8 September 2010

Creating convincing characters

Illustrator maestro Alexis West demonstrates how to magic up appealing characters using a pencil, a computer and bags of imagination.



The ability to dream up and design cool, dynamic people is a good skill for any graphic designer to have under their belt, whether you’re basing whole graphic novels around them or just using them to add a quirky twist to flyers or T-shirt designs.

Character design is a great chance to really let your imagination run wild – the sky’s the limit. In this tutorial, you’ll learn some basic skills for converting your character from a pencil doodle to a complete, fully-coloured image – learning some crucial Illustrator skills along the way.


Step 1
The best way to begin creating a character is with pencil and paper. Doodle your ideas, keeping your mind open: the results will speak for themselves. When developing your character, don’t force it, let it emerge naturally: think of personality and even names. Try not to make any of these elements overly ‘wacky’ for the sake of it. Think of a way to further intensify emotion and expression – one of my personal stamps is that I rarely give my characters large or distinctive mouths, thus emphasizing their eyes.


Step 2
Once you have developed a character, a great way to express their personality is to imagine a scenario that depicts a sense of narrative. My character is a bit punky, so to further emphasize this, I have developed a little scene where she is disrupting a peaceful scene. Another great way to emphasize your character is to place them in a scene that contrasts with their personality.

Step 3
Once you’re happy with your character, scan in your sketch and open it in Photoshop. Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and adjust the slider to correct the white to black pixel levels. Save the image, and open it in Illustrator (If you’re not using your own sketch, open up sketch.jpg from the Project Files - see right).


Step 4
Before starting to transform your sketch into vector graphics, get to grips with the Pen tool (P), as this will allow you to remain faithful to the flow of your drawing. Start by placing a point on your canvas with the pen. Now decide where you want your curve to end, place your next point in the mid point of your curve and gently pull to manipulate an arc – when you plot the next point, the curve should complete naturally.


Step 5
Create a new layer above your sketch, and name it Head. Start by plotting points around the character’s eye to faithfully represent your drawing, next use the Shape tool to draw a circle representing the pupil. Now copy the white of the eye shape (Ctrl/Cmd+C) and paste it in front of the circle (Ctrl/Cmd+F) Select both shapes and make a clipping mask to conceal the overspill of the circle (Ctrl/Cmd+7).

Step 6
Some elements of the illustration can be quite fiddly with the pen tool alone – for this sort of areas, brushes are a superb way of creating a flowing vector form. Draw a circle using the Shape tool and use the Direct Selection tool (A) to highlight one of the side anchor points. While holding Shift, gently pull in the opposite direction to create a tearshape. Select the new shape and drag it into the Brushes menu; highlight New Art-Brush. Experiment with a few different shapes, and create several brushes for different details.


Step 7
Return to the Head layer and, using the Pen tool, plot a single flowing line that follows the curvature of the eyebrow or lashes. With the line selected, choose your custom brush and you should have a freeflowing shape that represents the eyebrow. With the eyebrow selected, go to Object > Expand Appearance – this will convert your path into an editable vector shape.

Step 8
To recreate the character’s trademark flowing arms, follow Step 7’s brush technique. Select the Pen tool and start tracing the character’s hand, blending it into the shape of the arm. Select both the arm and the hand shapes, go to Window > Pathfinder and in the pathfinder window click the Add to Shape Area option. Go to Object > Expand Appearance to finalize the arm and hand shape.


Step 9
Using all of the above techniques, finish tracing out your composition, keeping as many elements on separate layers as possible. The main advantage of using the computer is that you are free to start making subtle changes to improve your final composition. I have altered the main character making her more prominent, and enhanced the sense of flow by altering her posture slightly.


Step 10
Now it’s time to give the composition some extra pop by adding shading. Select a shape in your composition – in this case I’m using the head – copy and paste it in front of the original shape and change its colour to black. Paste the shape in front once again, select the Transform tool (E) and rotate the shape until you leave a crescent to the left, select both shapes, and select the Subtract from Shape Area option in the Pathfinder palette. Go to Object > Expand Appearance and reduce the opacity to around 10 per cent.

Step 11
Certain elements will require different shading technique. Select a more complex shape – in this instance I’m going to use the secondary character’s hair. Select the Pen tool, and following where your shadow will fall on the hair, plot a path accurately along the inside, ensuring there is a decent overflow on the outside, copy the hair shape and paste it in front of your shadow path. Select both shapes and make a clipping mask (Ctrl/Cmd+7). Reduce the opacity to around 10 per cent.


Step 12
Once the shading is complete it’s time to think about colour: when choosing colour, think of the type of scene and the characters’ personalities, and how colour will communicate this. Since this scene has a serene environment, a cooler palette is needed. Start by choosing a main colour (in this instance a greenish hue), select a few harmonious colours and work within this range.

Step 13
Gradients are a great way of emphasizing colour and tone, although they’re best used sparingly. Select the rectangle that represents the sky, and select your main hue to colour it. Click the Gradient swatch in the Colour palette and set to 90º. It is greyscale by default, so in the Colour palette drag the small swatch that shows your original colour into both ends of the slider, now lighten one side to a complementary light green or yellow.


Step 14
Select the clouds shape and repeat Step 13, this time setting the gradient orientation to -90º and setting the opacity to around 40 per cent; set the blending mode to Screen in the Opacity palette. Repeat this process for the lake beneath to create a reflection effect, further reducing the opacity.

Step 15

To add extra pop to the image and emphasize the key character, choose a range of colours that, while complementing the scene, really stand out. For the character I have coloured the hair pink: not only is this relevant to the look of the character, it also makes her stand out. Remember, stronger colours bring things forward, and cooler colours send things back positionally.

Alexis West




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