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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Halloween
Design

How to Draw in a Creepy 90s Cartoon Style

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What You'll Be Creating

With today being the day when walls between our world and the next are thin and allow spirits to pass through and say "Hello", I thought I would combine a little chat on two of my favourite things: Halloween and scary cartoons. 

There has been a big revival in 80s and 90s cartoons. A classic like ThunderCats coming back as ThunderCats Roar has caused a huge upset on the internet due to the Steven Universe style (I, for one, really like it!). Shows from the 1980s and 1990s have been called "the renaissance age of American animation" when studios decided to reinvigorate their animation departments due to the huge amount of competition, and shows that the whole family could watch, like The Simpsons, became big hits. From my recollection of 90s shows, they had a lot of innuendo and double entendres that clearly flew over the children's heads but made the parents chuckle away.

In this article, I will look at:

  1. A Brief History of Horror in Cinema and Cartoons: a look at why horror is comforting and enjoyable.
  2. Why Is the Horror Genre an Effective Medium to Show How to Overcome Challenges?
  3. What Style Choices Do I Need to Make to Create a Creepy Pet Illustration in the Style of Courage the Cowardly Dog? Because I would like to end this spooky article on a high note, I would like to show you how to make your pet look terrified yet adorable at the same time. I chose Courage The Cowardly Dog as the design is very quintessentially 90s. 

I grew up in a time of amazing cartoons—the 80s and early 90s. I was inspired so much that I studied animation when I went to art college (although I prefer illustration these days!). Animation that stood out to me as creepy included Watership Down, Beetlejuice - The Animated Series, and Courage The Cowardly Dog.

Due to copyright issues I cannot show you images directly, but I have provided links to show you what I am talking about if the names of films, shows, and characters are unfamiliar to you. 

1. A Brief History of Horror in Cinema and Cartoons

Horror has captivated audiences since the dawn of cinema, since Max Schreck was in Nosferatu and Frankenstein bumbled across our screens. 

There are varying scales of scary, from Scooby Doo, Where Are You! to The Exorcist. The 1960s and 1970s saw film adaptations of horror classics such as The ExorcistCarrie, and The Omen, which revolutionised cinema. It played on people's fears, particularly those who grew up with a strong religious background. Innocent, pure children who could be corrupted by spirits could be every parent's nightmare. The Exorcist's biggest assets were the shock value and the amazing effects which caught the audience off guard. 

Horror is enjoyed as an art form as the viewers deep down know it's not "real". That children's heads cannot spin round, that a teenage girl cannot command inanimate objects to do her bidding, that a small child called Damien cannot mercilessly kill. Fear and excitement are very similar to the human brain, and they cause similar physiological reactions: sweating, increased heart rate, and adrenaline, revving you up for the fight or flight response. To combat this, your brain releases oxytocin and dopamine (the "happy hormones") which help you remember this "traumatic" incident, and this is why we enjoy being scared. Think too of "runner's high"—in my opinion, the act of running is horrible, but once a run is over there's a definite boost that makes you want to lace up your trainers and do it again. 

Sometimes it's good to be scared! Next we will look at an unexpected benefit to watching horror.

2. Why Is the Horror Genre an Effective Medium to Show How to Overcome Challenges?

Horror is awesome, but this is for grown-ups. A different tack was needed in the animation market, and the adults that made cartoons knew the feeling of euphoria that horror gave them. Studios began creating shows like Scooby Doo, Where Are You! where our cowardly duo of Shaggy and Scooby work with their friends to solve mysteries of "bad people" using stories of ghosts, ghouls and monsters to scare people away from places or situations that they can profit from. 

What does this teach children? Well, it's that it's always the janitor... no, wait, that's not right. It's that fear is something that can be overcome if you take the time to look below the surface. When you realise that the monster is nothing more than someone in a suit, you can conquer that fear. The biggest fear is the unknown, and if highly strung Shaggy and Scooby can do it, you can too!  

Watership Down - Cinema International Corporation | Warner Bros. Animation

For reference, please look at Watership Down on IMDB and Watership Down (Film) on Wikipedia

A notable scary film is Watership Down, which was based on Richard Adams's novel of the same name. Adams has claimed that it's not a scary tale but shows children the cycle of life and death, politics, and nature. To many, this animation really should not have had the rating it received. 

The film (and book) deal with hard-hitting emotions; most notably death from many angles. The rabbits have their own creation story which explains to them that checks and balances take place in life in the form of predators (foxes, hawks, and man, to name a few) and indeed their own kind, which shows children that even people or creatures you should be able to trust, those who are the same as you, can turn on you at any time.

The Black Rabbit of Inlé is the rabbit equivalent of "Death". The Black Rabbit of Inlé is a servant of Frith (a Grim Reaper-esque character) that ensures that all the rabbits leave this mortal coil when it is their time to go. In some way, this could be seen as a comfort to children when, say, a pet or a relative dies—it was their time to go. To show that death is inevitable is a very valuable lesson for children; it's not pleasant, but it's one of life's certainties (the other being taxes). 

Could the savage bluntness and seemingly uncensored blood-and-gore-filled memories of Watership Down in the memories of parents have contributed to the softer, more wholesome animations with strong morals and no shock value that we see today? 

Courage the Cowardly Dog - Cartoon Network

Courage's catchphrase is "The things I do for love". Courage, an anxious and highly strung dog, is a great role model for children who tackles threats to himself and his family despite crippling fear. 

Most of the time, when Courage points out the threats to Eustace and Muriel Bagge, they take no notice or shrug it off. This mirrors the relationship those with anxiety and depression have with loved ones. To the anxious person, the threats are very real; Muriel kindly encourages Courage and reassures him, while Eustace constantly berates him. This can be a reality for those with mental health issues.

An excerpt from a Courage the Cowardly Dog Script which starts every episode shows the caring side of Muriel and the cruel side of Eustace:

"Abandoned as a pup, he was found by Muriel, who lives in the middle of Nowhere with her husband Eustace Bagge.

- (EUSTACE GRUNTS) - But creepy stuff happens in Nowhere.

- It's up to Courage to save his new home.

- (SCREAMING) Stupid dog! You made me look bad!"

Still, Courage persists and lives up to his name. He shows that despite monsters kidnapping Eustace or portals opening to other dimensions, he can overcome.

The character design is also interesting, which can be seen in this character sheet. Courage and Muriel are made of soft and squishy round shapes, while Eustace is more gangly and angular, showing the harder, firmer personality.

Interestingly, there are no eyes visible behind Muriel and Eustace's glasses. Is this a sign that they are blind to Courage's very real but perhaps imagined terrors? 

For further reference, please look at Courage the Cowardly Dog on IMDB and Courage the Cowardly Dog on Wikipedia.

3. What Style Choices Do I Need to Make to Create a Creepy Pet Illustration in the Style of Courage the Cowardly Dog?

For this, I will be using my glamorous assistant Pixel as my victi... model. Yes, model, not victim, no... Pix is a grey and white domestic short hair (moggy) who enjoys short walks to the food bowl, naps, and tuna.  

This tutorial is about the style considerations I have looked at and not a drawing skills or Adobe Photoshop tutorial. For those who are interested in such things, I have included a low-res version of the Adobe Photoshop document (.psd). Please note that this document does not include the texture you see in Step 7.

Pixel The Cat Copyright Rowena Aitken and Andrew Knox

Step 1

As Courage the Cowardly Dog and the show's characters are Copyright of Cartoon Network, I am unable to show these images in this tutorial. If you would like to check some references out, please use your favourite search engine or visit one of these links: 

Note that I researched this thoroughly and of course had my childhood and student memories of the show to fall back on. 

Step 2

Here's my rough sketch of Pixel. The style choices I have followed include:

  • Large, triangular nose.
  • Large eyes with tiny pupils, which denote the general state of anxiety Courage is always in.
  • Three digits on the paws—I think the artists on "Courage..." chose three as it is the magic number, odd numbers look better than even, and the more digits the more drawing has to happen and the longer the job takes. 
  • The erratic spiking of fur when Courage is scared.
  • The exaggerated, crazy tongue.
  • Thick, semi-floating eyebrows.
  • Long, thin limbs.
  • Multiple limbs to denote panic and motion—this is obviously clearer when animated, but let's suppose this is a single frame.
  • Movement lines.
  • Short whiskers—even though she has magnificent whiskers.

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Rough Sketch

Step 3 

The art for Courage the Cowardly Dog has a lovely, thick, black outline, so let's add that! This also makes it easier for colouring. 

Quick Tip: Try and keep your brush the same size, but have Shape Dynamics turned on for variation in line thickness.

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Line Art

Step 4 

The colour selection took reference from Pix (obviously) and from the show itself—notably the tongue and mouth parts are close to the reference available online. I chose purple with a slight pink gradient as homage to Courage's colour scheme.

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Flat Colours

Step 5

The shading in Courage the Cowardly Dog is almost non-existent. It's very flat and cel shaded—the shadows that do exist have a hard edge and tend to only be in harsh lighting situations. Let's pretend Pix is being harshly lit from the top left (the cat's left).

Quick Tip: In Photoshop, use a Multiply layer with the same colour as your base and adjust the opacity until the shading looks pleasing. 

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Shadows

Step 6

Pix has these crazy yellow eyes, so rather than sticking to the character design of Courage, I want to add those. It also adds to the startling feeling seeing those big yellow peepers staring back at you. 

Highlights, like shadows, don't really exist apart from in the whites of her eyes. They're very sharp, so here we go. The final result!

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Yellow Eyes

Step 7

Although the character designs in Courage the Cowardly Dog are fairly flat, the environments tend to have a bit of texture for contrast, so I have added in pattern DP_3.jpg from the Watercolor Hot Air balloon coral set which is available from Envato Elements

To add a bit of discordance to the image, I have changed the gradient overlay to a turquoise in the approximate direction of the lighting on Pix.

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Added Wallpaper

Step 8

Here we have the finished piece! To add depth, I added a shadow from the silhouette of the artwork. 

Pixel In The Style Of Courage - Wall Shadow

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article on horror—I have loved talking about it and making Pixel look so scared (she's really brave in reality, honest). Please share your terrified, unexpected hero pet avatars! If you would like to know more about creating spooky art then check out these tutorials on Envato Tuts+.


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