Making Your Cartoons Look Professional – Cartooning Design

June 17, 2015 in Intermediate, Lvl 1

Making Your Cartoons Look Professional – Cartooning Design

Making Your Cartoons Look Professional - Cartooning DesignYou’re comfortable drawing.  If fact, drawing hasn’t ever been a problem for you.  You enjoy drawing quite a bit.

Thing is, when you look at your drawings and you look at more experienced artists, your stuff doesn’t quite look right.

When you copy cartoons, they look good, but when you draw your own, there’s something off about them.  You’re not sure what you’re missing.

What’s the biggest thing that separates what you do and what they do? How can you take your cartoon drawing to the next level?

Applying the principles of good design.

In this lesson I’ll show you what design principles you’re missing.  There’s three things you need to keep in mind when designing cartoon characters.

I’ll go over each one and show you how to work with them so that you can bring your cartoons to the next level.

By the time you’re done with this lesson, you’ll know what you need to do to draw cool looking, and well designed, cartoon characters.

Let’s get started.

The 3 Things You’re Missing

To simply sum it all up, in order to make your cartoons really sing, you need to apply these three things.

  • Principles of Design
  • Compound Forms
  • Simplicity

Let’s take a closer look at each one of these idea. Starting with…

Principles of Design

THE secret to GOOD design is harmonizing contrast and balance <= CLICK TO TWEET

EVERYTHING that you will EVER draw, can be broken down into a flat, two dimensional shape. <= CLICK TO RETWEET

These are the key principles of good design. I wrote about these two principle in two earlier lessons on this site:

Stick figures, with style! Basic design and

Design Simple Cartoon Characters from Flat Shapes

You can read the full version of this info there but, I’ll sum it up here in a condescend version.

When we create a character, it’s all about creating balanced contrast with the spacing of the proportions.

What is contrast?

When talking about drawing, contrast is:

  • Dark against light values or lines.
  • Straight lines against  “c” curve or “S” curve lines
  • Big against little shapes
  • Uniform patterns against chaotic marks.
  • A color against it’s opposite color on the color wheel

Contrast is good because it adds interest and dynamism to a drawing.  It gives a drawing tension that draws the eye. But it can also be unnerving and just plain ugly.

What is balance?

When talking about drawing, balance is almost what you’d think it is:

  • Making things seem even
  • Placing things on a page so that it doesn’t seem off kilter
  • Making things uniform.

Our instinct is to make what we draw balanced and uniform.  Balanced, uniform drawings are automatically appealing to us.  A perfectly uniform and balanced drawing is often seen as an ideal. They can also be VERY boring and uninteresting.

Good design is when you deliberately take contrasting things, and you place them together in such a balanced way, that they seem like they BELONG together. In other words, you’ve managed to harmonize them. This causes them to not only be appealing, but interesting as well.

A good design works well when you end up with the appeal of balance, and the interest of contrast, without keeping the dullness of balance and the ugliness of contrast.

As you design characters don’t forget to keep these other two principles in mind:

  1. Spacing contrast and
  2. Size contrast.

Spacing contrast – Means you make sure you space out the shapes in interesting ways. 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.

Easy drawing simply character design with flat shapes 01


For example, in the figure above, 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 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

Again, for a more in depth view on this subject, read the earlier lessons linked above.

Compound Forms

There’s a reason why we learned to draw basic forms in Lesson 2.  Once you have a grasp of those forms you can build upon that knowledge to create “Compound Forms.”

Compound forms are basic forms that have been combined to create a more complex 3D form.

Imagine you’re basic forms are made out of clay and you sculpt them together to make a new shape while still retaining some of the original forms.

They’re what many cartoon characters are actually made out of.  Often simple cartoons may not be as simple as you might think.

Some cartoons are really quite complicated, while others are not.  It depends on style.

We’re going to be focusing on the slightly more complicated type here.

So what do compound forms look like? Well here’s some examples of what I’m talking about.

A cartoon cat, might look like this:

Cat head contruction from compound shapes


The drawings above are simple compound forms. The most complicated part being the attachment of the mussel to the head, as well as the “cheeks,” of the cats that have them.

Notice the eyes are not merely “painted on,” but are 3D forms inserted into the larger head form.

And when talking about more advanced human head shapes. You might get something like this:

Head construction from compound shapes


I deliberately designed these head to be far more complex than the cat heads. I wanted to show you how elaborate compound forms can get.  It’s also a good example of the complexity of a human head and why some cartoon heads are harder to draw than others.

The heads above are a combination of wedges, spheres, and cubes, all combined to make the head shapes.

Drawing compound forms is an essential skill to learn to take your work to the next level.

Anchoring Features to Your Forms by Creating Topography

Something critical to keep track of when creating these compound forms is the topography of the form you’ve created.

Make sure to map this out clearly, either on the page itself or in your head.

The reason  for this is that any details you place on top of your figure needs to follow and reinforce the topography. If it doesn’t your drawing runs the danger of looking flat where you want to have solidity.

You also need to understand the topography if you plan to model your drawing using tonal shading or coloring.

Here’s what I mean:

Character  contruction topograhy


Okay, perhaps the middle one is a bit much.

Still, you really do need to be able to understand your character’s topography as well as possible at some level. Like I said before, you don’t need to draw it all out, but you do need to know it. It will make your characters look more solid in the long run and it will help you be able to draw them from different angles.


“Look at the detail!”

Beginning artist are often more obsessed with details and textures than good drawing.

Too often as draftsmen, we get caught up in the complex and the details.  The more textures the better, the more bumps the better, the more colors the better, the more MORE the better.

Not necessarily.

It’s much more difficult to draw something simple than something complex. There are great draftsmen and cartoonist that do the detail thing really well.  They’re usually really good at drawing to begin with.

BUT there are far more bad draftsmen and cartoonists who use details and textures to cover up their bad drawing and what they don’t know how to draw.

You really don’t want to be that person.

When drawing cartoons don’t overdo the compound forms.  Us as few forms as you can, to get the idea across that you want.

The last thing you want is for your cartoon to get overwhelmingly “lumpy bumpy.”

Below are two examples:

Simplicity vs Too Complex


I deliberately drew as many bumps and complexity as I could in drawing 1.

With drawing 2. I kept it as simple and a clear I possible.  I could have even simplified it more, in fact.

As you can see, 1.  is all visual “noise.” It’s difficult to focus on anything. It’s all over the place.

2. Flows together more harmoniously.

If we were to only see the silhouette of these arms…

Simplicity vs Too Complex silhouette


You can tell that drawing 2. is an arm while it’s difficult to tell what the hell 1. is. Clarity is lost.

When you draw, ask yourself, how can I make the simplest statement? How can I minimize the amount of lines here?  Can I do this with only straights and “C” curves?

When it comes to drawing, less is often more.

There IS a place for detail, texture and complexity.  Mastering simplicity will help you know when those things can best be used and when they can be left out.  It’s not what you put in that makes your drawings sophisticated, but what you leave out.


In combination these three idea make some very cool looking cartoons. Let’s look at some examples.

The drawing below is basically lifted from the model sheet of a very famous looney bunny, but I changed him into a monkey for copyright reasons:

Cartoon Capuchin Monkey

Looney Tunes style characters are generally made out of very basic forms:


Cartoon Capuchin Monkey Forms

Although the hands and the faces tend to be where the compound forms make an appearance. Usually, this style of cartoon has more complex faces than you might think. It’s what makes them expressive:

Cartoon Capuchin Monkey Forms with face

Once you have all those forms down, you build the details of the characters on top of them:

Cartoon Capuchin Monkey Rough

The Looney Tunes style is a very flexible cartoon style.  Deep understanding of anatomy is not necessary to pull off a cool looking, and fun cartoon.  It helps but it’s not necessary.

You can often come up with some fun and interesting characters simply by playing around and experimenting with compound forms.

But if you want to make even MORE advanced cartoons…

The examples below are of the Draw Fu characters.  They’re here to both represent, “Disney style” as well as slightly cartoony “comic book style.”

I did this because these characters are a little bit of both.

Beginning with a line drawing of Brush Lee below:

brush lee example

Brush can be broken down into some basic forms although when it comes to the hands, feet, and face, the compound forms really start kicking in:

brush compound forms example

These basic form are just the beginning. Once you have them down, that’s when you start breaking up the forms into much more sophisticated designed, compound forms:

brush construction example

This level of cartooning requires you to have some understanding of human anatomy.  It’s the reason why the Disney animation studio used to hire people based on portfolios full of figure drawings and NOT full of cartoons.

This is where observational drawing, representational drawing and cartooning meet.

Here’s a closer look at a head drawn in this style:

Pen Grier head disney style



The basic forms that make up a head like this are very simple:

Pen Grier Basic forms


Once you get into refining the compound forms, the head becomes far more complex:

Pen Grier Compound forms

Just because a cartoon is simple looking, doesn’t mean it lacks sophistication. This style of cartoons require a deeper understanding of anatomy and structure than you might think.

Only by understanding certain anatomical principles will you be able to break down a cartoony head, in this style, into it’s compound forms more easily.

I’m showing you these more advanced set of examples to help you see how far you can take this compound form concept.  Also, if you’re having trouble drawing in this style, you now know what kind of knowledge it takes to be able to pull it off.

Not to worry. In later Draw Fu levels we will begin to examine more advanced anatomical drawing.  For now, simply be aware how compound forms create more solid looking cartoons.

See if you can experiment in more simple styles.


Now it’s your turn. Come up with a few characters made up of compound forms.

  1. Create a character,
  2. Break down it’s compound forms making sure you have it’s topography worked out well.

Here’s what I mean.  Let’s take the simple form characters from the example I created in Lesson 2.  This one in particular:

Basic Construction sample

Let’s start by coming up with a purpose for him.  He looks stocky and tough so maybe he can be a fighter of some sort.

Since this is Draw Fu, let’s give him a martial arts archetype. I’ll take Bolo Yeung  from Enter the Dragon as my inspiration:


Start with a very basic lite lay in.  This doesn’t have to be pretty and it can even be flat and graphic.  What  you’re doing is creating a rough road map or your drawing.  You’re placing the pieces where you want to take the drawing.

Erasing and adjusting is fine, but keep in mind, you’re not looking for perfection:


Ballpoint Yeung rough lay in

You can eventually take this and make it something tighter. Add a bit more detail.  Even make it look finished.  The purpose of the first sketch is NOT to have a final drawing.  It’s meant to give you something to create compound forms from.

Let me show you.

Once you have the rough lay in, you then go in and work out the compound forms you will use to solidify the drawing, over your lay in. Ideally you’d do this on a separate piece of paper using a lightbox or tracing paper.

This is done in case you mess up or you don’t like some of your choices.  It’s easier to erase the construction without erasing the lay in, if it’s on a different piece of paper:

Ballpoint Yeung solidifying the construction high rez

You should end up with something like this:

Ballpoint Yeung Construction

You can then start working out more complex compound forms, like the face.  This might take a few tries as well. Again, you may use a separate piece of paper. If you do, it would probably be because you’re still not sure what the face would look like and it’s easier to change stuff around or just start over if it’s on another sheet:

Ballpoint Yeung Construction with heads

The final finished drawing would then be done on yet another sheet of paper.  Yeah, it’s a lot of paper, but at first it’s best that way.

By the time you’re done, you should have a solid looking design. When I drew the drawing below, I kinda drew the whole process at once on one sheet of paper. This is why you can see all the extra line work on the drawing. Eventually, you’ll be do this as well.

I usually tend to use multiple sheets of paper now, when I want to make adjustments and fix stuff I don’t like in my roughs:

Ballpoint Yeung final rough

Even if you decide to draw the whole thing in one drawing as I did, you should then take another piece of paper and draw over your character using a lightbox or tracing paper, drawing only it’s compound forms. This is to make absolutely sure that you know exactly what they are and how they work.

Otherwise, you’re cheating yourself and you’re not really learning anything.


Q: I’m having trouble starting. I don’t know where to begin.  How would I go about starting a new design?

A: There’s two ways.  The first way is simply to look up reference.  Go online and search images for people or animals that are similar to what you want to draw. If you’re going to draw cats, look up cats.  If you’re going to draw a fat guy, look up fat guys. That’s where I tend to begin.

Pre-visualing a direction this way helps a lot.  Sometimes when the possibilities are endless, it helps to reduce them.

Once you’ve done that though, that’s when you go back and remember your design principles.  Start flat.  Play around with flat shapes. At first, you don’t want to worry about drawing 3D forms, you want to get good design.  Simply come up with varying flat shape designs and experiment.

It’s the reason I was able to explain design with such simple elements in earlier lessons.

The example below is the many variations of Brush Lee I drew before finally finding a version I liked.  Notice there’s lot’s of versions.  I didn’t get it right the first time.  I had to draw lots of different heads. It’s okay not to get it right the first time. In fact, assume it’s the norm. Getting it right the first time is actually an exception.

Draw Fu Comic Designs 08

Draw Fu Comic Designs 11


Here’s a line up of all the flat shapes that make up the Draw Fu characters:

Character shape line up

Once you have something you like, that’s when you start applying compound forms to your flat design.

If you’re having trouble coming up with unique original shapes, it’s okay to copy other artist’s shapes and riff off of them.  If you do this enough, you will eventually learn to create your own.

I will be dealing with copying in Lesson 6.

Pro Tip

There are a lot of books out there about drawing people with certain proportions.  They say things like, “the idealized person is so many heads tall,” and they break down the human body.

These are great guideline to keep in mind BUT, when drawing cartoons, try to avoid those kind of proportions like the plague.

They make really generic and boring looking cartoon characters.  Instead, use those kind of guides as things to avoid.  If an idealized person is eight heads tall, make your character three or eleven heads tall.

If the body of an idealized character’s proportions are perfectly divided in half at the crotch, put your character’s crotch closer to 1/4 or 3/4.

Observe real people and notice how far from ideal they are.  Draw THAT instead.  Cartoons are more fun to look at that way.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning under compound form questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about compound forms? 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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