Character Sketching Basics

A “Character Sketch” can have several appearances depending on which genre you’re sketching for. If you’re outlining a character for a screenplay or novel, it’s a written list of traits describing their motivations and history. If you’re illustrating a character for a web comic or graphic novel, it’s a visual representation of their personality.

You sketch a character on the outside and on the inside so you can fully understand how they’ll act in their story. A helpful character sketch boils down to a couple of ideas, and once you know those ideas, you can flesh him or her into a real person.

While writing and illustrating often cross paths in character ideation, let’s take the illustrator’s path and walk through how you can sketch a character from an idea to a full drawing.

Tools

Open a new drawing and choose a pencil or two — I like the Soft Pencil in blue and another in charcoal for under-layers. Have a Soft Eraser handy if you like. Select a Fountain Pen in black for ink outlines, and choose a low opacity Fill Tool in black for shadows, and in white for highlights.

Also have your Layers menu open. Layers are very handy for practicing sketching with. Nothing is made finished from the get-go, it’s built from the bones up. Layers allow you to build elements of a sketch on top of each other, then hide the bones later when you’re polishing up the skin. Set your layers to Manual so you can have multiple pencil layers.

Crumpled paper, so you don’t take things too seriously.

Layer 1: Emotion Lines

The most basic trait for sketching a character is an emotion. People act from emotion, not from logic. (Common marketing knowledge says that when logic hits emotion, that’s when you’ll sell.) Imagine a moment of emotion that your character is feeling. When you feel it, channel it into your arm and draw it onto your paper as the character’s spine.

For example, if you’re feeling surprised, let your hand go spastic and draw it. Or let go of the tension and droop. It doesn’t have to match the true anatomy of the spine, though the spine is remarkably flexible.

I like drooping lines, they make me feel dramatic in a lazy way.

When you illustrate a character, your character is actually the embodiment of the emotion they are experiencing. In fact, the more you exaggerate it, the better you’ll get the message across.

Add a head and limb lines to help express the energy further — emotion is a full-body experience. See how the lines flow with the energy of the moment?

How I feel when I look at my to-do list.

If you’re drawing a blank, think of the emotion you’re feeling right now… maybe some curiosity. When you’re feeling curious, you lean forward with interest and pay attention — draw a line that leans forward. Or imagine a moment of intense action or impending doom, like a superhero hurling a car in your direction. Did you recoil? Leap? Dodge? Draw your reaction onto the page.

Draw several emotion lines. Go fast. See how many emotions you can outline in 30 seconds.

Think excited, surprised, curious, lazy, beaten down, simmering, rebellious, afraid….

Layer 2: Background

Besides emotion, the most basic traits of a character are their core motivation — what drives them to act, and their core fear — what prevents them from acting. Define these and you can write or sketch an entire novel. You’ll have their internal protagonist and antagonist in hand, giving you an idea of how your character will act when faced with decisions, and how an antagonist might act as an alternate character in your story.

Pick one of the emotional characters you just drew. Take a moment to imagine why they might be experiencing that emotion, and jot down their traits: emotion, core motivation, and core fear.

This is a good, dramatic pose. Lots of room for storytelling here.

From here, you can sketch full novels of back story dissecting those motivations and fears — where they come from, what’s happened in their life to cause them to make the decisions they do, etc. The more tension and the more honest your character’s emotions about it, the more compelling your story will be, because a giant, fundamental change will be taking place inside and around them. Change is the core of any story, and emotion is your character’s reaction to it.

But back to sketching this one character in this one moment. One sketch illustrates one moment in time, which is one emotion or reaction to an event.

Let’s define the event a bit. Are they fighting a monster? Running away from home? Perhaps they’re hungry and wishing for lunch. Where are they headed? Always ask “Why? Why are they experiencing this emotion?”

A helpful way to outline notes in a sketch is to pencil a few lines of what’s happening around them, so you can judge their reactions and draw them honestly.

Roughing in context in a background layer. Draw on their core motivation and fear to help give you context.

Layer 3: Frame

Once you’ve drawn a line or a few of your character, you can adjust the lines to be a bit more realistic and add a frame. This includes hips, shoulders, torso, basic muscles and the main shapes of the head — a circle for the scalp, a triangle for the jaw.

We’re not making this drawing anatomically to scale. It’s an exaggeration to show an emotional moment. If you want it to be proportionally correct, you can use a mannequin or take a photo of someone in this stance for reference. But proportions differ greatly according to different drawing styles — another topic — so I won’t go into that here.

A quick, sketchy frame. The new frame captures the emotion lines, so we’ll hide that layer.

Another approach to the frame is to create it from basic shapes. Bodies are made out of shapes. If you study yourself in the mirror, you’ll see them — the circle for your head, a triangle for the jaw. Rectangles make the neck, torso and upper limbs. Long, skinny triangles can be seen in the lower limbs, and you can trace the circles of your palms. Draw them in.

Exaggerate the shapes according to what your character is doing. Don’t be afraid to bend the shapes to the spine. Also, see how the elements line up when you follow the spine… the chin tucks in, the hair falls down… so does that safe…

Depending on their clothing, you can take into account the shape of their attire here, or make a layer after their true self is drawn and dress them appropriately then.

Layer 4: Make it Organic

In a new layer, soften your lines so they appear more organic, like a real body.

That stick figure is starting to look human.

If they’re wearing a cape or flared pants or boots, add in the flow of the material and some of the main details.

At any time, if those layers are starting to get too much for you, hide a layer or change the color of your pencil.

Layer 5: Outline

We now have some working character bones. Let’s switch to a black pen. In a new layer, trace the true outline of your character.

The lines are informed by the frame, and will in turn show where to place the shadows.

You can spend time on making it perfect or keep it quick. This style is a comic style and I’m focusing on capturing the elements quickly — it keeps you from second-guessing yourself and from spending too long on getting the idea across. You don’t want to spend your whole life drawing one scene when other exciting times are calling.

Layer 6: Shadows — Rough

Before we add our all important shadows and light, let’s understand where the light source is and how it will affect our drawing. Keep your pen handy and name a new layer “Shadows — Rough.”

Choose a place for your sun to shine from and indicate where its light will fall. According to our pic, not only do we have a building and corner our character is up against, casting their own shadows, but the safe is blocking the sun from above. Also, the girl has a shadow herself. Just rough them in quickly.

Notice how the bottom corner of the safe and the building’s shadow mimic each other.

Layer 7: Shadows and Highlights

In a new layer — keep it beneath the Ink layer so the ink stays fresh — choose the black Fill Tool at a low 20% opacity and start adding shadows.

Draw in the major shadow blocks like the triangles in the corners, then trace the bottom edges of the character’s body where the sun can’t reach. Layer it on with a gradient of shadows, thicker below so the edges remain lighter.

The shadow wraps around the building a bit.

Hide the background layers and everything with pencil.

Taking shape. Shadows and light transport your drawing to the third dimension.

Where the elements are closest to the sun, add in highlights with the white Fill Tool. At this point, you can get rid of those rough shadow lines, too, and add any extra details like cross-hatching and hair to give a more inky texture.

“…stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it.” — U2

Layer 8: Finale

Last but not least, I know you’re feeling agony over what the poor girl is going through. Instinctive fear and counting the instants until death isn’t good for anybody. But as the all-powerful illustrator of her story, I know what’s happening behind the scenes.

You might think it’s a handy Deus ex machina event… where someone God-like swoops in last second and saves the storyline from certain destruction, a technique the ancient Greeks used all the time in their literature. These days that’s terrible writing unless comically meant, so fortunately for this girl and you, I’ve only sketched the sideline of the main plot. Obviously, someone ripped and caped was about to swoop in and save her from her demise the whole time.

Using the same procedure to sketch her hero, I added a shade more doom-and-gloom to the background to really show off his light, and shifted the safe lower to add tension. Also notice how the lines of the hero and the girl are opposite each other. One is curving down, the other is spread outward and upward in a complementing fashion.

Coincidentally, he’ll give her conversation material with her BFF, allowing her to continue her life pursuit aka core motivation. Nice guy.

And that’s it. From drawing a single emotion line, you can frame out an entire character sketch with line, shape and atmosphere. Practice lots of quick sketches and your composition will improve on its own as you imagine those storylines and draw.

I’m excited to see your characters! Share them in the comments or tag #conceptsapp on your social channel, or email to concepts@tophatch.com. Happy sketching!

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By Erica Christensen — writer at TopHatch by day and novelist | illustrator by the light of the full moon. Were you imagining a were-novelist? You may just be right…