As a cartoonist I am often asked how to draw cartoon characters, so I decided to put together an article about cartooning the way I do it.
There are some obvious things you need, like pen and paper. The most asked questions are probably just that: “What paper should I use?” and “What pencils/pens should I use?”
If we start with the paper. We have three steps when drawing (the way I draw): A rough sketch for brainstorming and composition. For this you can use whatever paper you get your hands on – sketchbook, napkins or notebooks; Final sketch and final drawing. I usually do them on same paper meaning it should be of better quality. What is “better quality”? I prefer Bristol board (as most illustrators do) but paper for color laser printers do just fine.
For sketches I prefer a medium soft pencil as it is easy to erase without leaving too heavy scratches in the paper, but any kind of pencil will do. The important thing is, I guess, it feels good in your hand. For inking I use a couple of quite old Rotring steel nib reservoir pens. They are actually the first refillable steel nib pens I bought for almost twenty years ago. Same thing here – get pens you feel comfortable with, the only important thing is to make sure the ink does not fade. Especially if you prefer felt-tip pens you should check if they fade (as the cheap brands usually do).
Other things you will need is “doodling” paper, an eraser and probably at some point a ruler and tip-ex white ink. Optional things are a scanner, computer and graphics software.
Step 1 – Warm up
Many do not think about this but just as any athlete, it is a good idea to warm up before you start drawing. No, you do not need to do any gymnastics or run ten laps around your house – just do some doodles for 5 – 10 minutes. Draw some horizontal lines, then draw some vertical lines. After that draw some rectangles followed by some circles. Finish by draw some loose cartoon characters. There does not need to be any meaning in your doodles, draw the characters to do whatever crazy things – jumping, running or just standing there (picking their noses), as this is only a warm up.
Step 2 – Rough sketch
Rough sketches do not need to be much more than stick figures. It is more about composition and a “mental map” for you. If there are special details that you know will be in the final drawing you should also practice them, but just fast sketches. For this you use a pencil on “doodle” paper which can be a notebook, sketch book or office copier/printer paper – any paper will do fine.
Depending on your time available and experience, you can build up your stick figures by adding some “meat” on their bones (sticks). A fast way of adding mass to stick figures is to use simple shapes like ellipses and rectangles (or similar “building blocks”). The sticks just work like a skeleton so do not feel bad about drawing “childish” simple figure (and remember, “simple is beautiful”).
Step 3 – Final sketch
When you feel like you have the composition about right as well as the characters, you go to the next step. If you feel you need some more practicing, do not take your best paper but for example a sheet of office printer paper instead, and do some more detailed sketches.
Then, take your quality paper and start sketching again, but now with a bit more detailed. When you become more experienced you can get away with looser sketches if you are in a hurry, but for now draw all important details. The trick though is not to press too hard with the pencil. Try to keep it light with soft lines because dark lines should be erased after the inking is done. If you have managed to sketch lightly you will have less to erase.
One very important tip: Take a small piece of paper or tissue and place it under your hand you draw with. This because your skin will otherwise smudge the paper with fat and sweat – which is not good. Smudging the paper will make it harder for the ink to attach to it, only resulting in smudging ink which is a lot harder to remove than pencil sketches.
Step 4 – Inking
When the sketch is ready it is time to ink. Still, use a piece of paper under your hand (you do not want to have ink smudges on your drawing)! I usually use two pens with different nib sizes – a medium sized one for outlines and a small sized for fine details. Depending on the image I sometimes start with the fine details (e.g. a face) and then continue to draw the outlines with medium sized pen, other times I start with the outlines. These rules are not in any way written in stone – often I draw the outlines with the small sized pen, but I draw the same outlines multiple times to build up a thicker line.
If you want to achieve an effect of depth then give the characters in the foreground thicker outlines than the character in the background (or the other way round – draw a thin outline for characters in the background).
Often you want to have larger black areas to build up density and contrast. With the two pens I use it would take forever to fill any larger areas (e.g. filling the sky in a night scene). For that I use a thick marker (just remember what I said about the ink fading).
After the inking is done it is time to remove the pencil sketch. If you have very light sketch (this is what I recommend you should try to achieve when sketching) you just take your eraser and erase it. If you have very strong/dark sketches you will have to press harder with the eraser. Therefor you should make sure the ink has dried or you will end up with smudged ink on your drawing (especially if you also forgot to use the piece of paper under your hand). Test gently at a “less important” location on your drawing where it does not matter if you happen to smudge a bit – it is a lot worse if the smudge is in the center of your artwork.
One thing that make beginners nervous when inking is what to do if they draw wrong: Is the drawing totally nuked if the hand happens to slide too far? Do I have to draw the whole thing again after hours of works? No, of course not! That is why we have Tip-ex white covering ink and computers. If you make a false move with your pen then just remember the spot. Sometimes you can cover it up with more inked details (e.g. in shadows), and if not then just put a dab of white ink where needed. Today I must admit I am quite lazy – I do not erase my sketches when the inked image is ready and I do not use Tip-ex anymore: I use a computer, see the optional steps!
Step 5 – Scanning and retouching
If you want to publish your drawing on the internet or e-mail it to a client, you need to get it in a digital form. The simplest way is to just scan it. With the scanner you buy you also get some kind of scanner software. If it is a black & white drawing you should scan at a resolution of 600 dpi (dots per inch, which is not technically quite true but that is another story) if in black & white mode (also called bitmap or line-art mode), or at 300 dpi in gray scale mode. Personally I scan my cartoons at 300 dpi as it will give some advantages in Photoshop. If you are going to save your scans straight from your scanner software you should save them in the TIF format (see Step 7).
As I said, I use Photoshop to improve my drawings. If the pencil sketches are still visible after the scanned I remove them in Photoshop. If I made any inking errors or smudges i also remove them in Photoshop. And sometimes I have forgot to ink some details – well, I use Photoshop to fake… fill in the lines. Ok, it starts to sound I am some kind of Photoshop affiliate or junky. No, I am not, really. But comparing to the times I started to draw cartoons I am really happy to have a digital tool to correct my mistakes. You see, even pros do mistakes! And Photoshop is not the only tool in the digital world, there are other less expensive alternatives. The software that happens to be my favorite one is Xara Xtreme Pro, worth checking out as it neatly combines both vector and bitmap graphics and costs only a fraction of the Photoshop price tag.
Step 6 – Coloring
The most common way of adding color to black & white drawings is probably to place the drawing/scan on a layer of its own and changing the layer mode to Multiply. Multiply will keep the black areas opaque while the white areas will be transparent. This means all layers below the scan layer will be visible and it is there you start to block out (or paint) your colors. In complex drawing it is a good idea to use multiple coloring layers, for example one for the characters and one for the background, and perhaps respective layers for shadows and highlights.
Step 7 – Saving and archiving
Computers do have a tendency to crash (or so I have heard), so I cannot tell you enough how important it is to save your work frequently! When you have got your scanned image to Photoshop (or whatever program you are using), do save it right away with a meaningful filename (e.g. “cartoon-2007-08-20-scan.tif”) and after that you should start saving working copies for every major changes (e.g. “cartoon-2007-08-20-wip01”, “…wip02” and so on – “wip” stands for “work in progress”) and there between save frequently. Not much can be such annoying than a crash when you are just about to save your final artwork, only to find out that the previously saved version was the scan (if you remembered to save the scan, that is). File formats to prefer are TIF or the native file format of the software you are using (e.g. PSD for photoshoppers and XAR for Xara Xtreme users) because they are so called lossless formats (compared to JPG which is a “lossy” format – in practice meaning you will lose image quality every time you save the same file as a JPG, so avoid JPG for wips and originals). The final artwork you are sending to a client should be in a standard format, and here JPG is allowed (as it is not meant to be edited anymore) as well as TIF, PDF or PNG.
Further reading and learning
Here are some links for you who want to learn more:
A lot of books about drawing cartoons and comics can be found at Amazon. Read the reviews and you will find something suitable. One of my favorites is Animator’s Survival Kit.
A very excellent course on cartoon characters is “Draw Cartoons Today” by Lou Vargas.
Creating clip art with Xara Xtreme explains the steps from scanning to finish with a vector graphics program.
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