On Drawing Characters

Growing up, I often had a beautiful image of something in my head; maybe the layout of a dream home, or the most romantic garden. But when I’d sit down to draw it, the work wouldn’t compare at all. Sad anger would fill my stomach; totally awful.

I’ve since learned not to start with a mental image of the final product; the result rarely lives up to it. I’ve had more luck with a vague plan and a willingness to be surprised. There’s no pressure to create something great that way. Only to notice it when it does appear. And there’s a lot less ego tied up in that.

I’ve been practicing this by drawing characters. Since characters represent something that lives—something with its own personality—it is easier to let them create themselves on the page, and to detach my ego from how they turn out. 

Drawing a character, I’m not trying to put my personality on the page. Of course, some of that happens anyway, since it’s my hand making the drawing. But the point is that me or my ideas are not the focus. The focus is to watch this little being. To let it move, to wonder what it’s looking at, to have fun with it.

Last year, a client asked me to draw two coatis. I’d never drawn coatis, but I have since been sketching them, with no particular agenda, and their personalities have come out. They started showing up in numbers, looking funny and ridiculous, their expressions making me laugh.

Maybe they will write themselves a kid’s book some time.


Five methods for lively drawings

For a drawing to feel alive, it needs a bit of randomness, a bit of unintended movement.

This can be quite difficult. I struggle with it in most drawings I make, maybe because my elementary school teachers loved my super careful drawings so much. I was both creative and neat – what else could anyone want? A little more liveliness, I now think.

So, I’m working to let go a little bit. It’s counterintuitive, but to draw the right line, I have to stop myself from trying so hard to draw the right line; I need to trust my hand.

It still takes work, but I have found a few techniques that help a lot:

  1. Speed up – Go fast enough for your eyes to lose track a bit.
  2. Pretend you’re simply sketching to warm up – I have often drawn 18 versions of something, only to go back to the first one.
  3. Tell yourself to just have as much fun with it as you can for 10 minutes – its awesome if it works.
  4. Create version after version until you get so frustrated that you no longer care, and then keep going.
  5. Drink a glass of wine—not recommended, for obvious reasons.

These methods work because they help you worry less about the end-result. Numbers 1-3 are nice and you can try them anytime. If they’re not working, don’t worry—number four is on its way. 

For number four, the key is not to quit when you get frustrated. Many people fuss to create version after version until they start to feel very annoyed and then stop. But they are stopping right before it gets good.

An example:

Last year, I drew the labels for Spring Fireplace hot sauce bottles. We went through version and after, which became increasingly rough on my schedule. But just as I started feeling very frustrated, the right spontaneity made its way into my peach!

To me, the final version is both more solid and more free: