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As an artist, many of us are drawn to expressing ideas through character designs. I’m constantly seeking to improve, and over the years I’ve picked up some helpful tricks in designing more appealing and expressive characters. It’s important to design not only how your figures look, but also how they tell a story with their gestures and movements.

This is especially crucial in the animation industry because the characters you’ll be conceptualising are intended to perform as though they were an actor in a film or TV show. Here are some tips on how to draw a more engaging character.

01. Draw a line of action

A straight or curved line forms the foundation of a movement drawing

Envisioning a single line overlaying your drawing can be a simple way of creating a feeling of movement. This line of action can either be straight or curved; both can give a different feeling of movement. While a straight line is usually very fast and direct, a curved line can create a more graceful mood. However, it’s best to avoid a perfectly straight vertical line of action, which may make a drawing feel static.

02. Show what the character is thinking

The character’s thoughts will help to suggest their actions

Just as we imagine our favourite TV and film characters to be real, we should try to imagine the characters we create have minds of their own. If a character in a drawing is moving or acting, they should have a reason for doing so. 

Whether it be a broad action such as sprinting or a subtle mannerism such as twirling a strand of hair, the character being presented would most likely have a conscious or unconscious reason for doing so. Keeping this in mind will help you make your character feel more interesting and relatable.

03. Contrast straights and curves

A balance of straight and curved lines brings a drawing to life

The contrast between straight lines and curved lines is an essential design element. A sketch made up of straight lines would feel too tense, while a drawing using mostly curved lines would lack structure. 

Curves are generally used to suggest the more fleshy part of the figure, whereas straights are more commonly used to imitate stable and solid segments. For example, compare the use of a straight line for a character’s back and the soft curve of their stomach.

04. Draw from life

Get out and about for some invaluable drawing experience

Drawing from life is an extremely helpful observational tool, whether it’s in a classroom or at your local café. Sketching and observing people around you can be beneficial in learning how to draw the human figure and the many emotions it can exhibit. 

Alternatively, there are life drawing classes. These tend to consist of a mixture of lengthy and short poses – poses set over a longer period of time enable you to capture details and study human anatomy, while quick poses are better suited to the gesture drawing technique (see step five).

05. Use gestures

An immediate gesture can be recorded in a short space of time

Gesture drawing is a quick way to capture the overall message of a figure. These observational drawings are often done in very short segments – in a life-drawing class, the model may only pose for 30 seconds, forcing the artist to get their first impressions down on paper. 

In this process of making deliberate and quick lines, try not to worry about how your art looks, or capturing details. You want to focus on the action or feeling of the pose.

06. Employ shape language

Different shapes can communicate a unique character

The use of different shapes is a major tool in character design. As well as helping to convey personality, shapes can also suggest movements or emotions. 

A character made up of squares may feel more slow and stable, whereas one made up of triangles may give off a more excitable feeling. Circles or curves are often used for more likable characters, and can make them feel friendly and bouncy.

07. Tilt and twist

A twisted posture instantly creates an interesting pose

A simple way to create a more dynamic pose is to practise using tilts and twists. To help avoid a static pose try using different angles. For instance, the angle of the character’s shoulders could contrast with the angle of their hips. Instead of drawing with angles that are parallel, contrasting angles give the drawing a feeling of flow and rhythm. 

08. Apply squash and stretch

Squash and stretch are fundamental principles every animator needs to know

As one of the 12 principles of animation, 'squash and stretch' is a useful technique in giving your drawing more life and energy. In animation a squash is often used as anticipation for a broader action: the stretch. 

The same can be used in a static drawing: A stretched pose acts as a moment when the character is creating their broadest action, while a squash in a drawing suggests tension.

Next page: read on for more tips to bring your characters to life…

09. Draw thumbnail sketches

Thumbnail sketches can be done quickly, like gesture drawings

A small thumbnail sketch (perhaps taking the form of a gesture drawing) can be useful for planning out a character’s pose, and enable you to consider different options for conveying an action.

Once I come up with a pose I’m happy with, I’ll refine the sketch on a new layer placed on top of the thumbnail. This approach enables me to create a cleaner drawing, while hopefully still reflecting that initial feeling of movement.

10. Consider silhouettes

Block out details to see why a pose works (or doesn’t)

Imagining that your drawing is filled in with black so you can only see the silhouette is a great way to ensure it delivers a clear read. Thinking in terms of silhouettes will also help you to become aware of what’s most important to the pose. 

Perhaps extending limbs away from the body will give a clearer read than crowding them together? Is your character presenting something of interest? If so, should it be accentuated in the silhouette?

11. Give a feeling of weight

Weights have a powerful impact on how your characters move

Considering weight in a drawing can help create a more believable feeling of motion. This could be shown through anything from the clothing the character’s wearing, to their posture. 

If a character is holding something light, their posture is going be effortless and the object may not demand much of their attention. On the other hand, a figure carrying a heavy object may be solely focused on holding it up, causing their body to contort into abnormal positions.

12. Keep it loose

Quick sketches are a useful template for further work

Along with gesture drawing, sketching quickly and loosely will keep the focus on attitude and storytelling, and stop you from getting too attached to any specific piece that you draw. 

Beginning with a loose sketch will enable you to make any necessary changes, such as pushing the pose or defining the silhouette, resulting in a clearer drawing. Then of course, when you’re happy with the general pose and gesture it will act as a solid template onto which you can add the final details.

13. Move from sketching to painting

Capture the action quickly

When moving my sketch into a painting, I begin with a quick sketch that gets the main idea across. Usually at this stage it’s very rough so I can focus on the gesture of the pose I’m going for, rather then spending too much time on details, which I will be working out later.

Colours, curves and silhouettes all come together

Next, I add colour. This helps me to block in shapes. At this point it can be helpful to work out the silhouette, while also considering other design elements, such as straights versus curves. I’ll make any necessary changes to ensure the pose reads well.

Finishing touches are added and mistakes ironed out

Finally, on a new layer, I’ll begin adding any additional details. I’ll paint and refine the sketch to give it more structure and form. Here I’ll make any final changes to the character, and work out the anatomy that may not have been properly considered in the initial rough sketch.

14. Push your idea

Exaggerate your ideas to get the most out of your characters

Often, taking a second pass at your initial drawing can be beneficial. When we think to ourselves what it is we want to draw, we sometimes have a clear picture as to what that action looks like. 

For instance, say you want to draw your character sitting down. You could very well draw them resting on a chair and that will get the point across. But how might you push it to tell a better story? Maybe they’re bored, and so their posture is slouched and they’re resting their head in their hands. The addition of more exaggerated movements and subtle acting can make for a much more appealing character.

15. Combine expression and body language

Visual shortcuts allow artists to communicate what characters are thinking

We should also consider how the character is feeling. Visual clues such as facial expression and body language can help convey the emotions of the character immediately. A character feeling confident may stand with their shoulders back and their head held high. On the other hand, a timid character may be crossing their arms, with their head hung low.

16. Tell a story

Putting a character in a situation tells us about their personality

Character design is much more than drawing just a pretty picture. A character drawing could be picture-perfect, with no anatomical flaws and spot-on proportions, but still lack the charm of a character with personality. 

Drawing your character in varying circumstances will help the viewer to ‘get to know them’. How a character reacts to different situations reveals different aspects of their personality. What’s your character like? How might that affect how they carry themselves in different scenarios?

This article was originally published in issue 142 of ImagineFX, the world's best-selling magazine for digital artists – packed with workshops and interviews with fantasy and sci-fi artists, plus must-have kit reviews. Subscribe to ImagineFX here.

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