Design Simple Cartoon Characters from Flat Shapes
An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. ~Edwin Land
You’ve made it to the finish line!
So you’re tired of drawing stick figures and you want to draw something that’s…well, more interesting.
You want to start doing “real” drawings that LOOK like something.
Well, I’ve got good news for you. If you’ve stuck with it and made it this far, you’re ready to start drawing stuff you didn’t think you’d be able to before.
Here’s where all your time and work pay off. By the time your done with this lesson, you’ll be able to create your own drawings and characters, just like I promised…IF you’ve put some Kung Fu into the process, and have been practicing.
You’ve got almost all the knowledge you need to do it. All you need to know now, is what I tell you below.
So let’s get to it.
Flat Shapes are Foundational to Drawing
Beginning drawing books often start you off drawing Spheres, Cubes, and Cylinders. ALL those things are good things to know how to draw, but not yet.
Because each one of those “three dimensional” shapes are made out of TWO dimensional shapes. In fact, they AREN’T “three dimensional” shapes at all, they are STILL two dimensional shapes that SEEM to be “three dimensional.”
Let’s call a Spade a Spade here.
Our drawings are always going to be two dimensional. We can only give the illusion of being three dimensional.
Mastering control of flat 2d shapes will help you out immensely.
The Magic of Flat Shapes
Flat shapes are very versatile even without being three dimensional. You can do wonders with them alone.
Careers have been made by artists who don’t go beyond working with flat two dimensional shapes.
It’s impossible for me to show you ALL the ways they can be used in drawing, SO I’ve chosen ONE way to use them in this post. Perhaps as this site grows, we can investigate the other ways.
For now, let’s concentrate on how to make fun cartoon characters using flat shapes.
Shapes and Design
Remember in Lesson 3 when I wrote about the harmony between Contrast and Balance? Well, when it comes to creating characters with flat shapes, this principle still applies.
If you’ve forgotten what I wrote or if you’ve simply skipped the post, I recommend you go back and read or reread it. The following is an extension of that lesson.
Remember the shapes we practiced drawing in Lesson 2? Well, it’s time to use them again.
Just like with the stick figures, when we create a character from these three shapes, it’s all about creating contrast with the spacing of the proportions.
BUT, now that we have shapes, there are two more elements to think about:
- Spacing contrast and
- Size contrast.
Spacing contrast – Means you make sure you space out the shapes in interesting way. Trying to avoid spacing that is too balanced which would make the design dull.
Size contrast – Simply means your trying to put shapes of different sizes next to each other to create interest.
So let’s break down all the components including the two new ones:
In Figure 2 we can see on the right how the proportions break up in a balanced yet contrasted way.
In point 1, the face favors the bottom half of the head shape and is not perfectly centered. Also even the mouth itself favors one side of the face to another. All the features are also very close together rather than being spaced evenly apart.
In points 2 and 3 we see an example of size contrast. The size of the circle shaped head is larger than the rectangle of the body which it’s connected to. The body is not only proportionally smaller, it’s also smaller in width.
Points 3, 4, and 5 also contrast. Notice the length of the arm and hand are longer the body, and obviously thinner.
Point 4 and 5 contrast, not only in size but also in shape. Now, this isn’t something you that is done all the time but sometimes, a round shape next to a hard edged shape is a good mix and contrasts well too.
Point 6. The spacing of the legs here is something well worth pointing out. They are NOT evenly spaced out. By which I mean I favored the outer part of the body to attach them to rather then where the green arrows are actually located. The reason for this is, again, to add interest.
Alright now let’s take a look at yet another example:
Let’s break this guy down:
In Figure 4 we see how the head, neck, body and legs, are broken down and contrast against each other by seeing the break down on the right.
On the left, we see how the square shape of his face and body proportions contrast with the leg proportions.
In point 1, we see how his face favors the top of the head and his features are all in a very concentrated space.
Points 2, shows us the interest that is caused by not only making sure the legs are proportionally shorter but that they’re also much smaller in width. The contrast is large shape vs. small shape.
In point 3, we see that the ear is not placed right in the middle of the side of the head but favors beings slightly lower.
Now, in point 4 we see the hands and arms but unlike the hands and arms on Figure 1, it’s a triangle and a square. I kinda don’t like the way it looks. I prefer the triangle and circle combination. Perhaps it’s because the hand shapes in Figure 1, sharp edge shape vs. rounded shape, contrast more than two hard edged shapes in Figure 3. This might be a matter of personal taste though.
An Example of These Shapes in Real Productions
I asked fellow artist Evan Lewis to help show you examples of how these shapes have been used in actual animated productions.
There was a little kid’s show called WOW WOW WUBZY. The characters were very appealing and they were all made of basic shapes.
Here’s some designs Evan made up, using the “Wubzy style”:
As you can see in Figure 5, the characters are flat, two dimensional, and cute.
Let’s break them down to their component parts:
In Figure 6, you can see BOTH characters are made out of basic shapes. The one on the left is made mostly of squares and rectangle with the edges rounded off while the character on the right is mostly circle and ovals.
The character of the left’s proportions are subtly different. While the main overall length from the top of the ears to the neck are more clearly contrasted to the the rest of the body down to his feet.
The character on the right is even clearer. Large body length and short feet length. Large body shape, small legs and feet size.
Now it’s Your Turn
Your exercise is simple, draw some characters.
Remember this grid from Lesson 3? Time to use it again just like you did then:
Simply left click and press the “Save Link As…” button to save it to your computer. Then print it out and start drawing on it.
If you don’t want to use the grid, that’s okay. Just remember to keep track and measure your proportions the way I showed you in the “Pro Tips” on Lesson 4.
Here’s some examples of what you might come up with. Instead of me, doing the example, we can see how another draftsman approaches the exercise.
Here’s what Evan did doing this exercise:
Notice how Evan drew it all in ballpoint pen on regular line paper.
You can do this anywhere.
Also notice that you can see he did some light under drawing with the pen before he committed to putting down a dark final line.
At this point, you can draw! Better then most of the people you know!
Enjoy your new ability.
Q: YEAH! You said I’d be able to draw by this point but everything I do STILL looks crumby! You haven’t helped me at all!
A: How much time did you spend on each exercise? Ten minutes? Thirty? A week? Do the exercises until you get it. Don’t just do lip service to them. That’s how you fail. If you aren’t being serious enough about getting it, you won’t. You aren’t putting in the Kung Fu.
Repetition is key. Do these things until they become second nature and then, suddenly, people will say to you,
“Wow, you’re SO talented!” Which will probably make you want to slap yourself upside the head. If they only knew.
Let’s get a bit ahead of ourselves here.
When I was in high school, I made a discovery during Summer School that changed the way I designed my cartoon characters. I discovered the secret behind making my designs go from amateur designs to professional looking designs.
Here it is, for you to take advantage of. Are you ready?
Do everything I wrote about above, only…make up the shapes.
That’s it. Simply make up some interesting shapes. Suddenly your cartoons will look like they’ve jumped to the next level. Because they have.
I will write more about this in a later Level. For now, that’s my tip for you. Give it a try.
I can’t help you if you don’t ask.
What’s your burning simple character design questions?
Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about simple character design? Ask.
I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows, probably write a post about it.
Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.
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