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Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Lesson 3 of 13

Drawing it Out: Creating Character Shape and Gesture


Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Lesson 3 of 13

Drawing it Out: Creating Character Shape and Gesture


Lesson Info

Drawing it Out: Creating Character Shape and Gesture

So, the next thing I wanna talk about is, drawing it out, creating characters through shape and gesture. Now, you don't have to start your storyline with character but it's kind of a common place for artists to begin because the character generates story. We as human beings generate story, so it's a very common place to begin with that, as opposed to an environment, with a storyboard, which is sort of the action, coming form the character. So if we think about that, I wanna walk through some projects that involve character design and development, which allowed us to tell a story. So this is a student at RisD, who created this storyline, and it was basically a paragraph, it was a summary that she came up with. She didn't have a full, fleshed out story, but she had a lot of ideas. So, the first thing that she did, and this was for a a pitch for an animation, that she wanted to pitch to Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. And so she's still working and developing this but, what was interestin...

g is we work together in what's called an ISP, or an Independent Study Project. Which allowed us, 12 weeks, just her and I, to work through this thing. So the very first thing that she did, was very much like the silhouette exercise, she did very simple, silhouette gesture drawings. Silhouettes of the faces, and body forms of all, these are the four different characters. Really loose, really simple, just trying to step inside how they move, who they might be. Next step was doing sorta loose, gestural drawings of the characters' faces and bodies, so that she would again, start to understand, who were the different characters, and how would she translate them? Now, my recommendations for this kind of thing, never use a sharp, rigid, pencil, use a soft, dull pencil. Use a pit pen, use something you can't get noodly with, because as soon as you use a tool that gets very rigid and fine, you feel like you have finalize your ideas. So if you use something that's meant to be a gesture, like a gesture drawing, then you will keep it open and loose. And again, this is, probably the most important stage, of environments, characters, the whole thing, is the gesture. So the next step for her was really defining, like once she got her ideas, kind of cleaning them up and using a finer line, more structure, really developing the characterization and the style of this world. And you can kind of see, it is highly stylized, it's based on a kind of, cartoon centered, facial design and structure. But she still was looking at real anatomy, and movement and motion of human beings. You can't pull away from that, because if you do, it doesn't, it's not believable to the audience. So even if it's characterized, even if it's super simple, still look and observe how humans are structure anatomically, and how they move, it's really important. And she did facial expressions, body movement, and again, you're starting to see that she's fine tuning, who is this character. The other thing I wanna talk about is, at the beginning, when you're getting started with this, this was for Permadeath, the silhouette again, is really critical, because you're trying to define, maybe not one character, but multiple characters for your story. You wanna see their difference, because variation is critical. If you're looking at, like a video game for example, if all the characters look the same, we can't discern one from the other, in terms of shape, silhouette, color, so, that's a really important piece to make each character varied from the other. It also helps you define, like what they're all about. Are they rounded, are they pointed? So those shapes, proportions, size relationships, are critical. This was very early in the stage of the project, but this student, jumped right to, "Okay, what are those varying shapes?" Once we know what our characters are, what's the difference between each of the characters on one team and the other. The other thing that I think is really interesting is they started to really define that costume, again, in terms of black and white, and shape. Not just linear drawing, but shape thinking, because it's the first thing we see. When we look at somebody, is we look at and define their overall shape, before we just into this space of details. This is another study from the Permadeth course. Again, loose, gestural, open, and not just thinking about a character, and this is a very common people will do a character design, and their character's like this. They're perfectly stiff, and that's common, you're just trying to see what the front looks like, but it removes the active nature of our body in motion. And thinking more about how they would move, is the really critical piece, without defining you know, other details. So now these were some of the first exercises for one of the characters, Adonis, in the Permadeath story. Now, we know through classic Greek mythology that Adonis, is this beautiful character, but what was really interesting is it's a mythological character, but the production team wanted the students to push past sort of, you know, that Greek mythology, this is a modern battle, for a modern day video game. So they were like, "Involve technology, "go past the history, and create something new." So they started to think, not just about the traditional mythology, but then shifted it into, "What if you combine, technology, or mech, "and Greek mythology." So, that's what a lot of these sort of explorations are about. Now, I loved this concept here, which is having Adonis, like a Venus Flytrap. Now, why would a Venus Flytrap kinda be and interesting association with Adonis? Who's supposed to be like a beautiful, attractive male. Probably, I mean, going back to those words that we characterized in the beginning, the adjectives that were laid out. It's the association of, he's beautiful, but what else might he be? If you look at the spikes? Well, dangerous as well. Yes, and that was the concept for this, was it's both beautiful but dangerous, you can get caught in his trap of love. And so, the idea was that when he's in full battle mode, he would spin this stuff around him, and capture like a web, you know, his his captives, when he's in battle. But this didn't end up making it to the final cut of how he would do his battle, but this sort of whip design, which is both like hearts, but also arrows, did make it into the final. Now, remember, the reason why knowing the motion's important for this particular project, is that it was going to another school to be translated in CG, literally, this will be in motions, it's not like flat pictures like a picture book, this was going to be active. So my students really took it upon themselves, to translate that, but I think that help wake up their sensibilities about who these characters are. So again, you know, I encourage all of you, to do this kind of, you know, streamline, stream of consciousness thinking, working through, you know, you can use your reference material, but really try to carry through, "who is this, what is this character all about?" Take notes, and get your sketchbooks out. And I think little sketchbooks are fine, but big sheets of paper that you have to fill, are also excellent. And an exercise that you could do for yourself, is like give yourself timing. Say, "In 30 minutes, here's my prompt, I'm just going to--" you should have a prompt, because it helps, unless you have an idea in your head. Draw for 30 minutes, on say, three, four, five pages, of paper. Just let it go. It doesn't matter what comes out, because you don't have to show it anybody, but that can get you into a character, but letting your imagination just flow. Question? Yeah, a question. When you're talking about how how you're focusing on the shape and the gestures, of this characters, before you're getting into the details, and that in this project, it was going to be an action, and they were gonna be in motion, would you recommend that people are considering and thinking about their characters in motion, even if they're not going to be? Even if they are just gonna be a picture book or flat on the page? Yes, yes, and yes, absolutely. And that's actually something that we'll talk about in this next section is that, if you think about that, even if they're not literally moving, you start to belief in their reality. It's this weird space as an artist and illustrator that once you become convinced that they're real, because you understand how they move, how they eat, what they do, their foibles, their likes and dislikes, you're convinced they're real. So you draw them out, and step into that space, and then everybody else believes it. So it's this strange, magical, funny spot that you have to dive into but movement, it's critical. And it's one of the biggest mistakes a lot of people make, which is, they do the stiff poses, they do the turnarounds. Front, side, back, and they forget to make them move. And so they look like robots or dolls. So this is something you try and move away from. So that's an excellent question.

Class Description

Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department.

In this course, Mary Jane will help viewers learn about the components of developing a visual narrative and learn about best practices for creating more believable characters, authentic worlds and compelling, dynamic visuals that tell a story.

She will cover the following topics

  • Creating a cast of characters
  • Developing characters through multiple iterations
  • Creating a turn-around
  • Inventing environments
  • Designing images/storyboards
  • Layout and understanding light, stylization, and overall pacing of imagery.

Mary Jane will also guide viewers through developing compositions, creating depth of field and merging real and imaginary worlds. The course will come to life through real-world projects both from Mary Jane and from other masters of the industry.



I have to say, this class and the companion class were very humbling. I assume I am not like most people who would watch this class in that I have no such artistic talent. I cannot draw at all (limited to "Spike" from TED Talks), but I had no idea such thought, imagination or ideology went into creating these designs. Professor Begin has an amazing presentation style, she is clear, concise and thoughtful. The subject matter was amazing and I can only see it helping me in evaluating my own work and taking a whole new perspective on art, light and evaluation. I highly recommend this class whatever no matter your creative bent. Thank you Creative Live for hosting this wonderful speaker.

a Creativelive Student

This course is well organized, very informative and goes into great detail regarding the best way to develop character(s) and how they should relate to their environment. Mary Jane articulates her points through art fundamentals, color theory and the power of strong research - as well as her extensive experience in the creative industry. I highly recommend this course for anyone interested in advancing their career or pursuing a career in animation, game design, or children's book publishing.

Nancy Morrison

Excellent!! This is a course that I will review over and over for there are so many great bits of information extremely well explained embedded in the broad concepts of composition and detailed illustration both in her own pieces and that of constructive critiquing her student's work. MJ is an excellent teacher! I am looking forward to her other classes! Nancy