Character Design

Customizing a DIY Vinyl Toy


Toys are a good way for designers to break out of the computer and take their art into the real world. This tutorial will aim to teach you how to create a vinyl toy using Illustrator, decal paper and a blank toy.

I'll start by talking about how to find and procure a blank toy, where to find the templates for sketching your artwork ideas, what type of paper we will need when printing our graphics, how to draw all the artwork in illustrator, how to print the graphics, and finally how to apply them to our toy. Even if you don't have access to a toy, you will still learn a lot of techniques, which you can apply in various creative situations.

Planning and Materials

This tutorial will not only give you details for designing custom toy graphics, it will also show you how to apply them. The total cost of this project ranges from printing costs to about $30 depending on what you have in your art box.

Before we can start to plan out and begin sketching our character we need to know which toy we are designing for. A large number of blank DIY toys exist for purchase from companies like Toy2R and Kidrobot. If you can't find a stockist near you try Ebay or Amazon. Just remember that bigger toys cost more money. For this tutorial I'm going to be using a 4 inch Bub made by Kidrobot. Depending on the toy you purchase, you may need to adapt the actual dimensions/placement of your graphics, but the same principals will apply.

In addition to your blank toy you will also need some special paper to print you graphics onto. I use waterslide decal paper to apply my graphics. If you ever made model airplanes as a kid and put transfer graphics onto them, then you have already used waterslide paper. It might be tricky to source from your local stationery store so I'd suggest trying Ebay. I get mine for about $5 for 10 A4 sized sheets. There are two types of waterslide paper, inkjet and laser available in both clear and white versions. The only difference between them is that the inkjet version needs to be sealed before you can apply it. This is done with a clear spray varnish so I'd recommend getting the laser version, as it'll be less hassle for you. You won't actually need a laser printer though, I'll explain why later.

So that we can get on with our graphics, I'm just going to list the tools and supplies you will need, I'll throw in some tips later on as to why I'm using certain things.

  • 1 blank toy - If you can't get access to a blank toy then why not search for paper toy templates
  • 1 A4 sheet of waterslide decal paper (laser/white)
  • 1 can of spray varnish (matte or gloss – depending on preference)
  • Also some scissors, a cheap small paintbrush, a plate and some water

Creating the Graphics

I found a template for Bub on deviantArt courtesy of Rasyadi Abdoellah and decided to jump straight into Illustrator, as I had a good idea of what I was going to draw beforehand. If you're using a different toy, you might want to try Custom Toy Lab as they have templates for some of the more popular blank toys.

Step 1

After opening the template in Illustrator, use the Pen Tool and a black fill to draw a large mouth shape.

Step 2

Switch to the Rounded Rectangle Tool and draw in some teeth using an off white color (#fff4e0) fill and a 2 point black stroke. I've changed the color of one of the teeth to an orange/gold color.

Step 3

Create a duplicate of the black mouth shape beneath the teeth and change the fill color to a dark shade of red/purple (#4d1e2b). Using the Direct Selection Tool, resize the anchor points of the purple mouth shape so that it is slightly smaller than the black shape with a roughly even space around the edge so we can see the black of the mouth.

Step 4

Now we will draw a tongue. Draw two overlapping ovals with a slightly lighter fill (#5a1f2f) under the teeth.

Step 5

Open the Pathfinder palette, and with the two ovals selected, click the merge button.

Step 6

Add a 2 point black stroke to the merged circles. Draw some darker circles on the tongue shape and finally a black circle beneath it.

Step 7

Create a duplicate of the purple mouth shape and drag it above all the other shapes in the layers palette. Change the fill color of this shape to white.

Step 8

You might find it easier to lock the black and purple mouth shapes at this point. With these two shapes locked, select the other shapes using the Selection Tool.

Step 9

With everything selected, open the Transparency palette, then open the menu by clicking on the small arrow in the top right-hand corner and choose Make Opacity Mask.

Step 10

You should now have a mouth similar to the one in the screenshot below. This masking technique is going to be used again later so make sure that you familiarize yourself with the steps needed.

Step 11

Using a solid fill and the Pen Tool, draw the shape shown in the screenshot below. Note the side anchors are curves.

Step 12

Drag this shape onto the brushes palette to create a new Art Brush. Call it "Double Point" and click OK.

Step 13

Use this new brush to create two small creases under the mouth. Make the bottom crease slightly thinner by changing the stroke weight. You can make more precise adjustments by typing directly into the stroke palette. After this create a new layer and drag the mouth components into it to tidy up your layers palette.

Step 14

We will now work on the nose area of our toy. There are a lot of ways to create rounded rectangles in Illustrator, I prefer the simple way of drawing one with the Rounded Rectangle Tool. Select this from the tool palette and click on the canvas. You should be given the options for choosing the size of your rounded rectangle. Choose a corner radius of 2mm and equal width/height and click OK. You will now need to resize your nose to roughly the same dimensions as seen in the screenshot below.

Step 15

Using the Rectangle and Ellipse shape tools, create a line reaching from your characters mouth and some pores around it on either side of the nose.

Step 16

Using the art brush you created earlier, draw some creases above the nose and some half circle creases beneath the circular pores.

Step 17

Finally use the Pen Tool with a white fill to draw a crescent shaped highlight on the nose. You can now create a new layer and drag all the nose shapes into it in the layers palette.

Step 18

To start the eye, switch back to the rounded rectangle tool and click onto the canvas. Change the corner radius to about 6mm and draw a tall rectangle similar in size to the screenshot below. Use the Selection Tool to rotate it slightly counter-clockwise.

Step 19

Using the same technique as before, create a new Art Brush by drawing a triangle like the one in the screenshot below. Call this brush Single Point.

Step 20

Use the Single Point brush you just created to add some crease lines coming out of the top and bottom of the eye, as shown in the screenshot below. Remember to start your strokes from within the eye.

Step 21

Switch to the Double Point brush you created earlier and add some more crease lines around the outside of the eye.

Step 22

Using the shape tool and a yellow fill (#F9CF44) draw a shadow shape under the black eye layers.

Step 23

We now need to create a duplicate of the eye. Create a new layer and drag all the eye shapes into it and call this layer "Left Eye." Make a duplicate of this layer in the layers palette by dragging it onto the Duplicate Layer icon at the bottom of the palette.

Finally with all the contents of this new layer selected, go to Object > Transform > Reflect, choose Vertical and click OK. Move this eye over to the right side of the face and change the name of this layer to "Right Eye."

Step 24

To finish off the eyes use the Circular shape with a white fill to create some highlights on the eyes, as in the screenshot below.

Step 25

Create a new layer and we can start working on the chain. Switch back to the Rounded Rectangle Tool and click onto the canvas. Change the corner radius to 1mm and draw two concentric rectangles similar to the screenshot below using a 2 point black stroke.

Step 26

Click Object > Expand to turn the strokes into shapes. Click OK when the popup window appears.

Step 27

With the links still selected, choose the Live Paint Tool and switch to a yellow fill (#FBBD42) and turn the two shapes into a Live Paint object.

Step 28

Arrange the links in a roughly necklace shape around the toys neckline. You'll notice that the links cover the toys face. This is because we'll be removing the toys head and be putting the chain under its chin.

Step 29

Switch to the Rounded Rectangle Tool and draw in the rest of the chain links. Rotate your rectangles as needed.

Step 30

Use the Rounded Rectangle Tool to draw a large rectangle at the base of the chain. Rotate it slightly.

Step 31

Above this shape create a hand drawn gradient of about 3 colors gradually getting darker. Make them slightly wavy to give them some variety.

Step 32

Using the Opacity Mask technique from earlier, create a duplicate of the bottom yellow shape. Turn it white and place it above the gradient colors. Now select the white shape and the gradient colors, click the transparency menu arrow and select make opacity mask.

Step 33

Create another duplicate of the bottom yellow shape, place it above the masked gradient and remove the yellow fill and replace it with a 2 point black stroke.

Make a duplicate of this layer and scale it down so that it creates a smaller rectangle within our outer one (hold down Shift+Alt to scale from the center while keeping the aspect ratio). Change the stroke to 1 point black and the fill to a lighter yellow (#F9CF44).

Step 34

Using the Rounded Rectangle Tool, draw two more shapes as shown in the screenshot below. Switch to the Ellipse Tool and draw some screws with a black fill.

Step 35

To draw the threads of the cassette we're going to use a pattern brush. Use the Rectangle Tool to create 2 overlapping rectangles to make a tiny T shape, see the screenshot below for an idea of how small to make the shapes.

Step 36

Drag the tiny T shape onto the brushes palette to create a new Pattern brush. Select OK to create the brush.

Step 37

Use the Circle brush to create a large black stroke/white fill circle on the tape. With the circle selected click on the T brush in the brushes palette to create the thread. Duplicate this circle to finish the necklace.

Step 38

We're going to switch to the toys back now. The first thing I'm going to do is create a logo for my toy. If you're creating your toy as a promotional tool you could put your own logo here, I'll be using the Tuts+ logo, albeit with an addition or two.

Step 39

For the diamond switch to a 2 point black stroke and white fill. Draw the basic diamond shape as shown.

Step 40

Switch to the eraser and set the diameter to 12 points. Using the eraser like a hole punch, cut a bite mark into the diamond. You may have to try this a few times, as at first it can be quite tricky.

Step 41

We'll be using the white fill of the diamond as a mask later so duplicate the shape. For the bottom duplicate remove the stroke and for the top duplicate remove the fill.

Using a 2 point black stroke, draw the inner faces of the diamond. Remember that we're creating a toy so don't make it too detailed.

Step 42

To finish the diamond I've created another wavy gradient using the technique I used to create the tape. Create a simple gradient with three or four colors then use the white diamond fill shape to create an opacity mask.

Step 43

Before we start on the back of the head let's switch back to the front quickly. Using the shape tools add a few simple details like some rosy cheeks, some star tattoos and a belly button. The crescent shape under the belly button is a stroke with the Double Point brush we created earlier.

Step 44

Switch to the back of the head and draw a circle with an orange fill and a 2 point black stroke.

Step 45

Using the same opacity mask, wavy gradient technique as used in the diamond, create a simple gradient like the one shown below.

Step 46

Using a 3 point black stroke, add some arms and legs. Be sure not to make the legs too long as we'll be obscuring the bottom part of them.

Step 47

Use a 2 point black stroke to draw the outline of a hand. If you're not very good at drawing hands I'd recommend practicing it as it's essential for drawing characters. There are lots of reference pictures available on the web ranging from real hands to Mickey Mouse style gloves.

Step 48

Use a mixture of stroke weights and the art brushes you created earlier to complete the hand. When this is done, go to Object > Transform > Reflect to create a mirror image. Place this other hand on the other arm and we can work on the face.

Step 49

I've used a black fill to create a large mouth. You'll notice that the white teeth shapes don't quite fill the mouth. This gives the impression that the character is over smiling and slightly maniacal. I can't stress enough the importance of expressions in character design. Emotions really help people to identify with a character.

Step 50

The characters eye is made up of various shapes using the brushes you created earlier and some basic fills and strokes. Draw the eye as shown in the screenshot below. I've also added a crease under the characters mouth.

Step 51

The next step is to create a layer beneath the strokes. Add the white of the eye and an orange pupil.

Step 52

On a layer above the previous one add some shadows. Some users may be tempted to use the multiply mode here instead of a darker shade of each color, I find it good practice not to use the blend modes in Illustrator as they do not tend to import if you have to copy/paste over into Photoshop.

Step 53

Finally add some reflective dots above the black lineart.

Step 54

Our character looks a little too much like a crispy chocolate treat so lets add some horns. Little touches like these give a character more depth.

Step 55

On a new layer underneath the character draw a squashed oval using a purple fill (#59202F) and a 2 point black stroke. You'll notice now the reason why we didn't draw our character's legs.

Step 56

Using a slightly darker purple (#3f1421) and a 1 point black stroke, draw a crescent shape on top of the hole. You can see the outline highlighted in the screenshot below.

Step 57

To finish it off add some creases around the outside of the hole using the Double Point art brush you created earlier.

Step 58

Finally zoom back to the front of the toy and using a white fill and the Pen Tool, draw some sparkles onto the gold chain and tooth.

Step 59 - Moving on to Photoshop

This is the end of the Illustrator part of the tutorial so select all/copy your artwork and paste it into a new A4 size Photoshop document. The graphics should fit roughly three times onto 1 A4 document so copy/paste it a couple of times. I'd recommend doing this as if you mess any of the transfers up at least you will have a couple of copies available.

Once you have you done this you need to print your graphics. Now remember when I said at the start of the document about different paper types, here's how I recommend you print for each scenario.

Paper   Printer Available   What next?
Inkjet (Clear or white)   Color inkjet   Print your graphics onto your paper (remember to set your paper type to Premium Photo or similar when printing). Once printed you will have to apply a few coats of spray varnish to seal the ink and stop it from running when you place the transfers into water.
Laser (Clear or white)   Color Inkjet   Print your graphics onto normal printer paper. You will then need to find a shop/library/office that has a color photocopier and copy your printed graphics onto your decal paper. As the process is similar to how a laser printer works you can use laser paper without having to seal it with varnish.
Laser (Clear or white)   Color Laser   Print your graphics straight onto your decal paper without the need to varnish.

For this tutorial I used the middle method, but I've got good results with all three types of paper. The most important thing is that you have some kind of printer.

Once you have printed your graphics you will need to cut out the different elements. I cut my elements out as follows: mouth, eyes, back of head creature, back print, gold chain and finally the belly button.

When you are ready fill a bowl or plate with a small amount of water (about 1cm deep). Place your first decal into the water and wait 30 seconds. Next take your decal out of the water and slide it off the backing paper and onto your toy. This is the most difficult part of the tutorial and can be quite tricky at first. The problem at this stage is creasing which can be reduced if you cut as close to the shape of your graphics as possible. A more irregular shape is easier to confirm to the contours of your toy than a large square, this is why I've applied the eyes and mouth separately. Once you have slid your decal onto the toy use a small paintbrush or a towel to gently press the moisture out from behind it. If you notice that you have any creases you can carefully peel the decal off but be wary not to let it roll up onto itself. The following photos shows all the decals applied in order.

Step 60

Once your decals have been applied, take it to a well ventilated area away from children, animals, naked flames and other distractions and apply a few coats of spray varnish.

If you have added any embellishments to your toy using a marker pen be very careful to apply thin coats of varnish as some marker pen inks can smudge. Leave your toy to fully dry before handling as fingerprints will occur.


And here we have the finished product. I hope you've learnt some useful tricks that you can take into the real world. Not only have you created a toy but you've also learnt how to use decal paper, a handy tool for customizing products (like skateboard decks, LEGO figures, windows and anything with a flat non porous surface).

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