Visual Character Design
Written by Nathan Hansen
First, let me state what this is not. This is not an end all be all discussion on character design. This is not a drawing tutorial. My only intention is to present an approach to the visual side of character design that I find effective. The methods and techniques discussed may not work for everybody, but I believe they will help most to develop stronger, more visually appealing characters.
Also let me emphasize that this is about the visual side of character design. I may some day decide to write an article about the non visual elements of character design, but I doubt it would be any time soon, as I don't feel I'm qualified for that article.
All that being said, thank you for reading this, and I hope this helps you.
STEP 1: Initial Concept
This may seem silly, but I don't think you should ever start drawing until you have some idea of what you want to develop. This doesn't need to be complicated, but you should have some frame of reference before you begin.
A good example of this would be a description of the character in regard to his or her age, beliefs, taste in clothes, job, where they went to school, what they like for breakfast, or anything else you can think of that gives insight into the character's personality. Bad examples of this would be detailed descriptions of their physical appearance.
You don't have to write the concept down, although if you go into great detail you may want to. This can be very brief as well. For instance, you wouldn't want to do a fully fleshed out character concept for a character who never speaks and is only seen in the background.
You might also want to take advantage of stereotypes. If nothing else, they make good starting points.
For the purpose of this discussion and my showing work along the way we will keep this concept very simplistic. I'm going to design a cave man.
STEP 2: Dynamic Silhouette
This is, in my mind, probably the single most important part of designing a character. Take the time now that you have your concept and quickly sketch a bunch of silhouettes of the various possible solutions. This is where you really get to play with different ideas. I know people who are really into character design that have sketch books filled with small silhouettes, 10 to 20 per page front and back. You can do this in sketch books with a sharpie or pretty much any other marker, or if you are like me and prefer to do everything digitally, you can work directly in Photoshop/Paint Shop/The GIMP/whatever your tool of choice may be.
Here is what I came up with real quickly as initial silhouettes. Each one took no more than 1 minute. If I were doing this for an actual project I would continue to draw silhouettes until I had at least 20 to 30. Then I would look at all of them and decide which ones really stood out. I'd take those redraw a few more silhouettes using them as reference and continue this process until I found my perfect silhouette. For the purpose of this exercise however I'm simply going to chose the silhouette from above that I feel has the most appeal and move on to the next step.
STEP 3: Detail Variations
Once you have found a silhouette which perfectly captures what you want for your character you have to decide on the details. Where the silhouette gave the viewer the concept of the character, the details add depth. They can be used to bring out subtleties in the personality.
STEP 4: Value Study
Once you've established the details you want to go with, you may wish to do a value study. Alternatively you could do a color study first; it really depends on how you work most comfortably. Most people work better in value first so I went with this order.
The value study doesn't have to be complex. It could be as simple as a three tone (i.e. highlights, base, and shadow), but you should probably do some kind of value study as this will reinforce your understanding of the 3 dimensional form. Basically pick a consistent light source and shade accordingly.
There are a few key points to consider:
- Avoid using pure white or pure black. Very few things in nature are actually that dark or light.
- If you are going to have more than 3 tones, try to implement reflective light. This will make the character look more convincingly 3 dimensional.
- The darkest part of a shadow is the core shadow. This happens at the curve in the shape where the shadow starts to form on a 3 dimensional object.
The above is my value study. It took me about 40 minutes. The three swatches in the upper left corner were the bases for the skin and weapon. For his clothes I used the dark value of the skin as my base value and the skin's mid value as a light tone, then added a dark tone.
STEP 5: Color Variations
Now that you have a value study, we will do several variations of color. It's best in my opinion if you don't just pick colors from the color picker. I find colors tend to match up better if you blend the color you want with a color that is already in the composition. I recommend starting with one base color, say the skin tone and then blending the other colors until they look good with that tone.
STEP 6: The Turn Around
This is easily my least favorite part of designing a character. Now that you have the look and feel of your character it is time to turn it in space so that you can see it from all necessary angles. For 2D animation this traditionally involves a 5 point turn around, i.e. 5 drawings; a front view, a 3/4 front view, a side view, a 3/4 back view, and a back view. That is of course assuming a symmetrical character. If the character has details which must be portrayed on either side then it may be necessary to make another side view, or even to go as far as an 8 point turn. If you are developing the character to be modeled in 3D, you really only need a 3 point turn (assuming symmetry).
We are going to build a 3 point turn because I intend to model this character in 3ds Max. This drawing will be orthographic in nature. For those of you who don't know, that means perspective is not taken into account. Thus the feet will be on one line even if one is closer than the other. For the turn around I will not be doing a full color or value version. You can if you wish of course but I recommend getting the line art version done first then coming back in to do the value and color.
Key things to think about:
- Use guide lines to keep the parts of your character consistent from one view to the next.
- The silhouette of the front and back views are identical but flipped. This allows you to copy the outline and redraw the inside. The same principle would work for the 3/4 views if they are symmetrical designs.
Optional STEP 7: Expressions, action poses, etc.
You will probably want to draw the character in various poses which portray deferent emotions, or actions that they may go through. This is especially true if you will be handing the character off to someone else to animate. Try to do expressions which use the whole body and not just the head. For instance, when a person is sad or depressed they will likely slump their shoulders. Most expressions can and should use the body to make them more dynamic. This also of course makes them easier for the viewer to read.
Optional STEP 8: The Third Dimension ("It's like I can touch you!")
Once you've developed a character to this point you may, depending on the goals of your project, decide to bring it to 3D. However this is a fairly large topic in and of itself so I will not be discussing it further here. At least not right now.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I sincerely hope it helps at least a few of you in your endeavors.