Sketchbook Update: Creating A Character

Copyright © Cedric Hohnstadt 2011. All rights reserved.

Copyright © Cedric Hohnstadt 2011. All rights reserved.

Recently I’ve been trying to brush up on my character design skills. I’m planning to attend the CTN Animation Expo in Burbank this November and I’d like to walk through the doors with a beefed-up portfolio under my arm.

To get ready I’ve recently taken a character design workshop from Nate Wragg at the new CGMW online school, I’ve attended a lecture by character designer Chris Ayers, and I’ve been reviewing past critiques of my work from industry professionals. Over and over I keep hearing that in the animation industry it’s not enough to create a well-designed character if all you do is sketch him standing around in stiff and boring poses. Everything about your drawings – the pose, the costumes, the props and situations – needs to say clear things about who the character is and, ideally, tell a mini-story. As my friend Tom Bancroft says in his excellent book on character design, every pose should have a clear reason behind it. Animation studios don’t want someone who can just design a person or animal, they want someone who can create a character.

Chris Ayers has a really great trick that he uses to help him practice his character design skills. At his drawing table he has a ziploc bag full of little slips of paper. Written on each piece is a character type, a prop, an animal, or an attitude/expression. After he cracks open his sketchbook he reaches in and pulls out a few slips of paper and then challenges himself to create a character using that combination. For example, combining “rhino”, “lederhosen”, and “ready to fight” would probably result in a burly German rhino looking like he’ll knock your block off if you dare to snicker at his silly green outfit. If you purchase My Daily Zoo, Chris’s excellent drawing/activity book for children, he even has a batch of tear-off tabs in the back to get you started on your own ziploc bag of character ideas.

I loved that idea so much that I brainstormed my own list and now keep a similar bag near my desk. The other day I reached in and pulled out slips of paper reading “shark”, “charming”, and “southern gentleman”. I put those together to create the above sketch.

If all goes as planned I’ll be posting more sketches like this as the CTN Animation Expo gets closer.

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7 thoughts on “Sketchbook Update: Creating A Character

  1. Cedric, what about reference? Did Chris mention ever having to use some kind of photographic reference when drawing, say, an animal with which he’s not particularly familiar? Do YOU rely on any reference, like a Google search or a photobook, when you are tasked with creating a character based on something you’ve not drawn before?

    Love the shark, BTW!

  2. I’ve seen these workshops before, but hadn’t heard from anyone who has taken a course. Do you think the Nate Wragg class is good for ‘character design beginners’, or is it a bit more advanced?

    I love the paper slips idea though, I’m going to add that to my arsenal.

    • The Nate Wragg class certainly has some good things in it and I’d recommend it as an inspiring starting point for a beginner. If you want a really thorough, in-depth study of character design I highly recommend Stephen Silver’s course over at schoolism.com.

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