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Character Design – Nailing the Basics

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If you're thinking of becoming a professional illustrator, character design will come up as a client request again and again, so keeping up on current trends is a must. To get started creating your own characters, you'll need to nail the basics, which includes: getting comfortable sketching, refining your process, and streamlining your overall approach.

This Post is Day 2 of our Character Illustration Session. Creative Sessions

Character Design – Current Trends

Looking at Character Design these days, I'm reminded of the recent Computer Arts Projects Issue dedicated to the genre. Many of its pages were dedicated to numerous examples of the cutesy illustration trend.

It's great to see such diverse, imaginative illustrative styles being embraced and championed all over the world at the moment. I'm sure there are a lot of illustrators (professional and amateurs alike) giving these cute styles a try, it's a really fun genre to work in – very irreverent and colorful.


I've given it a go myself (check out my self portrait above), but ultimately I prefer to watch others excel in this field – illustrators like Mike Laughead, Simone Legno, Charuca and Scott Jackson to name but a few.

This is definitely a great style to explore, but what if you're just starting out in illustration? Of course, the temptation here is to think "hmmm, this cutesy style appears to be pretty simple – what could possibly go wrong?"

Don't Sell Yourself Short

This style of illustration can look dinky and childlike, even easy, but if you take the time to view the Illustrators' website links above you'll discover they can all break out of the cutesy mould, and have portfolios brimming with much more detailed, complex artwork.

Just like these guys you should always aim higher. Personally, I think the key to effective, well finished character design starts with going back to basic life drawing. By mastering the human form on paper and experimenting with different poses, you'll be able to use this experience to create simple, graphic illustrations with more confidence and flair, and in time, you'll see your own signature style develop.

Believe me, keeping a notepad and a pencil in your coat pocket does pay off, some of my simplest phone call doodles have gone on to grace billboards. That's the first tip, here are a few more tips that should help you develop your basic sketching technique:

  • I still always start any character by drawing a stick figure or basic human skeleton, then I flesh out the torso, head and limbs with light pencil strokes. Only then do I add clothing, facial expression and accessories.
  • If you're having trouble coming up with imaginative poses, try working from (your own) photographs, or if you can afford one, invest in an artist's wooden mannequin. A character's pose and stance displays emotion, not just facial expressions.
  • If there's a particular part of the body you're not confident drawing (it's nearly always the hands!) keep practicing. Once you crack it, you'll feel great!
  • Enroll at a local life drawing class, or practice at home by sketching housemates or family members (always ask permission first!).
  • Research – this is great fun, you can analyze the styles of thousands of Illustrators online. Many of whom have galleries full of sketches, a great portal for this is: Illustrationmundo.com, comic books, and relevant publications like Computer Arts, and Imagine FX. All of these are full of great resources and quality tips.

Character Design – the Hand Drawn Creative Way!

Let's run through a quick example of how I'd go about creating a character for self promotion. I draw for a living and that usually means client work takes up my working week, but I try to take one evening out of the week and sit down and draw for my own pleasure (it keeps me sharp and helps me explore new styles and new ideas). Some of these sketches end up being used as self promotional tools. The Illustration we'll explore here, ended up on promotional postcards to drum up local interest in my artistic endeavors.

Like all my best character designs, it started out as a pencil sketch – nothing amazing, but enough to show what's going on with the character's pose and facial expression, I'm also defining motion here through the flow of the character's hair.


First I scan the sketch (if you don't have a scanner handy, take a well lit close-up picture with a digital camera), then I clean up any extraneous dirt, smudges or heavy strokes in Photoshop. Next, I open my vector drawing software (I prefer Adobe Illustrator). Place the scan in at 50% Opacity.


After locking this layer, I then create a new layer on top of the base layer. Then using the Pen Tool, I trace each of the illustration's components.


Now that I have the basic construction of the character complete, I can start adding basic, flat colors. I use colors from the swatch palette and custom CMYK colors I've created using the color palette.


The final step, sees the inclusion of highlights in the hair using a golden caramel color. I've also added vibrancy and definition to the skin tone with carefully placed shadows and highlights on the jaw, backs of the arms and legs. The subtle, simple shifts in color really help finish the character.


Professional Advice

I hope this exercise is of good use to you. I've concentrated on adding a contemporary finish to a unique female pose. If you're thinking of becoming a professional illustrator, character design will come up as a client request again and again, so do keep up on current trends.

My professional advice with character design is: Keep sketching and keep pushing yourself, it always keeps you fresh. It's amazing what you can achieve with Creative Suite, but if you haven't got the basic drawing skills and imagination to begin with, you might always struggle to add flair to your characters on the computer.

I was always that kid on the bus sketching away on the back of a schoolbook and I'm still using skills and tricks I learned in my teens well into in my 30's. The only difference is – now I get paid for it!

This Post is Day 2 of our Illustrative Lettering Session. Creative Sessions
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