Cartoons are fun, and when
you have a graphics tablet, they're easy to create with pressure-sensitive
pens and a few basic tricks. This article will go through the basics of
creating your own cartoon character. Plot and story will be totally up to
Cartoon Character Elements
When you read cartoons, you probably
don't think about how they're created. You read the story and laugh at
situations and their funny expressions, completely unaware of the techniques
and tricks behind the cartoon. But a cartoon follows several rules, which
we'll explore in this article. The basics of any cartoon character are
shape, proportion, identity, and expression. Expressions, or emotions, are
what makes a cartoon character great. There's really a puzzle of different
shapes that form a character. The shapes are the reason you recognize your
favorite cartoon character instantly.
When you start drawing
cartoons, you'll want your characters to look the same when viewed at
different angles, so it's important that you know how your characters are
put together. Even if you create a character just by doodling on a napkin
one night, create a "handbook" of how it should look using shapes. This will
be explored further in the article. When working with a tablet, creating
these shapes is a breeze. You can draw a few shapes with the pen, and then
you can use functions in your software to manipulate it, flip it
horizontally, vertically, stretch its lines, and so on. This is also handy
when working on expressions when very small adjustments are necessary.
The character shapes in Figure 1 were
created with a Wacom Intuos pen and tablet while working with a file in RGB
mode. In the 'Tool department', I used black color and the Paintbrush Tool
with a 3 pixel brush and 100 percent opacity. By creating shapes like these,
you'll always know what parts your characters are made of. In this example,
the nose shape, hair style, and eyes will make you recognize it later on,
even when its expression changes. You create the body of a cartoon character
the same way, and the same method applies whether your character is an
animal, human, or something entirely different. Building cartoon characters
from elements is not just a method for amateurs, but very common in cartoon
creation. The famous cartoonist Carl Barks created detailed instructions for
how the various Disney characters should look and also wrote notes on what
made them different from each other. This way, other cartoonists had a
"manual" of Donald, Mickey, and all the other characters.
|Figure 1: You construct your
character by creating shapes and "filling them in" later.
When you work on the
shapes, consider what your character will be like when it's finished. I'm
not talking about lines and details, but about personality and attitude. Are
you creating a cute dog? Vicious cat? Friendly mouse? A general
characteristic can help you on your way to get the character right regarding
shape and proportions. Think also of how it should relate to its
surroundings: Will it be the oldest one in the family? The smallest dog? The
largest mouse? What makes it look young, old, tired, or vivacious?
When you've created a rough draft of a cartoon character
that you're satisfied with, you can use a simple trick to help you maintain
the proportions of your character. Besides character identity and
expressions, proportions are vital for recognizing the character and getting
it right in various situations. I'm not asking you to create mathematical
equations to get it right, just a simple set of "help lines," as seen on a
child's writing paper, will get you going. Until you can draw your cartoon
half asleep, this is a very useful trick: Divide your character into natural
pieces, such as head, torso, legs, and feet. Make an example of your
character with a couple of sketches, as shown in Figure 2, just to help you
see the divisions. A quick glance at this "tool" can help you discover
what's wrong with a new drawing--for example, if the head's too big for the
body. You can often detect whether a cartoonist has just started out by the
proportion mistakes he or she makes. As you work on a tablet, use an
application with layers so you can keep a set of help lines on a layer
beneath the one you're drawing on.
|Figure 2: To
maintain proportions, use help lines to divide a body into several
The best cartooning advice
is basically to "keep it simple." If you want to create a character that is
fast to work with, as in short comic strips, you need to consider a few
things. The more details you create in your character, the harder it will be
to get them right every time and it will take a lot of time each time you
draw a new one--even if you know how to duplicate layers. There is a reason
why many famous cartoon characters consist of few lines and not so many
details. Look at Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse, Dilbert, or other famous
characters and try to imagine what it would be like to draw them repeatedly
if they had big, curly hair with lots of details, a jacket with fringe,
glasses, and beards. Unless you have unlimited time and/or want to create
artwork such as that seen in the Sandman comic books, keep your character
simple. The fewer lines the better. Moreover, that is where the challenge
lies--to create a distinctive character with just a few lines drawn on your
tablet. Pay extra attention to details as well, if you use them: Three
strands of hair are not the same as two or four, and five fingers are not
the same as four. The number of holes in the lacing of a shoe and so on are
When working with cartoons,
it's vital that your character can be easily identified. Think of Mickey
Mouse's silhouette, with his face and ears. You instantly recognize Mickey,
right? To see if your character has a great identity, you can simply fill an
outlined drawing with color using your Brush or Pen in Paint Shop Pro. If
what you have created doesn't look like anything else, then you have created
an easily recognizable figure. Make several drawings of different views so
you'll know you have it right. You don't want your character to be seen just
from behind or in profile. See Figure 3.
Figure 3: Draw several silhouettes of your cartoon character to see if
it's easy to recognize.
Attitudes and Expressions
After you have established an
identity for your character, you'll need to look at attitudes and
expressions. This includes how the character walks, moves, makes gestures,
and shows expressions. Because most characters are made up of very few
lines, it's very important for you to have decided upon your character's
persona, when starting with expressions. Minor adjustments and changes to
the eyes, for example, are enough to show various expressions. In Figure 4,
you'll see how very small changes make a huge difference.
Variations in the eyes and mouth produce different expressions.
Attitude is often expressed
by the cartoon character's body. When you see cartoon drawings or watch
cartoons on TV, note that various cartoon types resemble each other. The
villains and thieves are often drawn similarly. They can be thin with a
sneaky look and curved back, and they lift their knees high when walking.
These are often the "clever" bad guys. They are also drawn as big, bulky
figures when they're supposed to be the dumber villains. Many head honchos
of criminal gangs are depicted as small guys, with huge "torpedoes" at their
sides--at least in cartoons and movies. You don't have to stick to this kind
of simplistic view of how criminals should look, but this kind of knowledge
is helpful when you want to create simple characters that your audience will
recognize instantly. When drawing short cartoon strips, this is vital. If
you're making a comic book, you can use several pages to build a character,
but you won't have that opportunity in a comic strip. Try to be brave as
well, and stay away from stereotypical details, because not all "truths"
apply to all audiences. I bet there's a couple of nerds out there who don't
wear glasses and who don't survive exclusively on pizza and Coke. This may
not be the best example in the world, but you get my meaning. There's no
cartoon bible that you can consult that states that all characters have four
fingers. Just use your imagination.
From Sketch to Drawing
Never start to draw aiming for a
finished version of your cartoon right away. Even the most professional
cartoonists, whether they're working digitally or on paper, start with
sketches and storyboards. If you prefer to create your sketch on paper,
slide the sketch under the protective layer on your tablet and trace your
cartoon with your Pen. Use a small, hard brush for this. This is a great way
to work, but you can also scan your sketch and work with it in Paint Shop
Pro. Both methods require a tablet and a pressure-sensitive Pen or Brush
The great advantage of
making sketches is that when you create one, you draw more freely than you
would when you're working on "the real thing" right away. When creating a
sketch, you'll see if your idea is good enough and whether the cartoon or
character "works." Don't get hung up on details, because you can always add
details later. Create a grayscale image of approximately 600 x 500 pixels
with a resolution of 72 dpi for the sketch. And pick a good tool, such as a
Pen or a Brush Pen. Use the Airbrush or a Paintbrush Tool in the
application, with the brush size set at only 3 to 5 pixels wide. The typical
creative process for an illustration or cartoon would be like what is shown
in Figure 5.
Figure 5: The process of creating "Ziggy the Cigarette." This is an
illustration for a brochure targeted towards doctors to inspire them to
help their patients stop smoking.
1. Pick your brushes (and
tools) before you start, so you don't get unnecessary pauses in the creative
process trying to find the "right brush".
2. First, draw a very rough sketch in black and white. Concentrate on what
you have to say, and work with fast, swift movements. If you see that a line
is wrong when drawing, don't pause to correct it. Instead, draw it where it
should be. When you're happy with the sketch, start working on details and
color (if you're working with color at all). If you want to work in color,
change the image mode to RGB. At this point, you're still nowhere near a
3. Keep the 72-dpi setting
if your cartoons are going to be shown on a monitor (such as on a Web page).
If your work is going to be printed, resize the file to a 300-dpi setting or
more for good results. Now finish the artwork.
Sometimes you can work directly on your sketch, but you will benefit most
from working with layers. This way, you can adjust the opacity on the sketch
layer and start drawing on a new layer above it. The sketch is still
visible, but it won't "interfere" with changes you might want to make as you
go along. Some artists stick to the sketch they've created when drawing, but
others create a lot of new stuff. This depends on the quality of the sketch,
combined with how satisfied you are with it.
An action line is a help tool, just like the lines you create for
controlling proportions. An action line is used to mark the direction of a
pose, like falling, sitting, bending over, running, and so on. You start by
drawing the action line itself and then draw in the character. This is again
where layers are very helpful, because you can keep the action line(s) on a
separate layer. And why not use the same action lines repeatedly? You can
make a whole library of them if you like. See an example in Figure 6.
|Figure 6: Action
lines, shown in orange, are great tools to control movement and
Not all color "survives"
print. Working for the screen is easier because you can stick to a color
palette of 216 "Web safe" colors to be viewed on most monitors and browsers.
Just as you created a "handbook" of shapes and expressions, take note of
what colors you use in your cartoon. This is vital when it comes to skin
tones, which can be tricky. To create a palette of colors for your character
make a new file with squares of the colors you use, and always have it open
when drawing so you can access the colors with the Eyedropper Tool. If you
have several characters, don't let them share too many colors--you want them
to be as different as possible. Use a palette of 216 Web-safe colors if you
plan to publish your cartoon on a Web page, and you also want to be sure the
cartoon can be viewed properly on monitors with 256 color settings. This
will get you in trouble when selecting skin tones, so take care to select
your colors from the Web-safe swatch palette when drawing.
Storyboards aren't something used
just in movies and commercials. With a storyboard, you can see how your
story will look before drawing it properly, and you can divide up your work
as well, if necessary. In a comic book, this means you can start drawing
anywhere in the story, as long as you stick to the storyboard. You can also
use a storyboard for comic strips. A storyboard can be as small as you'd
like, just as long as it's legible. You can create it on paper or on screen.
The latter is strongly recommended, because it's easier to edit and it gives
you a lot more options. You can use it to make notes and comments regarding
shadows and light, coloring, and more. As seen in Figure 7, you can create
the storyboard in full color, and with the Airbrush Tool you can easily
brush in light, shadows, and so on. It may not be so beautiful to look at,
but the whole point is to see if your composition works as you intended. You
should create a storyboard in a size comparable to your finished work. It
doesn't have to be exactly 1:1 in size, but the proportions should be right,
such as for landscape or portrait, A4 format, and so on.
|Figure 7: A
storyboard is a great tool that gives you full control over your