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Experts were once beginners. Professionals were once students. Everyone has to start somewhere, and they all have one thing in common: learning.
Whether you want to become an astrophysicist, a physician’s assistant, an English teacher, or an artist, you first have to learn the ins and outs of the field.
For aspiring cartoonists and animators, they first have to learn the basics of how to draw a cartoon character and practice some easy to draw cartoon characters before they can crank out the Mickey Mouses of the entertainment world.
So, whether you’d like to be the next Pixar employee or a web comic sensation, keep reading—we’ll cover the basic principles of how to draw cartoon characters step by step to get your learning process started.
When drawing cartoon characters and learning how to draw them, you have to think about who the character is going to be. The how and the who are closely intertwined when creating any character, but they’re especially important with a cartoon character.
Are they a good guy? A bad guy? Do they blend in with the crowd or stand out? Are they quiet or boisterous? Are they the bully or the funny sidekick?
Determining the character’s purpose will help you visualize how they should look, what props and details they should have, and what features should be emphasized. Not only do these elements help drive your character’s purpose and personality, they also add to their appeal.
Graphic novelist and Skillshare instructor Ira Marcks discusses the importance of a character’s appeal, or an audience’s draw to them. “Appeal resides in any character attribute—that could be a flowing cape, bendy antenna, a wagging tail—it’s the things that help us generate a sense of the character’s personality,” he says. “The challenge of finding the right combination of design appeal is unique to every story, and requires lots of study of human expression and behavior and a lot of trial and error.”
Now that we know the thought process behind how to draw your own cartoon character, let’s go over some industry standards and design basics.
Basic Design Principles
There is no one right way to draw cartoon characters. However, many professionals encourage following certain steps. Here’s an overview of one method for drawing cartoon characters.
Step 1: Doodle the Basic Shape
This first step encourages you to loosen your grip—literally and metaphorically—on the pencil and simply sketch basic shapes. You might make circles for heads, ovals for bodies, rectangles for legs, and so on. Nothing too sharp, nothing too finite—let your pencil flow.
It might seem silly or ineffective, but doodling is “really part of the character creation process,” according to professionals like cartoon artist and Skillshare instructor Denis Zilber.
Doodling helps you brainstorm and may allow you to land on something different from what you initially envisioned. It keeps the drawing fun and light and allows you to explore your possibilities.
Step 2: Refine Your Shapes
Next, you’ll start to define the image. As a professional cartoonist, Zilber always uses two basic shapes in his work: C and S, both traditional and inverted.
Using the doodles you created in step 1, start defining them using these two letter shapes to determine the definite shape of your character.
In this same step, begin to check your character’s anatomy. Make sure their proportions are based in some sort of reality, even if that reality is the imagined world in which they live. Then, check your character’s skeletal structure, ensuring it makes sense to the character design.
Step 3: Add Details
This step is what really defines the character design. Begin to exaggerate shapes—Zilber says to make big shapes bigger and small shapes smaller to give the illustration a cartoony feel.
Then, select some character design details that will make your cartoon stand out. Choose props, accessories, poses, and expressions that exemplify their personality and traits. Then, exaggerate them even more. According to Zilber, these sorts of details make the character “more interesting and more appealing.”
Picture Mickey Mouse club member Goofy: His feet are gigantic, his ears hang dramatically low, the hat on his head is oddly small for him, his clothes are baggy, and his snout is rather large. These exaggerations help emphasize his personality.
Step 4: Check the Silhouette
Before continuing on to polishing and coloring, check your character’s silhouette.
If it’s understandable or decipherable, meaning you can get a feel for who the character might be simply based on their shadow, you’re on the right track.
As Marcks puts it, “In a lot of ways, character appeal can be identified through their silhouette.” Chances are if you saw the silhouettes of some famous cartoon characters—Mickey Mouse, Ursula, SpongeBob, Hank Hill—you would easily be able to identify them even as black shadows of themselves.
Step 5: Polish and Finalize
Finally, the last step in drawing a cartoon character: Add all the details—freckles, snaggle teeth, straight teeth, dimples, wrinkly hands, long nails. Anything! All of it!
Make those lines clean and fine. Choose and add your colors. This is the time to really make the cartoon character what you want.
Famous Cartoon Characters
Feeling a little unsure of where to start? Let’s take a look at some famous cartoon characters. Notice how the colors and shapes of their character design add to the overall effect of their personality and make them instantly recognizable.
Homer’s round features—like his stomach, head, nose, mouth, ears, and fingers—add to his overall simple personality. He isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and the dull lines of his cartoon character design add to that effect.
Made up of sharp angles, hard points, and dark, ominous colors, Maleficent’s character design enhances her role as the evil villain in Sleeping Beauty’s tale.
With his oversized paws and nose, Scooby Doo is a favorite cartoon among children. He’s a large dog, but his silly proportions make him heartwarming rather than threatening.
With the basic understanding of how to draw cartoon characters, let’s look at some specific tips for different types of cartoons. Keep in mind, however, that these aren’t set rules; rather, they’re suggestions and generalities that tend to appear when professionals are drawing cartoon characters.
Female Cartoon Characters
One trick to keep in mind for differentiating your drawings of female and male or boy and girl cartoon characters is their proportions.
For instance, female characters can have an emphasis on a thinner waist and larger hips. As for their faces, exaggerate the size of the eyes and lips, making them focal points.
Male Cartoon Characters
Just like drawing female or girl cartoon characters, male drawings emphasize certain proportions and body parts.
When drawing male or boy cartoon characters, their shoulders and chest should be larger than their hips and waist. Male characters tend to have defined legs, wider noses, thicker necks, and less prominent eyes.
Baby Cartoon Characters
When drawing babies (and children), there are a few common traits—these cartoon characters tend to have rounder heads, tiny chins, and big eyes.
First, keep their foreheads big. Think of their frontal craniums jutting out as they grow into their heads and develop later in life. Consider the size of their teeth and the spacing of all their facial features. Take freedom in making them look as goofy or cute as you want.
Black Cartoon Characters
When drawing Black cartoon characters, a major thing to keep in mind is hair texture. Whether the character has tight or loose curls, a fade, or braids, study the look and really nail it down in your drawing.
As you would any other character, follow the general rules of proportions and exaggerations where needed according to the gender and personality traits of the character you create.
Funny Cartoon Characters
One of the best ways to draw a funny or humorous character is with loose lines and over-exaggerations. Think Homer Simpson and Goofy—they both have soft lines and edges. Goofy’s clothing is ill-fitting and baggy in some places or too small in others. Homer’s are simple and plain, taking away emphasis on his looks and putting them on his funny personality.
You can also go a different route and draw a funny cartoon character like Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel in a spacesuit who lives in the ocean in SpongeBob SquarePants.
Cute Cartoon Characters
Drawing cute cartoon characters is similar to drawing babies. Emphasize eyes and head shapes, making them oversized and large. Think of their ears—would small or big be cuter for your unique character? Are they small and squishy? Or large and loveable and cuddly? The choice is yours!
Dog Cartoon Characters
As we discussed with Scooby Doo, when drawing dog cartoon characters—and cartoons in general—emphasize the parts of their body that match up with their defining traits. Emphasize their goonish paws and big chest to show they have a big heart. Give them a big squishy nose to make them more loveable and cuddly.
Cat Cartoon Characters
Depending on whether you want a cute cat cartoon or an evil one, play around with proportions. Cute cats will have larger heads and round bodies. Evil cats—because, yes, they’re out there—will have sharper eyes, ears, and overall angles.
Cool Cartoon Characters
When deciding on cool cartoon characters to draw, think about what cool means to you. It’s such a subjective term, after all. That said, all “cool” characters—and people—have a certain level of confidence, like Gerald Martin Johanssen from Hey Arnold.
One way to make this translate to a drawing is focusing on posture—have your character stand tall and upright, never slouching. You can also exude their coolness in their poses, clothing, and facial expressions.
Easy Cartoon Characters
Easy cartoon characters will be made up of simple shapes and feature fewer details. These are great cartoon characters to draw step by step when you’re first learning.
SpongeBob, for instance, is made up of a few basic shapes: squares, circles, and lines. He also has little to no depth or dimension.
Simple Cartoon Characters
Similarly, you’ll maintain easy shapes and lines as you draw simple cartoon characters. There are many options for simple cartoon characters to draw, and they will generally consist of C and S shapes.
Who Will You Create?
By now, we hope we’ve made it clear: There is no singularly correct method for how to create cartoon characters step by step. Just like any art form, the process and the end result will be unique to you!
Just remember: Like any other skill or profession, so much of learning to draw cartoon characters simply relies on drive and motivation. In fact, according to Skillshare instructor and industry professional Maria Avramova, “The ability to draw good characters or to draw well, to start with is only 1 percent talent and 99 percent of effort and practice.”
So get to work—and draw a cartoon character of your very own.
Make Your Own Character!
Introduction to Cartoon Character Design