04 Mar How to create cartoon characters in Illustrator
- Paper and pencil.
- Basic concepts of Photoshop and Illustrator.
- A lot of patience.
- Optional : wacom tablet.
The Briefing is a series of key questions to assist you in understanding the company and its requirements. Nonetheless, it can be done in a more or less formal way.
In this case we’re going to design a character for a horror movies producer. The requirement was a monkey as the mascot logo, the catch being that it was not to be your typical nice monkey. So we came up with the idea of making its clothes include a straight jacket and for it to have a knife with blood… lots of blood! It had to look nice, yet intriguing at the same time.
Traditional Drawing and Photoshop Retouches
I always advice you to start any design the traditional way, with a paper and pencil, especially if it’s an illustration. As good as your Wacom tablet may be, it’ll never be as accurate as a conventional pencil.
Traditional drawing on the left, photoshop retouches on the right.
The image at the left is my pencil sketch, I start drawing with a red pencil, and when I’m satisfied with the results I remark the lines with a graphite pencil. As you may notice, it is more of a sketch than a finished drawing. Unfortunately my line quality isn’t as good as some comics professionals, no worries, we have Photoshop!
When I get something decent as a start point, I scan it to Photoshop and start to move things around, play with the facial expressions, the pose and various other elements of the design … until I get something I like (image below).
Evolution of the personality of our character 😛
Take a look at how the character evolves during the process. If you don’t have a very clear perception of what you want to do it’s always better to start with just about anything and then retouch it until you get what you’re looking for. And don’t get disheartened if you can’t get it at the first attempt, it’s common for such a thing to happen.
Cleaning and Inking in Photoshop
It’s critical to use a very high resolution (5000×5000 pixels) for several reasons :
- It’s more comfortable to work with.
- If later on in the process we decide to reduce the design, smaller mistakes wont be visible.
- If the work is the same, preferably let’s do it at a higher resolution so it is print ready.
- While vectorizing, the design would acquire accurate lines.
Cleaning with the digitizer tablet on the left, Inking with Photoshop on the right
Once we have a nice sketch for the mascot character, I start to clean the sketch in Photoshop with my Wacom tablet, assigning different line weights as I go on.
Final inking, it’s very important to modulate the lines correctly.
Notice we have 3 types of lines (take a look to the final inking below) :
- Contour : thicker lines.
- Borders : for instance, the inferior border of the jacket, medium thickness lines.
- Internal lines : the lines that mark the cheek, they are the thinnest ones.
- Transition lines : they start as the contour and then get in to the design. We start by making it thick and then thiner as it flows, as noticed on the line in the chin.
What we shouldn’t do :
- Create shadows: we will do it in the color phase.
- Create extremely thick lines without any variation in thickness.
- Overload the design with internal lines: the purpose of these lines is to mark volume, you have to create them in a subtle way. It is meant to serve as a guide for when you color.
- Draw straight lines : if you look closely, all the lines are slightly curved.
- Have small areas: ensure that your volumes are as big as possible, otherwise you wont have sufficient space for the colors.
To get the final inking we have 2 options:
- If your hand-drawn lines are not very good, you can ink the sketch with Photoshop’s vector tools.
- If you have a Wacom tablet you can use the brush tool and ink manually.
Vectorizing in Illustrator
If you created your lineart with Photoshop vector tools you can open it directly in Illustrator and it will be completely etitable.
If you opted for the Photoshop Brush Tool, we can open the file in Illustrator and vectorize our bitmap lineart by using Image Trace, it’s quite straight forward. Here is a video where I explain how to do it.
After the vectorization you probably will need to clean your layers, the goal is having a black shape with lot of white shapes on top.
Asigning plain colors, gradient and volumes
Now we only have to fill each white area with the color we want, I usually use medium tones, not too dark or too light.
We will use gradients of at least two differentiable colors, but not extremely contrasting because we’ll add lights and shades later on. For now don’t pay too much attention to the gradient direction, we’re just choosing the color tones, later on we’ll orientate them to give coherence to the illumination.
Cutting the areas
The gradient areas are too big to get good illumination effects. So we have to cut these big areas in to smaller volumes with the knife tool. Learn how to do it here.
Gradient colors with the areas cut in to smaller volumes
Later we retouch the gradient colors to try to get a coherent illumination. There’s a basic thumb rule that’s very important : next to a dark color there’s always a light color.
Adding shadows and lights
We’ll create a layer and set its blend mode to Multiply. This way we have all the shadow vectors grouped together. IMPORTANT : if you make the shadows in the Normal blend mode you’ll have to adjust the vectors a lot so you don’t cover the black lines, this is why we use the Multiply blend mode. This mode makes the layer transparent on top of the black color.
Animation so you appreciate the shadows.
We simply pick a similar color (sometimes I use gradient colors as well) to the one in the background and we make small vectors to mark the areas in the shadows.
In this case it’s not essential to use different layer modes, although you can always use the Screen blend mode to get lighter tones. First I make a soft illumination and later on I add some strong light retouches in order to reinforce the contours.
Now we only need to add blood in industrial quantities. For this I used the free Gomedia vectors (if you use them in your design do put a link back to their site, you have to be thankful right!). The blood is added in a layer above all the others, but below the right eye, in the Multiply blend mode.
Although I know that in such a complex tutorial I might have forgotten to explain quite a handful of concepts, if you do still somehow have any doubt just comment it, I’ll try to answer it as soon as I can and I’ll add it to the tutorial.