First off, I gotta start off with the typical Disclaimer.
This is a tutorial based off of MY knowledge and MY experience. My advice is just that, advice, and is not is anyway, shape or form, absolute. I am still learning and do not consider myself a professional or expert. Look at other sources, look at other materials, expand your inspiration, don’t just look at this tutorial and call it good. And most importantly have fun~
Alright, with that out of the way, before I can get to the actual expressions, we need to discuss an important concept known as “Squash and Stretch.” You’ve probably heard of it before. Squash and Stretch was a method that was invented (I use this term a bit loosely) by Freddie Moore, a Disney animator from the 1930s to 1940s. He was the animator for the Dwarves in Snow White and he gave these characters a spongy flexibility that made them feel more real and gave pliability to the face that made them come more alive.
Even outside the world of animation, Squash and Stretch is essential and you’re going to squeeze much more life out of your characters if you understand and are willing to push the weight and flexibility of their faces. This also doesn’t only apply to cartoons, look in the mirror and make funny faces and strange expressions and you’ll notice how squishy your face is.
The next concept to be aware of is the Acting Elements of the Face. This is a concept I never really thought about until I read Tom Bancroft’s Character Mentor, a book I have recommended many times. The Acting Elements are the basics of character expression and focuses on breaking down the elements of the face in order of importance to properly communicate an expression to the audience. These are not set in stone and a lot of times their order can be switched around depending on the expression. This is the default order Bancroft uses in his book:
1) The eyes
2) The eyebrows
3) The mouth
4) The neck
5) The nose
I’m not going to go into much detail about this; otherwise this tutorial will run on forever, so DEFINITELY give Character Mentor a look for a better understanding.
Here are some expressions I whipped up, notice the different ways each of the above elements contributes to the overall expression. Try to identify which element is strongest in each one. Also notice how some elements repeat (such as the use of the eyebrows in the bottom two) but they’re still different expressions.
I personally find that I always build from the eyes out when building an expression. Ever heard the phrase “The eyes are the windows to the soul?” well guess what? THE EYES ARE THE WINDOWS TO THE SOUL! This is why people look away when their embarrassed, why their gaze shifts when they’re lying, why their eyes grow wide in awe. It’s what makes a hero seem cold when they hold their gaze at the display of heartless behavior or gives a villain a moment of redemption when they turn away from a cruelty.
Part of the reason why Glen Keane’s characters are so incredible is the way he expresses a character through their eyes. He says “If you’re going to make a mistake, don’t make it in the eyes. Because everybody’s looking at the eyes.” He creates these characters that are filled with passion and before that passion translates into body language or into an expression, if bursts out through the eyes.
Remember when I brought up that the order of the Acting Elements is flexible? As I said, I tend to start with the eyes when expressing and character but sometimes that just doesn’t “work” with the character. Take a look a Max, from Cats Don’t Dance (if you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it, even if just for the animation). His face is almost ALWAYS in the same position, with the same expression, completely stiff. The only thing that moves is his mouth and it’s animated in a way that is both comical and intimidating! This is a common theme with his character, fluid motion against unmoving bulk. It contrasts and guess what? Contrast creates interest! <——Remember this phrase, because it applies to everything!
Next, pushing your expressions. Don’t be afraid to add that extra “umph” to a characters expression. Unless you’re animating, you don’t have the luxury of constant motion and steady frames, so make the most of a scene, make it clear to your audience what your character is feeling. Check out some of these simple examples below.
Now some of you probably thought the first expression was better than the second. And you know, you may be right! Sometimes a subtler expression speaks volumes more than a more obvious one. It’s important, however, to understand to how to make the most use of your character’s face. But in the end it all boils down to the character. Which leads me to my final segment of this tutorial…
A character should express themselves through their emotions. Just like costumes, colors, body language, etc. expressions are ultimately a tool used describe a character, to visually tell a story about them. When dealing with different characters, try to avoid “recycling” expressions, ESPECIALLY in the same scene/picture/moment. A good exercise is to draw two or three different characters with the same emotion but give them different expressions.
Or better yet, draw them reacting to the same situation.
Your goal should be to make each expression true to the character. Their expressions should tell the audience something about them. The same way you might bold a word or phrase to emphasize its meaning, a character should express themselves in ways that emphasize who they are.
THE FAN CHARACTER, THE RECOLOR, THE SELF INSERT. YOU KNOW WHAT IM TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE. THATS RIGHT
-ORIGINAL CHARACTER DO NOT STEAL-
For the entire month of February we celebrate this age old tradition of carbon copying licensed characters the only way we know how; by STEALING EVERYONE ELSES ORIGINAL CHARACTERS
"WHAT?" YOU MAY BE ASKING. "HOW DOES THIS WORK?"
GIVE ME A MOMENT AND ILL EXPLAIN
Character design and drawing are tome-sized topics and even if I had all the answers (I don’t - I have a lot to learn), I’m not sure I could communicate them effectively. I’ve gathered some thoughts and ideas here, though, in case they’re helpful.
First, some general things:
- Relax and let some of that anxiety go. This isn’t a hard science. There’s no wrong way, no rigid process you must adhere to, no shoulds or shouldn’ts except those you designate for yourself. This is one of the fun parts of being an artist, really - have a heady good time with it.
- Be patient. A design is something gradually arrived at. It takes time and iteration and revision. You’ll throw a lot of stuff away, and you’ll inevitably get frustrated, but bear in mind the process is both inductive and deductive. Drawing the wrong things is part of the path toward drawing the right thing.
- Learn to draw. It might seem perfunctory to say, but I’m not sure everyone’s on the same page about what this means. Learning to draw isn’t a sort of rote memorization process in which, one by one, you learn a recipe for humans, horses, pokemon, cars, etc. It’s much more about learning to think like an artist, to develop the sort of spacial intelligence that lets you observe and effectively translate to paper, whatever the subject matter. When you’re really learning to draw, you’re learning to draw anything and everything. Observing and sketching trains you to understand dimension, form, gesture, mood, how anatomy works, economy of line; all of the foundational stuff you will also rely on to draw characters from your imagination.
Spend some time honing your drawing ability. Hone it with observational sketching. Hone it good.
- I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do this sort of thing better than Claire Wendling. In fact, character designs emerge almost seamlessly from her gestural sketches. It’d be worth looking her up.
- Gather Inspiration like a crazed magpie. What will ultimately be your trademark style and technique is a sort of snowball accumulation of the various things you expose yourself to, learn and draw influence from. To that effect, Google images, tumblr, pinterest and stock photo sites are your friends. When something tingles your artsy senses - a style, a shape, a texture, an appealing palette, a composition, a pose, a cool looking animal, a unique piece of apparel, whatever - grab it. Looking at a lot of material through a creative lens will make you a better artist the same way reading a lot of material makes a better writer.
It’ll also devour your hard drive and you will try and fail many times to organize it, but more importantly, it’ll give you a lovely library of ideas and motivational shinies to peruse as you’re conjuring characters.
- Imitation is a powerful learning tool. Probably for many of us, drawing popular cartoon characters was the gateway habit that lured us into the depraved world of character design to begin with. I wouldn’t suggest limiting yourself to one style or neglecting your own inventions to do this, but it’s an effective way to limber up, to get comfortable drawing characters in general, and to glean something from the thought processes of other artists.
- Use references. Don’t leave it all up to guessing. Whether you’re trying to design something with realistic anatomy or something rather profoundly abstracted from reality, it’s helpful in a multitude of ways to look at pictures. When designing characters, you can infer a lot personality from photos, too.
And despite what you might have heard, having eyeballs and using them to look at things doesn’t constitute cheating. There’s no shame in reference material. There’s at least a little shame in unintentional abstractions, though.
Concepts and Approach:
- Break it down. Sometimes you have the look of a character fleshed out in your mind before putting it to paper, but usually not. That doesn’t mean you have to blow your cortical fuses trying conceive multiple diverse designs all at the same time, though. You don’t even have to design the body shape, poses, face, and expressions of a single character all at once. Tackle it a little at a time.
The cartoony, googly eyed style was pre-established for this simple mobile game character, but I still broke it into phases. Start with concepts, filter out what you like until you arrive at a look, experiment with colors, gestures and expressions.
- Start with the general and work toward the specific. Scribbling out scads of little thumbnails and silhouettes to capture an overall character shape is an effective way begin - it’s like jotting down visual notes. When you’re working at a small scale without agonizing over precision and details, there’s no risk of having to toss out a bunch of hard work, so go nuts with it. Give yourself a lot of options.
Here’s are some sample silhouettes from an old cancelled project in which I was tasked with designing some kind of cyber monkey death bot. I scratched out some solid black shapes then refined some of them a step or two further.
- Here’s an instructional video by Feng Zhu about doing much the same thing (only way better).
- Shapes are language. They come preloaded with all sorts of biological, cultural and personal connotations. They evoke certain things from us too. If you’re ever stuck about where to go with your design, employ a sort of anthroposcopy along these lines - make a visual free association game out of it. It’ll not only tend to result in a distinguished design, but a design that communicates something about the nature of the character.
Think about what you infer from different shapes. What do they remind you of? What personalities or attitudes come to mind? How does the mood of a soft curve differ from that of a sharp angle? With those attributes attached, how could they be used or incorporated into a body or facial feature shape? What happens when you combine shapes in complementary or contrasting ways? How does changing the weight distribution among a set of shapes affect look and feel? Experiment until a concept starts to resonate with the character you have in mind or until you stumble on something you like.
If you don’t have intent, take the opposite approach - draw some shapes and see where they go. (It’s stupid fun.)
- You might also find it helpful to watch Bobby Chiu’s process videos in which he feels out his character designs as he paints.
- Cohesion and Style. As you move from thumbnails to more refined drawings, you can start extrapolating details from the general form. Look for defining shapes, emergent themes or patterns and tease them out further, repeat them, mirror them, alternate them. Make the character entirely out of boxy shapes, incorporate multiple elements of an architectural style, use rhythmically varying line weights - there are a million ways to do this
Here’s some of the simple shape repetition I’ve used for Lackadaisy characters.
- Expressions - let them emerge from your design. If your various characters have distinguishing features, the expressions they make with those features will distinguish them further. Allow personality to influence expressions too, or vice versa. Often, a bit of both happens as you continue drawing - physiognomy and personality converge somewhere in the middle.
For instance, Viktor’s head is proportioned a little like a big cat. Befitting his personality, his design lets him make rather bestial expressions. Rocky, with his flair for drama, has a bit more cartoon about him. His expressions are more elastic, his cheeks squish and deform and his big eyebrows push the boundaries of his forehead. Mitzi is gentler all around with altogether fewer lines on her face. The combination of her large sleepy eyes and pencil line brow looked a little sad and a little condescending to me when I began working out her design - ultimately those aspects became incorporated into her personality.
- Pose rendering is another one of those things for which observational/gesture drawing comes in handy. Even if you’re essentially scribbling stick figures, you can get a handle on natural looking, communicative poses this way. Stick figure poses make excellent guidelines for plotting out full fledged character drawings too.
Look for the line of action. It’ll be easiest to identify in poses with motions, gestures and moods that are immediately decipherable. When you’ve learned to spot it, you can start reverse engineering your own poses around it.
- Additional resources - here are some related things about drawing poses and constructing characters (click the images for the links).
- Tortured rumination about lack of ability/style/progress is a near universal state of creative affairs. Every artist I have known and worked with falls somewhere on a spectrum between frustration in perpetuity and a shade of fierce contrition Arthur Dimmesdale would be proud of. So, next time you find yourself constructing a scourge out of all those crusty acrylic brushes you failed to clean properly, you loathsome, deluded hack, you, at least remember you’re not alone in feeling that way. When it’s not crushing the will to live out of you, the device does have its uses - it keeps you self-critical and locked in working to improve mode. If we were all quite satisfied with our output, I suppose we’d be out of reasons to try harder next time.
When you need some reassurance, compare old work to new. Evolution is gradual and difficult to perceive if you’re narrowed in on the nearest data point, but if you’ve been steadily working on characters for a few months or a year, you’ll likely see a favorable difference between points A and B.
Most of all, don’t dwell on achieving some sort of endgame in which you’re finally there as a character artist. There’s no such place - wherever you are, there is somewhere else. It’s a moving goal post. Your energy will be better spent just enjoying the process…and that much will show in the results.
In this rare interview, interview-averse Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson echoes Mark Twain’s notion that "all ideas are second-hand" and Virginia Woolf’s assertion that the essence of art is imitation.
Pair with Watterson’s indispensable 1990 commencement address on creative integrity.
i’ve read 13 volumes of Bakuman manga so far, and as i’ve read i have noticed how much good advice the books contain (especially volumes 2 and 3). this advice isn’t exclusive to the book, but i highly recommend reading it if you haven’t; especially if you like comics, and/or want to make comics. i think the creators put a lot of themselves into it.