No matter what type of illustration you are working on, it will probably include a character. When illustrating characters – animals, children, or adults – one of the most basic and essential elements is conveying their personality. Characters are the heart of great stories, and you are telling stories with your pictures, so being able to portray them as unique and interesting is an important and valuable skill.
When you are putting together your illustration portfolio, it’s a good idea to show a variety of different character and personality types. This helps give your portfolio variety and interest, and shows your skill in capturing different moods and emotions through your characters. Designing them so they are unique, and breathing personality into them makes them more interesting and engages the viewer.
There are many ways to breathe personality into your characters – shape of the face, facial features, hairstyle, body shape, clothing, line variety, colour – all of these can contribute to the overall feel of the character. The following are some of the things I’ve learned on how to achieve uniqueness in your character designs:
If your illustration technique includes line work, varying your line can help accentuate the personality of your character. Your lines can be soft and round, sharp, jagged, thick or thin. Think about what type of character you are illustrating, and experiment with different weights and characteristics of line.
You can also exaggerate certain characteristics to help define your character’s personality. Perhaps your character has very large eyes or ears, or a very long neck, or very big hair, etc. Figure out who your character is, and push and pull their various attributes to really reinforce who they are. In your initial sketches experiment with exaggeration – you can always pull back later if it gets too wild, but it’s good to see how far you can take things. This is a great way to come up with some really fun sketches, and you may even stumble upon something you hadn’t considered initially!
Body shape is another one of the really great ways to capture your character’s personality. Is your character hunched over? Do they stand tall and proud? Are they very large and round? Do they have really short legs, or long legs and a wiggly back? The possibilities are endless! You can reveal so much about your character by the way they carry themselves. For fun, go out to a crowded place and watch people as they walk by – pay attention to how they carry themselves as they walk, stand, or sit. Try observing and sketching the variety of body shapes and poses. It’s great practice (and a lot of fun!), and you will learn a lot about how to convey a sense of character through the way you draw their body poses. It’s also great to use line variation for your poses – quick and sharp strokes for action poses, or round heavy strokes for those slumpy sitting poses. Just stay loose and have fun with it.
Clothing is another good way to reveal your character’s personality. Is their clothing loose and baggy, too tight, messy, formal, or do they wear a uniform? A great way to get ideas for your character designs is to look through books on costumes, or a quick google image search for any type of period dress.
Facial Features and Expressions
I often think that the face is one of the best ways to really nail the personality of your characters. The face is usually where your eyes are first drawn to, so if you can capture a character’s personality in the face, the rest is just reinforcing that. Character in the face comes from the expressions and the shapes used. Is the head angular or round? Are the eyes small or large? From expression lines to the shape of the nose – there are an infinite number of combinations you can make to capture the uniqueness of your character’s face.
I find that one of the best ways to get good at capturing facial expressions is to draw while holding up a small mirror in front of yourself. Make different expressions and practice drawing them. Try to understand the muscles in the face and how they push and pull making different lines and wrinkles. When I’m drawing a face, even though I’m not looking in a mirror I always make the expression I’m trying to draw. It’s just an unconscious habit I’ve gotten into. “Becoming” the expression somehow makes it easier for me to channel it into my drawings.
The way you approach the colours used for your character also plays an important role. Using bright and vibrant colours may suggest a fun or playful character, while using very pale or soft and subtle colours may suggest a more thoughtful quiet personality. Darks, lights, and combinations in between – colour is a very powerful tool. Try experimenting with different colour schemes to see how it changes the look and feel of your characters.
Now go Draw!
There are some great resources out there for helping you practice drawing characters. One of the books that I used to refer to a lot was “Cartooning the Head and Figure”, by Jack Haam. It is jammed packed with helpful illustrations on body types and poses and has a fantastic section on facial features and expressions.
One of the best resources for practicing drawing characters and different personalities is life. Draw people in your sketchbook, and study your own face in the mirror to practice capturing different emotions. The best advice I can give is to draw, draw draw, and then draw some more!