Bright Ideas #1 – Building Good Characters
by Eddie Young
For the past 15 years I’ve made a living as an illustrator, specializing in cartoon characters. I’ve worked as a freelancer with companies such as Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera and their characters. (I don’t mean the art directors and staff, I mean the familiar cartoon characters that you see everyday on clothing, toys, packaging, and television.) In this case my job is to create exact replicas of each licensed character, (Mickey, Minnie, Bugs Bunny etc.) without changing any of their predetermined attributes. Throughout the years, I’ve managed to take the discipline and precision required to draw and render licensed characters to design and develop original characters. This is the first of a series of articles regarding the world of licensed and original characters.
As with any foray into all aspects of the art world, I knew that I had to have a good (great) portfolio. If I wanted to work with licensed characters, I had to show samples of characters that were accurately rendered or “on model.” I spent a great deal of time developing pieces for my portfolio, demonstrating to clients that I was capable of doing this type of work.
I Got the Job – Now What?
When I get an assignment for a licensed character, I know that I’m going to need some reference materials. This is usually in the form of “model sheets” which are examples of the character in a front, side and 3Ã²4 view, and are usually accompanied by several views of the character in a variety of poses and facial expressions. Many times the clients will provide model sheets. If not, model sheets can be found in books about the characters, or possibly on the Internet. It doesn’t matter how you find them; you simply must have the proper reference to get the character just right. The art director will insist that you maintain the integrity of the character.
Maintaining Character Integrity
Since each character is unique, you must get to know the character you are drawing. Believe me, the art director does. Each character has physical attributes assigned to him/her that allow him/her to move, bend and stretch, or have extreme facial expressions. Each character also has a personality all his/her own that dictates what he/she would or would not do. It would be wrong to show Minnie Mouse holding a bloody knife with a crazed look in her eye, while many other characters such as Ren or Stimpy would look completely natural in that same situation.
Along with the model sheets, you’ll need to know the color call outs of the character you are rendering. Each color that makes up a character such as Bugs Bunny or Winnie the Pooh is very specific and must be followed exactly. You’ll need to match these colors to the Pantone Matching System (PMS) — the universal color matching code. You can buy a Pantone Color Selector at any art store.
Building Good Characters
Dealing with the confines of working with licensed characters prepared me when creating original characters, as I apply the same rigorous standards to both. The art director depends on me to bring her/his vision into reality. Many times this character is representing a product or service. If a teddy bear is on the front of a cereal box, he is selling the cereal. He’s got to have the right appeal for the kids by being cool and fun, and he must demonstrate a sense of integrity and honesty that will make mom or dad feel good about purchasing the product. Personally, I love this aspect of the business, as it feels as though I am breathing life into these little guys. And the money’s not bad either!
Reprinted with permission of