Detail Your Characters With Purpose | Brian Shepard | Skillshare

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Detail Your Characters With Purpose

teacher avatar Brian Shepard, 2D Game Artist and Illustrator.

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

9 Lessons (32m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Your Assignment

    • 3. A Vague Idea

    • 4. Archetypes and Adjectives

    • 5. How Many Leaves Are On A Tree?

    • 6. Very Important Features

    • 7. From Archetype To Individual

    • 8. Focal Points and the Uncommon

    • 9. Make A Mythical Creature

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About This Class

Fantasy characters are designed in countless art styles, from the deceptively simple to the impossibly complicated. Many of us as artists may aspire to do the latter, but how do you decide which details are actually important, and which ones will be forgotten mere minutes after the viewer has looked away? This course explores the reasons why some characters are heavily detailed with realism in mind, while others are deliberately abstracted to as few details as possible.

We'll be examining the designs of some characters who may be familiar to you, and some whom you may not have heard of, in order to understand their defining visual traits. The course will teach you to focus on communicating important visual information in your own characters, and how an adjective-noun-verb formula can help you build them from the ground up.

The class is built for beginners, so I invite you to join me even if you've never picked up a pencil before now. I'll be using Adobe Photoshop and my trusted drawing tablet, but the concepts we'll be learning can be applied to pretty much any drawing medium. We're focusing more on ideas and the "why" more so than the proper way to draw a realistic human (though there's plenty of good study material out there for that too). That said, I hope you'll follow along drawing exercises and sketch ideas as they come to you.

This is the final installment of a 5 part series on character design and art style. If you haven't already, I'd suggest checking out the previous courses on shape language, color theory, proportion, and line quality.

Meet Your Teacher

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Brian Shepard

2D Game Artist and Illustrator.


A slightly-above-average illustrator and character designer for video games. Trying to improve my understanding of character design, storytelling, and how we culturally respond to visual cues like shape and color in everyday situations. Making an effort to help anyone else who wants to learn the same things!

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1. Introduction: if I want to ask you to draw on Apple, what are the things that immediately come to mind? They're stored around, but not really. We could add a little leaf on the side, and they come in different colors, but you're probably thinking of a red one. All right, so not bad, right? Anyone could tell what this is now what if we were to try to draw a person and I mean without Googling or pictures and draw from? But this should be easy, right? After all, you probably see dozens of other people several times a day. We can use a head, body, arms and legs. Doesn't exactly look like a photograph, though, does it? It's obviously missing a lot of other realistic details, some of which I can't remember right now. But still, you could've convinced a lot of people that both of these characters are human beings. What does it really take to make a good character that we can immediately recognize a fancy costume, a cool hairstyle? Do they even need things like arms and legs? How much detail can we strip away and still convinced the audience that your character is a living breathing individual. Well, this class is about answering just that. Let's talk about a subject that I like to refer to as visual density. We're going to explore the spectrum of realism, so almost total abstraction in regards to character design. And we're going to make a character that stands, ah, lot with just a few important details in our discussion of safe language, the very first class in this series, we discussed silhouette, the outer safe of a character. Visual density could be considered. Everything that goes on within that still away, how many patterns are on their clothing or whether the character is made of feathers or scales or bricks must like every other course in this series. If we can see it, it must have some level of detail. It can be categorized a simple, complex or anywhere in between. This course assumes you know nothing about character design, so all skill levels are welcome to participate. I'll be demonstrating certain concept using a deal. Be Photoshopped and illustrator. You're gonna follow along with whatever you feel comfortable using. I encourage you to participate and drawing demonstrations along with me to get in the habit of practicing the basic concept of the course. My name is Brian Shepard. I create characters and all sorts of art related things on a regular basis. Most of my work pertains to video games, but I try to study characters from all kinds of sources, from live action television to film two sequential art. Now that that's out of the way, it's about time we got started, so I hope you'll continue with the next lesson. 2. Your Assignment: One night, as you're walking home alone, you hear something rustling in the bushes nearby. No one else is around, but the bushes rustle again. As you creep closer, it becomes apparent that something alive is hiding underneath the foliage. The moment you peer in, you see a creature that could only be described as mythical in a flash. If flees into the night without a trace. The next day you try to tell others about what you saw. So how would you describe this appearance to everyone else? Your class assignment will be to design a new, never before seen legendary creature. Think about something along the lines of Bigfoot or dragons or vampires. In order to do that, you'll completely basic steps. First, you should choose a noun. This is your archetype in the basis for the character. Most mythical creatures are based on something general and pretty ordinary. For instance, if you choose a bird and you have a huge range to select from, it could be a pinguin or in Austin's or Robin. After you choose a noun, choose the key additive. This would be an important identifying physical attributes. Was this creature in the bushes Harry Scalea. Feathery horned, sailed, four legged, slimy, striped, shiny, transparent spotted chequered. How will you turn this adjective into her drawing? Finally, you'll throw a verb into the makes. Think of your creature as an absence of now their verbs. For example, Dragon can be described as a wing at a reptile that breathes. Fire your creature, my singing a very loud voice or will sit quietly or sit on the cloud or hop on one leg or issues just like before. Consider first, that you could clearly represent in a drawing and for fun. We'll give it a name once it's complete. Think about fabled creatures you see in other media and starting points to get ideas. I'll go over these steps again at the end of the class, and we'll work our way through an example character together. So what? That said, let's learn all about visual density and character design. 3. A Vague Idea: Every person has their own features that lend them a unique identity, but they're probably ones you can't remember off the top of your head, too. If you were to draw your best friend, your spouse or even yourself from memory, there's a good chance you begin with the basic generic shape of the head and then add the features you remember most about them. Maybe they've got a unique hairdo or a pair of glasses or a beard. Characters aren't too different. We talked a little about silhouette before the basic out of shape of a character. A silhouette is a shame, completely devoid of detail, within think of a person Sadow, a black state with no identifying characteristics other than its outline. It's a good idea to begin here when creating a new character. Starting simple can keep you from getting overwhelmed by what details you should be adding in. If I know that the basis for a character is a circle, for example, and I can practice getting that shape right before moving on to more specific features, always start vague. We can start with a circle and gradually choose how to transform it into something more specific all by deciding which details we add and leave out. It could be a person's head, an animal's body, really anything we want. So try this exercise curry a bunch of circles, and they don't need to be perfect. Then try adding basic details without altering the silhouette too much. It seems hard. Well, that's because character design is art. That and lots of characters are built from combining more than one geometric shape. The reason we're only using one state here is to figure out what's possible with a very simple, limited constraint so that we don't get overwhelmed. I've made some simple faces and some really detailed ones, all without significantly tarnishing the still away. So after you're done with these circles, try a new state of your own choice and do the same thing for more times. If you're really having trouble know that many people have already made characters based on really basic geometric shapes, so there's no reason you can't do it, too. Dr. Picking an ordinary object from the real world is round. I think about how you turn it into a character. Remember, you don't need to lay on heavy details. Just think about the one that first come to mind 4. Archetypes and Adjectives: Now that you understand the importance of a basic shape, you can construct a why array of characters you could combine safe secrete, increasingly complex silhouette. But simple geometry isn't always enough to convey exactly what a character is supposed to be. Would you believe me if I told you this was a tree, you might be convinced I'd be lying. Though this is just a green circle on top of a brown rectangle, there are millions of types of trees in the world, and not all of them really look like this. So why does it work? Humans are very good abstracting ideas to a few key, recognizable symbols. Well, someone says bird, you probably don't think of an Imu or penguin at first, and the World House may bring to mind a square base and appointed roof. The house is coming all source of shapes. Likewise, at some point, Greenlees and a brown trunk became a common default idea for a tree. An archetype, if you will, probably because these are traits common to a lot of trees. No, not all of them. This picture doesn't have enough details to qualify as a palm tree. Keep in mind this alleged tree doesn't work without color now it could be a lot of things arose sign or a live off any care for you create could probably be described by a noun, a person, a cat, an airplane and so forth. Think of ever visual detail. You add to that character as an adjective. They should describe the most important aspects about them to the audience. If you want to draw person, then this basic shape is good enough. If you want to draw a specific type of person, say a bodybuilder, then this symbol in these more adjectives. Those adjectives may come in the form of muscle mass, orm or exaggerated proportions. So let's say you have a little geometric character and you want to turn it into an animal. How would we show the audience? We should think about the first things that come to mind when we consider what an animal is . If you're a design is based off of a real world animal, you don't need to use every single identifying characteristic. Grab one or two and run with those. A red circle with the Yellow Triangle can be a bird because the triangle looks like a beak , A circle and two triangles can be a cat because the triangles looked like ears. Think carefully about which features comes to mind when someone mentions the word, you could add a tail ears Paul's sharp teeth because these are things that mean the animals have in common. There are many features to focus on, so you don't need all of them to communicate what you want. Just like you don't need all the leaves on a tree. When you start simple and build slowly from basic shapes, you have more room to explore the details as you add them. A fantasy animal could look hundreds of different ways because is not riel. It might be a circle, or it might be a tall rectangle. There might be an asymmetrical blob, but because you added pointy ears and whiskers to each one, they all resemble cats in very basic way that your audience can recognize 5. How Many Leaves Are On A Tree?: and the not so distant past. We had a discussion about whether or not this is a tree. The jury is still out, but we agree that with color it at least reminds us of one. If we take the green and brown away, it's somewhat ambiguous. But even without colors, I can ask him leaves. And you might be convinced again of what this represents. Maybe not even filling out the entire canopy. With just two or three, we can assume that the rest of it is also filled with leaves. You know, if we don't see them explicitly now, I could cover this entire around area with leaves, and there'd be almost no question about what this represents. But I think we can agree is not really necessary for recognition sake. Remember how we could turn a circle into a cat like character just by adding ears of a certain shape, a tail and paws? But let's say you want to turn a circle into an animal in a different way, for instance, by showing what is made out of, we can use simple patterns to suggest information in the drawing. So here all I really did was Assam. Short, quick lines Now, Obviously, this is not a photo realistic representation of animal hair, but it gets the job done communicating that idea why I was just in there for you to recognize the important part of what makes something appear Harry. Lots of small lines that appear to move in a given direction. What you're seeing a real life is the way that life fall slightly differently on the strand of hair. But what we remember is a general idea of small lines, depending on what tool used to draw. We don't always have the option of rendering things photo realistically with these. So we have to take some shortcuts to represent certain ideas. Now again, I could sit here and cover this ball of fuzz with lines, but beyond a certain point, the difference is purely cosmetic. Both of these air recognizable is having some sort of Harry outer covering, with or without color. But now there's even less of the question as to what this character represents. We can assume that's Charlie Brown has hair because of this little tuft on his forehead, even though ah, somehow is the same color as the skin. But you don't need that much in this case, this world, the shape of the line tells us what it represents. Some people have curly hair and it's on his head, so we can put two and two together. Any from Ed Ed in Eddie is another example. If he were drawn more realistically, his hair probably wouldn't stick up for like this. But this is enough to communicate what it's supposed to. We could go in and flatten it out, but now he's a completely different character. The fact that it looks so odd is part of what gives him his character identity. It's unlikely that any 11 year olds hair really looks like this, so his design sticks out like a sore thumb. In fact, you don't even really need lions to show hair. You can use any small, dense pattern like squiggles or scribbles, or whatever shape you want. The point is, they use a large volume of something might have 100 something's or just three in those cases, you just want to show that there's more than one hair on the character's head. Hair feathers scales for your character can be made it anything and little patterns are great method of conveying this. No. How are also state languages in silhouette When rendered individually, this round ball of fur now has lots of start points. Surface details are a good way of separating in different parts of a character and clearing up confusing areas. All right, so this area near the top of the character's head, is that hair or is a swimming cap. This is a case where there's not enough detail to tell what's really going on. Let's do the line thing again. There is such a thing as simplifying too much. Add details that will communicate information to the viewer as efficiently as possible. 6. Very Important Features: we should be grateful that our our ancestors were ableto abstract things to a few symbols. That's part of why twin shapes over a different shape reminds us of a human face. This organization of symbols almost always works as intended because of what it generally has in common with the structure of the face. Even if is missing a lot of other things. Think about Emoji and other similar icons. They're made to be small images inserted among letters. There's not a whole lot of room for detail, so only the most important parts are kept. It can be helpful to think of characters in this way, too. If I had to pick a noun or an archetype this character best fits into. I probably cause a robot. It's humanoid, but it has angles and joints that appeared to be made of some kind of metal instead of flesh. If we wanted to push the mental aspect further, we could try adding a shining appearance. So what do you sign an object Look like? This flat color isn't giving us enough information about what this character is made of. Now we can get to the mathematical formulas for how light source reflect all the metal object and reaches the human eye. But most people looking at your character probably don't know or care about that. So I'm just going to add a wide circle to the surface, and now it looks a lot more like some kind of glossy, reflective material. You don't need to be 100% realistic or scientifically accurate. A lot of the time. You just need a good reference material and a basic idea of how things look to make convincing characters. Okay, listen to this tune. - So how long did it take you to recognize it? Yet it's the over world theme from Super Mario Brothers. This is how it originally sounded. - So which one would you say is better? They're very different, obviously, and one was made with Maurin different instruments. But despite that, you probably recognize the modern remix anyway. That's because the basic note pattern is the same. Visual art is similar as long as the characters based design remains unchanged. Adding lots of details typically won't stop me from recognising them. The important thing is to realize with details you can throw away without altering the character's identity or archetype. So do you tell realism isn't a necessity for every character. In fact, there are times when adding too much can hinder communicating the intended message. Think about bathroom doors or school zone signs. Those characters are just silhouettes, because that's as much information as you can portray from a distance. But they work that they have photographs on them. It would probably be really hard to see and understand them from far away, not to mention being really specific. Whose likeness do you think they would use those signs and your average fantasy here to probably have different functions in society? But it's generally a good thing if people can recognize your character up close and far away, where small details gonna easily get lost. 7. From Archetype To Individual: it's important to remember that all characters, no matter how abstract they are based on something from the real world, recall our discussion on trees and archetypes. When designing and character, it helps to figure out what archetype, or now it best fits into studying. The variations of those archetypes will allow you to focus on what your character is does best and how their identity stands apart from others. Science is supposed to be a hedgehog, but he's the wrong color. He's wearing shoes. His proportions anatomy are all wrong. He doesn't have nearly or no spikes. Sonic is actually a terrible hedgehog, but he's still a good character. He has enough things in common with a hedgehog, but the unrealistic parts could be used for better effect without tarnishing his identity. His shape is much closer to human because his creators knew that their paying customers are will humans and not hedgehogs. We can better identify with them just by looking at him because he walks and talks and acts just like we do. It could have gone on more realistic route, but then he's just an animal, not instantly recognizable mascot. By taking an ordinary person place or thing and choosing which details to leave out and which wants to exaggerate. You create characters that have their own identities. This is a big part of any successful character design. Like everything else, it takes practice to the village and eye for what works and what doesn't. Lots of Pokemon designs are inspired by actual animals, but because certain features are exaggerated or even left out completely, it becomes an Biggers as to what they were based off, allowing them to have identities of their own. What is more lax, exactly? It doesn't matter, really, because we remember for what it is not what is based on, even if we're wrong about what we think is supposed to be. That sticks in our mind more than whatever the correct answer is, it's the same is figuring out what makes a person you don't need that much. We know this isn't realistic, but we recognize what is close to people are good at remembering shapes, silhouettes, basic features. So if you were to create a human character, you have a lot of factors to take into account height, weight, gender complexion, wardrobe, hair color, eye color and so on. you don't need to use every single variation. In fact, you can't. Once you have enough to establish an archetype, you have free reign to add what you want on top of the underlying designed to give them an identity. 8. Focal Points and the Uncommon: So now I know how to add patterns and other kinds of details to a character. But when and where should we use it? Detailed areas can draw attention to a specific part of a character, but if everything is danced, then it may end up looking. Kind of busy. Charlie Brown shirt is the only part of his wardrobe that has a noticeable design on it. Now let's imagine if he had argyle socks, striped shorts and basketball shoes. That's a lot of small details, including a little comic strip panel. The search has the most important design, and because it's easy to remember what it looks like is that much more iconic, whether or not we can see every individual threat on his shirt or whether lightens, shadow and perspective or applied to the character have no impact on our ability to recognize him Now, if you want to give your character argyle socks, it may help keep the rest of their outfit plane. Maybe the Sox were the most important part of the costume. This is where character design gets really fun, deciding on the most important details and how they state the character's personality. So let's say your character is a sports fan. By turning that certain to a jersey, we've altered their personality who didn't add much? Just a number, Really. Jerseys have a lot more going on, but this is enough to communicate the idea all without altering the silhouette. Conversely, if we give him a necktie and turn those genes into dress pants, I think it sends a very different message about this character. Now we've never met or spoken to him and know nothing about his background. But when it comes to visual design, what you see is often what you get. It's really important to consider what sort of details you add within your character is still away because your audience will judge them. Based on first impressions. Donkey Kong is just a gorilla. And to us, humans, all guerrillas pretty must look alike. So what helps them stand out? Allowed Red Necktie. A long time ago, he didn't even have one. But this particular article has become a defining characteristic because it's so unusual now, most like starting his proportions and his anatomy have been exaggerated in a lot of ways from actual guerrillas. But the necktie serves to remind you of this particular character, even if he were drawn more realistically by a different artist. You can use this sort of Frankenstein method to create characters. Basically, you take an ordinary archetype and you add something wild. Give a horse a horn and suddenly you have a unicorn. Given human bird wings, you can probably convince someone that that character is an angel. Determine what your character is based off of in the real world, and you can mix and match features to create something memorable. The combinations there are pretty much infinite. These are features can be focal points for you to work around. So my question for you is what makes your character a character and not just a human, just a cat. Justin Object. Once you have a strong silhouette, think about what sort of hard to miss details are going on within that boundary that will most effectively display your character's personality. 9. Make A Mythical Creature: your task is to design a mythical creature that the world has never seen before. When I said Mythical creature, think of things like ghosts, zombies, dragons and so on. Beings were common in the fantasy settings, so the first step is to choose it down or an archetype. I recommend using something somewhat generics that you have lots of elbow room to narrow it down, if you like, feel free to upload any photos or inspiration you find to help you generate ideas. Oh, and your lesson there crucially, can be human or, if you want to, so you're now could be a person. Zombies are basically just rotting, slow moving people. Remember, we're focused on silhouette. First, you can draw your character as realistically as you want, But if you're having trouble or just new to drawing, you can begin with easy polygons and combined news. The goal is to make sure your audience incorrectly identify what your character's features are based on. So I think my now will be pumpkin. I kind of want to use a non living thing. Is the base for this creature not recall? Our can't exercise from an earlier lesson. You can play with a lot of different shapes. As long as you include the proper identifying details, you can see that all of these have around his shape and stem coming from the top, even though there's a lot of variety between them. The most important thing is that they're recognizable as pumpkins. Once you have a noun uploaded image of this word alongside your initial interpretations of it. Now these johns don't need to be overly complex. Since this isn't the final product, they should communicate the word you shows to the audience. Next, you need a key attitude that describes your now his appearance for physical attributes. Avoid vague words like big or small Bigas relative objects around it, and you'll only be drawing one character for this assignment. Really think about words you can draw on to a character. Think about the Frankenstein method we discussed earlier. Also, fabled beings are just normal things, with some unusual characteristic. Added on a mermaid is just a human with a fishtail. So what sort of uncommon feature will you give your now, Once you figure it out, upload a second set of sketches with the two words you choose and in useful ideas of how you look on buying them to create a monster. So I'm going to make a six legged pumpkin. Now that I have an adjective and a noun, I can play this still a little bit more with his combination. I can even choose the type of legs, maybe burr legs or Scalea reptile legs. I might even make them look like they're made out of wood. Maybe have some leaves growing out of them. OK, now it's time to give it a vert. Make it do something. Think about different mythical figures and what they're most known for doing. Ghost selective passed through walls and other solid objects. Dragons breathe fire, but they also fly the only new one accident. So choose something that you can clearly illustrate in a drawing. My terrifying pumpkin is going to play the flute with his front two legs. Think about your noun and adjective and consider what sort of action would make sense for it. Is it trying to survive, capture prey? Or does it just like playing pranks on people? The final step is to upload a good looking presentation of your characters. Completed design as long as the words you shows to help you create it, and for fun, you can give it an appropriate name. What we've covered in this class is meant to give you an understanding of how even simple attributes compose character designs a very long way. Combined with the technical knowledge of drawing, knowing things like form, perspective and the value of reference material and research, you'll be able to design anything you can imagine. I hope that you'll look at characters a little differently. And now that you've taken this course, thank you all for joining this class and seeing it all the way through. If you've already taken their previous courses in this series, I can't thank you enough for your time. We've reached the end of this five part journey, exploring the various facets of our style and character design, and I hope it was useful to you safe language, color theory, proportion line visual density. These principles are all around us. In the real world. We're exposed to them regularly. Even when we don't realize it. There's no limits how much you can learn, keep studying, keep drawing and keep designing your own characters. Thanks for watching everyone