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.
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.
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 also important.
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.
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.
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 Pen.
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.
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 finished cartoon.
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.
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.