Jazza is an artist, animator, and the force behind Draw with Jazza, a YouTube account with over 5 million subscribers. He continues to capture the attention of creative professionals and novices alike with his fun art challenges and approachable tutorials, spanning drawing, character design, and animation.

One of the many benefits of the way Jazza approaches art is his ability to harness the same skills to produce a wide variety of styles – from cartoon character design to anime character design and fantasy character design. In his new Skillshare Original Mastering Illustration: Sketching, Inking & Coloring Essentials, Jazza walks through his process in two distinct designs: one more comic book and one more whimsical cartoon.

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“Look forward for inspiration, and back for gratification, but no matter what it is I encourage you to have fun on your journey.”

Where to Begin with Character Design

The start of any foray into character design lies with research. What style you’re looking to convey or topics you want to tackle, even identities you want to explore. Research can mean looking up illustrators or artists you admire and setting a framework in place to model after, or googling places or people who may provide more tangential inspiration for your work.

For Jazza, planning is a critical stage in the process. “You’d be surprised how important it is to really think through and plan your illustration before you get started. It’s extremely important and helps you avoid problems that could show up later, and also discover things that can really enhance and bring out the best in your potential illustration.”

Jazza outlines three approaches to the research and discovery phase of character design. The first, which may feel the most comfortable to many of us, is brainstorming. The second is to really dive in with an intensive research and study, and the third is to just get lost in a mood board, whether that means cutting up magazines, spending some time on Google images, or searching through a stock image site.

How to Research Character Design

  • Start where you’re comfortable, with a brainstorm
  • Dive deep into a subject with an intensive study
  • Get lost in your mood board, whether it’s analog or digital

Generating Character Design Ideas

Once you’ve got your baseline research in place, Jazza has some fun tips for how to develop your character design further that involve two simple instruments. “Sometimes I like to introduce this phase of random idea generation: a great way to not only take the pressure off, but introduce some really cool stuff is to flip a coin or roll the dice. Literally.”

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His approach is simple. If you’re not basing your creation off any specific work of fiction or nonfiction, you just want to create a compelling scene, you can further develop your characters by presenting choices. Is this character a hero (heads) or a villain (tails)? Flip the coin. Is the hero going to win (heads) or will they lose (tails)? Flip the coin. When you want your choices to have more shades of grey, Jazza invites you to roll the dice. Do you want the environment to be a factor – are they in the city, atop a tour, on the streets, etc.? Write down all six options, roll the dice, and see what story unfolds.

With this fun exercise done and your ideation in a good place, you’ll have a great foundation to start designing.

How to Design a Character

Now that you have the backstory for your character, it’s time to start designing, beginning with rough sketching. The emphasis in this phase is to put perfection on the back burner, and instead focus on just getting something down on paper. “The reality is drawing something really cool comes with a lot of pressure and the more you want it to look good, the more pressure you put on yourself.”


“The reality is drawing something really cool comes with a lot of pressure and the more you want it to look good, the more pressure you put on yourself.”

Start by keeping your mood board from your research phase open, whether it’s on your computer screen or something you’ve physically made. Now you’re ready for what Jazza deems “brainstorm sketching.” This is the time to just get your initial impulses on the paper. You can be a little scribbly and wild, as more clarity of your final image comes with your experiments. Focus on broad geometry rather than specific details. Do you want your characters to be rounded or have a more chiseled look? Do you want the background to be blocky or bubbly? These are approaches you can explore with just your pencil and piece of paper.

At this stage, you can also explore how much or how little background is going to play a part in your piece. Do you want the background to have a character of its own, or convey specific details about your character? Or do you want it to be less prominent and allow your character(s) to be the sole focal point? Since you are just rough sketching you can try one, both, or any option until you narrow in on what feels right for your scene.

Once you’ve found that right balance, it’s time to begin your refined sketching. You’re still working with a pencil and paper here, but it’s the time to take things a bit slower, and draw a lot lighter (which will make erasing when we get to the inking portion that much easier).

In this step, you’ll have your rough sketch close by, and essentially recreate in lighter point the elements that really spoke to you. You can mix-and-match experiments from the rough sketching round as you place all of the elements on the paper, adding more points of expression and more details as you go along. Regardless of which style you choose, your process is the same here, with the goal of getting to a nicely defined sketch so you can start inking.

Playing with Inking

Once you’ve got your sketch done, it’s time for inking. Jazza likes to have a few pens at the ready – a light, medium, and heavy fine liner pen. Then it’s just about starting to make marks on your paper. While there’s not a right or wrong way to start inking, Jazza notes that it’s more natural to pull the pen towards you rather than push it away, and gives you greater control over your movements. 

Pro Tip
Pull the pen towards you rather than push it away as you are inking. It gives you greater control over your movements.

While you’re largely tracing over your sketching, it’s okay to stray away from what you’ve sketched below. Give yourself room to play around a bit, and try not to see mistakes as, well, mistakes. You can work around any adjustments you make, and vary between your pen sizes to correct any true errors.

The emphasis while inking is to move around your illustration in a way that feels natural to you, playing with various pen weights to achieve your desired outcome. When everything looks how you’ve imagined, it’s time to erase your sketch lines – just be careful to wait a few minutes for the pen to dry before you hit it with your eraser.

Use a Character Design Sheet to Experiment

Once you’ve got your inking in place, you can really experiment with color to add more character to your subjects. Jazza recommends scanning your inked design (1) so you don’t lose it, and (2) so you can experiment with color as freely as possible.

Your first step is to scan the inking and create a character design sheet of sorts, using a single sheet of paper with your ink duplicated as many times as you’d like that will still give you enough space to color (Jazza uses four). Once you have your sheet created, use your materials of choice and let yourself discover how color plays into the equation. In his first illustration, Jazza uses color layering to give texture and feeling to his characters, sometimes going over and over again on a singular section with slightly different hues to achieve the perfect result.

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Layering is Jazza’s primary method in his more whimsical cartoon illustration style, but when it comes to his comic book variation, he plays with blending much more. Here, once again, Jazza focuses on process, applying various colors over and in between each other to achieve something truly spectacular. “I have learned that by taking these risks and being really daring with some of my choices, I’ve always ended up with more of a chance to get something I’m extremely impressed with and proud of myself for trying.”

Helpful Character Design Tips As You Get Started

As Jazza puts it plainly, “Look forward for inspiration, and back for gratification, but no matter what it is I encourage you to have fun on your journey.” There’s often a quest to perfection quickly, but the joy is in the process. The best results come from not staying too precious to a color palette that isn’t working, or a rough sketch that doesn’t reflect what you want, but instead welcoming change and evolution of your characters.

Want to start designing your own characters?

Check out Mastering Illustration with Jazza: Sketching, Inking and Coloring Essentials.