly fitting, I like to use smooth curves. Rigid lines do a much better job conveying loose fitting clothes such as coats or button down shirts. (Image 4)
Like hair, hands can sometimes be a problem. Sometimes they are too big, fingers are too skinny, or they just don’t feel “right.” The best way I have found to getting better at drawing hands is to draw the characters holding something in their hands. Of course, a quick out is to put the character’s hands in their pockets.
Pants are pretty easy, and it is often easier to draw them slightly larger then they might be naturally. This will allow you to make up any difficulties in drawing body shapes and sizes. The shoes and feet are probably the least important, but are not to be overlooked. Make sure the shoes match the rest of the character. Again, you can always hide any shoes problem by hiding most of them with some pants overlap.
Once you have everything together, I like to add little extras. Maybe some light shading or a logo on the shirt. Maybe the character has a tattoo. This is when you can really have your character’s personality shine through.
From here, I like to ink my drawings using a felt tip pen and scan them into my computer. I like to use Adobe Photoshop to manipulate my drawings and add some color, but there are many good image manipulation software packages out there.
The character I designed for this project just walked into the restaurant where he saw his date flirting with another guy. Notice how the stubble and loose tie give the appearance that he is a bit down on his luck. The drooping flowers give a sense of rejection and the apparent shock and confusion on his face convey a sense of urgency. You will also notice how much color and shading can add to your drawing.
Once you find your own process, hopefully it will just flow naturally. For me another thing is to just have fun. If I don’t enjoy what my character is looking like, I’ll just cut my losses and move on. Especially if you are drawing for someone else, make sure it is still something you’ll enjoy creating and be proud of. Drawing for yourself means you’re drawing with confidence, and that is the best character design tip I can give you.
About The Author
Colin Mann is an avid artist and co-founder of Mercury Effects, where he serves as Art Director. Mercury Effects is an independent video game studio based in Pittsburgh, PA.