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Maintaining Rhythm and Flow in Vector Character Design

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Read Time: 6 min

With the digital age of illustration, the efficiency and aesthetic of design has been shaped by the functionality of tools. Though it does provide relief for laborious tasks; we all too often receive a payoff that lacks spontaneity and life. Rather than working rigidly and formulaic, it is more rewarding to produce art in a pliable and organic manner. As an animator, I strive to preserve and push rhythm and flow in design. Let's review some helpful approaches.


First, let's look at some concepts that will help you to create characters with dynamic and interesting poses. Then we'll break down the basic process of creating a character from sketching through to the final vector file. Whether you're interested in creating vector mascots for branding design, or making interesting characters to use in your animations, you'll find these techniques helpful.

Some Working References

To be able to implement rhythm and flow into design, it is extremely useful to observe how it has been approached and applied to already existing and successful designs. For example, Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda is an immensely rich source of reference. The stylization of the film’s design depends upon strong lines of action and secondary rhythm lines.

Modern animated cinema is full of amazing sources of inspiration, mastered by the likes of Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, Blue Sky studios and countless others. It's worth taking the time to study this professional work.

The Line of Action

This is essential in defining an element’s direction and position within space. The broader the direction of the line is, the more powerful the essence of movement and life is. I’ve outlined the line of action in the image below.

It's most obvious in organic forms, though inorganic forms can still be deconstructed enough to have a line of action, or thrust. You can consider this line to be the spine of a form, and everything moves along its axis. As a rule, it's the longest rhythm line.

Secondary Rhythm Lines

Secondary lines of action are used as a tool to complement the line of action. In the breakdown below, the line of action is outlined in pink, while the secondary lines are outlined in green.

There are almost an infinite number of lines you can find within poses, and the more obvious they are, the more dynamic the form becomes. These lines often converge, or diverge away from the line of action several times, drawing the eye along the shapes.

The key to develop visually interesting poses and shapes is the composition of the shapes and directions. If you can pull the eye towards the most important information and maintain a visual hierarchy, the rest of the piece will hold itself together solidly.

Secondary rhythm lines are also helpful to define the contour silhouette form. To further accentuate this (as seen in the example below), ‘seams’ are created within fur shapes using harsh changes in color, which allows the pattern’s direction to more obviously follow the flow.

Choosing Your Tools

Now that you have an insight into the workings and functionality of rhythm and flow, it’s time to sharpen those vector tools, and get down and dirty. You can use any vector illustration package. I prefer Flash as an Animator, for it’s simplicity and malleability, but you could use Illustrator, Corel Draw, or even Freehand as well. If you are unfamiliar with the Flash drawing tools (which I will be using), be sure to check out my crash course on that topic.

Now, before you even start working in vector, wherever possible, work in raster or traditionally (yes, that means pencil and paper). What you really want to do is flesh out the volumes and rhythms before taking it into a final vectored piece.

Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy way to learn to draw; it’s just lots of observation and practice. Don’t let that get to you though, it’s all about having fun and getting a feel for drawing!

Fleshing It Out

You can rough a loose drawing out on paper, or in Photoshop, but I must stress how valuable it is to work loosely in a non vector medium before taking it into something cleaner.

As you work with your drawing, be sure to feel a general flow and direction, while remaining loose with your line. You will have plenty of time to finesse later on.

Vector Time

Now it’s time to pull lines though your drawing and get some flowing shapes happening! When working in a vector package, it helps to get the longest lines in place first (look for the line of action). Then build the smaller details in. Make sure the transition from convex to concave is fluid, and don’t be afraid to use sharp corners to allow shapes to punch. Keep working until you've created all your basic shapes.

Coloring Solids

It works best to lay down solid colors that contrast and describe the shapes. If you're ever get stuck for color inspiration, check out color resources from photographs and design. It’s all about making the colors fit together as a whole.

Highlights and Shadows

Highlights and shadows really help to define where a form is in space, and how it relates to others. Think about cast shade and light, as well as where ambient light may be hitting.

Temperature of light should also be considered. Rather than just increasing and decreasing a color’s value, it's always good to think about a color of the light that can then tint the highlights and shadows. Mix it up and experiment with different variations.

Keep in mind that the shadows and highlights can also be very handy tools to define contour. When you add these to an illustration, think about how the line would travel around the form, and use the line to describe how it turns.

Line Work

Line work helps wrap everything together. There are a lot of possibilities with line. Does there need to be line in some places? Thick and thin? Fat outline? Colored lines? Rim Lit? It’s all up to you. I like a combination of colored lines, thick outlines, and sometimes no line at all! If your shape definition is strong enough, you can style your line however you like. If they are helpful to defining rhythm in composition; it’s a good idea to preserve them.

Where to Now?

Hopefully you'll create something fun that is dynamic and spontaneous in your next character design. It does require a lot of practice, but by reading this you'll have gained an insight into some practical approaches to developing a working piece.

Never think of this or anything as formulaic because that removes life and spontaneity. Think of it as some inspiration to get ideas onto paper, and then onto screen! Now get out there and make some fun artwork!

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