Character Design

Construct a Cute Character Driven Scene


In this tutorial we'll work on a character filled scene that is built to showcase a smart car. We'll view a workflow I use for creating large scale work. You'll learn how to lead the viewers eye through an image, even when it's packed with smiling characters. You'll also learn how to plan and control your vector build process after sketching your full image.

This particular piece is my contribution to the OutSmart-project, more details below.


The picture was developed as my contribution for the OutSmart-project. For the brief I had to answer some questions. What and where would you like your car to be? This is your space so be as loose or as strict as you like, as real or as imaginary as you like. Create your car and your ideal place to drive it, park it, fly it ? Format 400x160 mm. Planned as a double page in a publication. These are the guidelines this project was constructed in. Let's take a look at the workflow for making this illustration.

Step 1 - Scribble and Thumbnails

At first, there is the scribbling. Small sketches with thumbnails make it possible to get a feeling for the dimensions and the possibilities. Without too much effort first ideas can be created. In doing so I try not to draw too detailed. It is important that the sketches stay small. Thereby you give your picture a break to develop the illustration in full-scale.

Step 2 - More Detailed Sketches

Choose a thumbnail sketch and go on working. Characters and details do not have to be a hundred per cent worked out. The dimension of the sketch still stays small. Although it's just furnished with placeholders at this point, the drawing already resembles the ultimate result.

Step 3 - Concept and Composition

The main elements of the composition are the streets. They serve as the central theme that keeps the drawing together. The observer's eyes are led along the streets to the single points of the composition. All directions of the drawing lead to the Smart car at the far right. The traffic lights derails the motion. They thwart the street. So the lights become an important element of the picture because they decentralize the composition and introduce a further layer.

Step 4 - Sketch in Full-Scale

The best way to create sketches in large dimensions is to stick to the full-scale. The drawing in full-scale has the advantage that it conveys a feeling for the dimensions and their distinct possibilities. To illustrate the Smart in a convincing way I have bought a Smart toy car.

In this sketch all the characters are added. It's helpful to try different versions on a spare piece of paper. Further details on the topic of cute characters are found in my article The Elements of Cute Character Design, which is a great introduction to cute character design.

The Story This Illustration Tells

The whole town welcomes the small car kindly because the vehicle does not pollute the air as much as bigger cars. It all points at the environmental-friendliness of the vehicle: happy and clean clouds, smiling trees, untroubled creatures sleeping on the ground. The traffic lights are not in force for the Smart Car, as everyone paves the way for it. Even the red bulb enjoys it.

Step 5 - Scan and Clean Up

Scan the image. It will be easier to trace small details if you use 300 dpi. Use grayscale so the size of the file will be relatively small. Connect both A4 parts using Photoshop. In Photoshop you can make the final modifications, for example you can arrange the size or position of distinct elements. Save it as JPG once you're happy with the results of this stage.

Step 6 - Set Up Your Illustrator File

Open Illustrator and select File > New (Command + N) to create a new document. Select 400 x 160 mm size and the CMYK color mode. In this mode the colors are easier to handle. Set the grid mode on 300 dpi. Select File > Place to place the "sketch" jpg. Go to the layers palette and create a new layer, name it "work" and set the color to Red. That will be the layer we are working on. If your work is very complex do not forget to name your layers! Lock the "sketch" layer as well.

Step 7 - Plan Your Vector Shapes

The sequence while vectorising is very important. Necessarily it has to be planned in advance. Always begin at the background and struggle through to the front of the picture! Afterwards, that is a great help for coloring. If the sequence of a single elements is mixed up they have to be rearranged laboriously.

For my working process I start building all the shapes. Later I add the colors. To recreate the shapes I primarily use the Pen Tool, the Ellipse Tool and the Pathfinder Palette. Use a 0,25pt stroke so you can see the sketch. Use a black stroke with rounded edges. Keep in mind that it's necessary to be as near as possible on the pencil lines!

The image below shows the order I constructed the vector shapes in.

Step 8 - Begin Building the Shapes

Let's go! Begin with the layer in the background. With the Rectangle Tool you draw a square in the size of the drawing area. Later this square is used to restrict single elements. You create the green landscape in the back with the Pen Tool. Try to get along with an amount of points as small as possible. By doing so the outer contours do not appear too overcrowded. When the layer is finished, copy it and place it in the back (Command + C and then Command + B). Move the new shape with the direction keys to the bottom of the drawing area. Repeat this process with every new form. Select single points with the Direct Selection Tool in order to fit it to the drawing.

Step 9 - Build the Sleeping Little Guy

For the little guy sleeping on the ground, draw the outmost shape with the Pen Tool. Begin with the body, then work out the arms, the head, and the face. Draw the body shape and then the legs shadows. The areas overlap each other. Copy the shape of the body and place it above (Command + C and then Command + F). Select both shapes then apply Pathfinder > Intersect ShapeArea. Apply the same procedure for the eyes and the mouth. Drag a circle (hold Alt + Shift), copy, and place it in front of it. Select and move the new circle: Pathfinder > Divide to create a shape of a half-moon. Use this shapes for the eyes and the mouth.

Step 10 - Build the Trees

The trees are not detailed, as they are placed in the background. I do not want them to stand out. Draw a circle for the trees with the Ellipse Tool. Click on a point with the Selection Tool and adapt the circle to the drawing. The lips and mouth are drawn with the Pen Tool.

Select the whole tree and group the single elements (Command + G). While holding the Alt-key, drag the tree to the side in order to duplicate it. According to the requirements, you place the new one behind or in front of the first plant. Trees in the back ought to be smaller. Do not forget to place single trees behind the landscape like it is shown in the sketch. Modify the faces and the shapes of the trees with the Direct Selection Tool as needed.

Step 11 - The Clouds

Although the clouds can be created with the Pen Tool, I rather like to use the Ellipse Tool. This method is faster and the curves become round. Follow the contour of the whole by creating circles in the needed sizes. Press Alt + Shift when using the Ellipse Tool to create perfect circles. Fill out the middle. Select all the circles, Pathfinder > Add To Shape Area.

Step 12 - Cheeks and Raindrops

The cheeks and the curves within the cloud are also drawn with the Ellipse Tool. Drag a circle (Alt + Shift). Select the circle, press Command + C, and then press Command + F. Move the new one a bit to the left. Click on it with the Direct Selection Tool and stretch it by pressing the Alt-key.

Select both circles and click Divide on the Pathfinder palette. Duplicate the shapes. Place the forms on the appropriate points of the cloud. Draw the cheeks with the Ellipse Tool. Circles are needed for the eyes. Copy (Command + C and then Command + F) and downsize them (Alt + Shift). Select both and press Divide in the Pathfinder palette. To construct a second loop, copy the first one and downsize it (Command + C and then Command + F).

For the raindrops you draw a circle (by doing so press Alt + Shift). Click on the upper point with the Direct Selection Tool, stretch and alter it into a corner mark with the converter tool. Duplicate and place the drops into the drawing. Select and copy the complete cloud with the raindrops (Command + C and then Command + F). Move the new cloud to the right.

Step 13 - The City

In the process of designing the city it is important not to lose the thread in terms of the sequence. Again you begin with the background. Start with the sun and continue with the houses. All shapes of the houses are constructed with the Pen Tool. The forms of the windows are also drawn with the Pen Tool.

Afterwards, copy this form and place it in front of the first one (Command + C and then Command + F). Copy the lower window and select the new forms and in the Pathfinder palette press Divide. Continue this procedure for the entrances. At last you draw the cloud in the back of the city so that it overlaps the houses in the front (step 11).

Step 14 - Wooden Man

The next one to construct is a character made out of wood that has its source from my imagination. It has a clean raindrop on its head and a hippo in its hand. All these figures are basically created with the Pen Tool. Pay attention to the sequence! Start with the left arm of the wooden guy and continue with the legs, the torso and the arm on the right.

Concerning the head, you begin with the branch lying in the back and struggle through to the shape of the head. Like it was described in the previous steps, you use the Ellipse Tool for creating the cheeks (use the Pathfinder tools as needed). The upper side of the head is also drawn with the Ellipse Tool. For constructing the loops the same procedure is used as it is described in step 11. For the hippo you also use the Pen tool.

Step 15 - Raindrop Glasses

Let's look at how to draw the raindrop glasses. Create the glasses of the raindrop with the Pen Tool. Start with the lenses, then you work out the glasses frame. For that you adjust the contour settings. 2 pt is needed for this. Be sure to tighten the forms. Select them by Shift-clicking and then go to Object > Path > Outline. Select the three front shapes of the glasses, then use the Pathfinder tool Unite. Now you can modify some details, for example the frames, with the Direct Selection Tool.

Step 16 - Construction Cone

The procedure of drawing the cloud in the foreground is described in step 11. For the cone you first of all draw the lower form of it. Draw a square with the Rectangle Tool (Alt + Shift). Now apply Effect > Stylize > Round Corners and enter 1mm to round the corners. With the Direct Selection Tool you adapt the square to the drawing. Select Command + C and Command + B, move it forward and a bit to the left so that the surface appears three-dimensional.

Draw the upper triangle with the Pen Tool. I use to draw the lines in 6pt. Duplicate it twice. Convert the paths into a form (Object > Path > Outline). Now you select the triangle, copy it and place it in front of the previous one (Command + C and then Command + F). Select a line and this new form and the press Intersect Shape Area in the Pathfinder Palette. Repeat this step for the other two.

Step 17 - The Streets and the Rainbow

Draw the streets with the Pen Tool. Copy them and place the new ones staggered behind the previous (Command + C and then Command + B). By doing so the streets get wall thickness.

The creation of the rainbow is similar. First of all you build the outmost form, copy it and place the new one in the foreground. With the Direct Selection Tool you adapt the form to the drawing. Copy the lower form and place it in the front. Select both shapes and press Intersect Shape Area in the Pathfinder Palette. Continue this procedure until all stripes are finished.

For the rainbow in the back, drag a circle (Alt + Shift), then copy it and place it in front. Pull it down to meet the pencil line. Copy the first circle and place it in front (Command + C and then Command + F). Select both circles, then apply Divide in the Pathfinder Palette to trim this shape. Now repeat the first steps to build the rainbow stripes.

Step 18 - Friends, Hats and Cars

The friendly pedestrians are created with the same techniques as the previous elements. Once again you use the Pen and the Ellipse Tool. Begin with the body, then continue with the head and at last the hat. In doing so I proceed from figure to figure from the back to the front.

To draw the back most car you begin to drag circles for the wheels with the ellipse tool. Afterwards you draw the whole form, the roof, the cowl and the windows. Repeat the procedure to draw the car in the front. Cut the windows with the Pathfinder tools.

Step 19 - The Traffic Lights

Here the Pen Tool is primarily used. Start with the traffic light post. After it, you add a big box type, lights and lamp shades. The task of the little green man on the right is to make the large surface more interesting.

Step 20 - Street Details

Let's assume you first draw the lower part of the street on the right with the Pen Tool. Build the upmost part as a complete form which has to be worked out with details in the next step. After that Build the smart ghost and the right part of the street.

Step 21 - The Smart Car

It seems to be difficult but it is created with the same procedures like all other elements in the picture. Do not lose the thread! Begin with the back most parts, the hood and the seats. Then you continue with the figures and the tires. The left side of the car is made flush with the leading front parts and the front shield.

Step 22- Starting to Add Colors

Now the complete drawing is vectorised. It is time for colors!


The third part after drawing and vectorising is the coloration and the addition of shadows and gradients. You can save time if you add the colors after constructing the picture.

For coloration I rather use my own color palette I have expanded in the course of time. The colors should look pale in the background. Use more blue than yellow tones. Warm colors like red, yellow and brown push forward and support the perspective when they are used properly. So color the forms in the foreground with warm tones.

Step 23

Begin with the large surfaces like the sky and the landscape to determine the atmosphere of the picture. Continue with the streets, the rainbow, the traffic lights and so on. The single forms still have an outline contour of 0,25 pt.

Step 24

When all forms are colored I remove the outline contours. Now you can see if the contrasts are intensive enough. In this case black shadows can be added or the colors can be adjusted.

Set the transparency on Multiply and the Opacity on a maximum of 65%. I refresh non-convincing spots with color gradients to hint at three-dimensionality.

Step one Coloring

Without Contour Strokes

With Gradients and Shadows


Below is the final illustration and you can view the large version here.

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