Monday, September 3, 2018

Unique Character Designer Kristin Wauson! -- Plus A PRIZE!

Smart Note: Reg. Start Your Characters - Pages 8-9

I think that Kristin is one of my biggest helpers on Instagram because she often uses the #smartdummieschallenge tag on her images. This tag lets me know that she's got new work that she wants me to see and share. It makes things so much easier when I'm looking for new artwork to show on my Smart Dummies Challenge Instagram!

Kristin's work is bright, beautiful and has a lot of heart! She has done so much beautiful work in the last year on Instagram (which is about as long as I've been on Instagram). Her characters are just so wonderful that I asked her to write a post about creating characters!

Check the bottom of this post for a PRIZE!

Thank you again, so much, for inviting me to write a post! -Kristin

How to Design a Unique Character, Start to Finish 

What’s so hard about designing characters? For me, it’s the temptation to settle on the first one I draw that looks halfway decent. Let’s say you need to draw a crocodile, and you haven’t drawn many crocodiles. You sit down with your sketchbook and hopefully some reference and work at it until you have something that resembles ... a crocodile.

You’re feeling proud of your effort so you show your masterpiece to your kids just to make sure you nailed it, and they say, “an alligator!” Close enough. Five minutes later you’ve named him Jimmy and slapped him into your picture book dummy.

So, what’s wrong with that? While you might have drawn a perfectly good crocodile, he probably looks a lot like your reference (ahem, boring) or even worse, like the most generic crocodile you can muster from memory because our brains are lazy. Have you ever asked your brain for a masterpiece and gotten stuff like this?

These are symbols. Our brains use them to help us process complex thoughts, and while they communicate meaning and keep us sane in life, they do not make for interesting drawings. You’ve already worked hard on your story and you going to work even harder on your dummy. Your dummy deserves unique characters!

How do you get one of those? Hard work my friends. Your brain may be lazy, but because you are here doing Smart Dummies, I know that you are not. This post took me a long time to put together because I actually designed a character from scratch. Don’t you hate it when people suggest that you do things they aren’t willing to do themselves? And now I am going take you through the entire process of how I designed a crocodile character.

Chicken? Egg?
What comes first, words or pictures? There’s no right answer. Many professional character designers start with words, probably because they work from written design briefs. If you have an idea that you prefer starting with words, try starting with pictures. Or vice versa. The results may surprise you.

When the character arrives, the story will appear.
Characters have a unique ability to drive stories. I am always surprised by how many story ideas occur to me as I am sketching a character. The same is true for writing about your characters. Once you create a fully formed character with a personality, flaws, fears and a pet chicken, you will automatically start thinking about how that character would respond to different situations.

The creative process isn’t always straight forward.
I wanted to present you with a clear start to finish process you can follow to design your own characters, but real life is messy. And instead of pretending I had planned it this way all along, I decided to let you see how it evolved.

I began by using words, but once I started drawing, inspiration struck. Suddenly I had a new story idea (which I am not ready to share yet as I am writing this post) and I decided to abandon the original idea. That’s the benefit of staying open and flexible during the early stages of a project. The process can sometimes lead you somewhere unexpected and letting this happen organically can result in some great things.

Step 1. Get to Know Your Character

The character prompt I started with was this:

Design a crocodile who is an enthusiastic beach lifeguard, but everyone is afraid him and nobody wants to be rescued.

Questions are a great way to get to know your character. I started with a list like this one:

What is my name?
What do I look like?
How old am I?
Where do I live?
When (time period) do I live?
What is my job or role in life?
What is my greatest joy in life?
What do I like to eat?
Do I have a pet?
What do I do for fun?
What do I dislike?
What is my personality like?
What kind of clothes do I wear (if any)?
What am I afraid of?
What is something that I need?
What is my lifelong dream?
Who is my nemesis?
Who is my best friend?

Step 2. Research

I researched and drew some real crocodiles in my sketchbook. Even if you are drawing a very stylized character, understanding real life anatomy will make your characters more believable.

I also researched beach lifeguards, and because I initially wanted him to be a muscle head, I looked up pictures of muscular men. (This was actually terrifying and might be the real reason I ended up taking another route!)

The last thing I did was look at character designs by different artists and note things that I liked or didn’t like. This can help get ideas flowing and helps me visualize possibilities for features and shapes.

Step 3. Character Construction

Next I drew a whole page of bodies focusing on a simple overall silhouettes first (details come later). I built the bodies using basic shapes to represent the legs, torso and head and I tried to use a variety of shapes in different sizes and proportions. The more iterations you can do, the better.

Basic Shapes: Shape possibilities are endless, but you can start with these:
• circles are soft, cute, nurturing, non-threatening
• squares are solid, firm, grounded and stable
• triangles are sharp, edgy, dangerous, aggressive and unstable/unpredictable if balanced on one point

Sizes: tiny, small, medium, large, huge
Variety is the key. One size does not fit all. For example draw a character with a small head, a huge body and tiny legs.
Proportions: experiment with the facial proportions and placement of features as well as body proportions.

4. Define, Push, Pull, Add Details

Next I added a new layer on top of my silhouettes (you can do this with tracing paper too!) and defined the features more and added details

Once I finished those, I chose my favorite croc and copy pasted him several times onto a blank canvas. Again, this can be done on regular paper, the setup just might take longer. I added another layer and drew over the top of him with the goal of turning him into six new and completely different characters. I like using the warp tool (benefit of working digitally!) for this stage because you can literally squash and stretch the character until you find something interesting.

This was when I realized my favorite character design was not right for my lifeguard story, but I decided to render him anyway and as I worked, he gave me an idea for a new story which I can hopefully flesh out during Smart Dummies!

5. Rinse and Repeat

Until your book is published nothing is ever “final.” I still need to get to know this guy, so I will go back to asking myself questions about him, and the answers may inspire some adjustments to the final design.

This process is a little like the song that never ends. You can repeat it indefinitely until you either find something you like, or you go insane. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

That’s it! I hope you have enjoyed following along as I designed this crocodile character. If you have any favorite character design tips or tricks, please share them in the comments.


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  1. Thank you so much, Kristin! Loved seeing your process unfold. And thanks for the steps. I feel like my character is still hidden somewhere in my pencil and paper. :) These will be helpful in discovering him.

  2. Lots of good information here. Thank you!

  3. Terrific description of this artistic process. I particularly like the advice to stay flexible in your original intent to follow inspiration and staying open ended to future change.

  4. Lots of great suggestions. I like how many variations of a crocodile she tried!

  5. Thank you for these great suggestions. I always learn something from all of you. Cheers!

  6. I love this post. I often have to explain my process of creating characters that do not come straight from my head. I call it Frankensketching you have to take parts from this & that then move things around until you get what you want. Then you have to do it again to refine & define.
    This post makes me feel comforted.
    Thank you for sharing

  7. Thanks for sharing this information. It will help us as we think who our characters are and will become. It was nice to see the thinking process that went into creating the character. I'll keep this information in my important info file.

  8. I think it's great to see your process. I have to retrain my brain from doing commercial artwork... it's the reverse! Simplify 'til the doesn't have too much sparkle and life in surface pattern design. You want the image to be the background.

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  11. Thanks for the process explanation. I especially like the part about getting into the character by asking the questions as if YOU are the character. It is seeing the character from the inside looking out instead of looking AT it. Very helpful, love your work!!!!

  12. Thank you! I had a little character in mind already, but used your technique about and altered its shape several times. I'm sticking with my original, just slightly altered, but doing the exercise gave me new ideas for the future. So thankyou for that.

  13. This was a great illustration of how finding an interesting character requires lots of exploration and playing around. Thank you! :-)

  14. Thanks for the pointers, I can't wait to try them out.

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