Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Demo: Add Color to Sketch

So when I color, I also tend to work in layers. So I'm gonna start off by coloring this character in. It's a fox, so I know it's gonna be red, but this red isn't quite the right red for my character. It's too cool and it's not quite what. Foxes are really orange red. So I'll start with this color. And again, when I'm drawing, I usually paint first. I paint more than I use colored pencils, but for the sake of speed and brevity here, I'm just gonna layer with a pencil and I'm just making one solid, flat tone over the whole face and I'll do that with the tail, but I'll combine it with another color to bring it closer to what I'm imagining. And color, again, it's symbolic. I want it to be a little red fox because I'm imagining it's existing in this cool world of snowy space and it's especially happy and warm now that it's found its stuffed doll and it will also be red because the doll is just a reflection of the character, it's its little soulmate. So I'll draw that the same color. And aga...

in with colored pencils like with any other medium, I could color this like this, really, really darkly, vibrantly, I could do that, but I'm a person who thinks about color in layers, so I'm just gonna build the tonality rather than jump right into the most vibrant version of the color. And just get that down and I'll show, I'm gonna show the viewers when I talk about layering. I'm gonna grab this orange, and this will also darken the color of the character, but it won't be dark enough. I'll probably go over this quite a few times. I'm gonna keep this flat. I usually work with light and shadow, but I don't do that with this because I feel like with this medium, it wants to be a little bit flatter, a little more shape centric. You were asking me about minimizing versus the sort of expansive. Again, I'm trying to do something I haven't done before, which is simplify, simplify. What does it feel like to do that and so even in this little exercise, I'm trying to explore that simplification. Don't put the box around it, don't fill in too much, let the (laughs). You know, so. You're never done in learning how to stretch, even when you fight it a little bit, but it feels good. When you learn something, you're like oh wow, I didn't think I could do that. And I'm gonna go back over even more red. An yeah, I'm building the fox's overall color. It's also, I don't know, I find it. Once I've established the drawing and I start to color, that part feels almost more therapeutic. It's like, this isn't the harder part, this is the easier part. I'm just building tonality. I'm not figuring out and solving the problem of who's the character, and what are they doing, and what's happening. So this is definitely a moment where I would probably have music or something on to distract me while I do this more intuitive kind of thing, building it up. And I'm just gonna take a peak in a minute of what they're working on. But when I'm in class (laughs) I don't get a chance to sit and draw. I circle the room and I'm helping the students. But there are many times where it's killin' me because I just want to draw that model who's set up with a queen costume on and I've set up a really awesome setup and I'm like, I can't draw it though. I have to teach! Let me go over this a little more. Orange. Yeah, so it's starting to get that color. I got to color the tail too, I can't forget about the tail. I think this red needs to be a little deeper. Yeah, now I'm pressing a little harder to get that color so it looks more like a fox. And again, color also brings these characters to life because our world is full of color, so it tends to also bring in, it's like a conviction about the character. How do you enter believing the character? Well, if you bring color to it, that helps us get, the audience to get there more quickly too. There. All right, I'm gonna get up now and take a peek at what they're doing. Let me start on this side first. Oh, so sweet! (laughter) I love it. Oh, does it feel more real to you? Yeah, totally. Now with the ball, I chose the color, which was kind of to just have a friendly but cool color there and then yeah, to have the little guy be looking up and looking down. Mm-hmm. (laughter) It's wonderful. Yeah, it's like from here to here, this felt like the architecture of the character. This character, I believe this relationship. I'm engaged. Like, this feels like a children's book. So yeah, just keep going, tell more. I think it's wonderful. Yeah, and I love that you put a ground. (laughter) I have a feeling that he's gonna be a redhead. There you go. Yeah, that's funny. (laughter) What I would encourage you to do is just maybe use it with a little more intensity because, and this is the thing I was just starting to do with my own thing, is like when you have something that's more what they call saturated or vibrant in contrast to something that's a little less, it creates more engagement. If everything's the same amount of vibrancy, it's not as interesting. Like this. But I would love to see, yeah, if he has like, intense red hair. It looks like he's wearing mittens. So yeah, bring that color (laughter) to both things as well. And I don't now if they're holding or if there are other objects, anything that they could be using. I don't know, but let's just see. So cool. Oh, this is, oh! You put perspective. Yeah, which is a challenge. It's really hard (laughs). Perspective is really hard, but that feels really, actually. I want them to be walking down a sidewalk and this is the other side of the street because I didn't, at first I was gonna do it in an alley, but I don't know. Well, you've done something really interesting in terms of a composition, and we didn't really talk about this earlier, but this is one of the things that to make an interesting composition, you made a really excellent choice and it's called the dynamic diagonal, and what you did was you have these two vertical shapes and by putting this diagonal sidewalk or street behind them, it's created a motion and a movement for the whole picture. So now we have contrast. The characters are straight and there's something intersecting behind them so that contrast keeps our eye moving about the picture. We might start here, move up this shape, maybe down. Something might connect us to get us over here. Obviously it's not quite finished, but that is an excellent choice and just intuitive. You instinctively knew to make that decision, so that's really, really cool. Yeah, I wasn't really thinking about where I put them when I started. I just kind of slapped it on the paper and then I was like, oh no. I'm gonna have to work with this, so. It's interesting, the little obstacles that you come across and how you have to figure out how to work with that to make it interesting is, it's a challenge for sure. Well, that's one of the things, actually, in terms of creativity. We're better in a box because when you put us in a box, we want to break out of the box. So as soon as you give us some parameters of some sort, in this case, you had a shadow shape. You had to start with that. That limitation actually forces you to make decisions and choices, and because you'd already placed them on the page, you're not gonna redraw them and move them. Right. You're like okay, I better work with this thing. That actually created an interesting opportunity, a problem that you solved. So problem solving comes from obstacles and issues you have to deal with. And that's true. If you're told okay, now you have a blank page, go draw anything you want, people are often like, I don't even. But as soon as you have some kind of thing to push against, that's when we're at our most creative. So I think that's true. I think it's true in life. Wow, oh, totally. But is absolutely. My students will be like, "Give me some parameters "so that I have something to push against." And so yeah, that worked out. I can't wait to see more of it unfold. Thanks. These are really so cool. I'm so excited!

This class will teach you how to draw characters as a way to develop stories. 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. Mary Jane explains the importance of narrative in all creative fields, and how to develop them.

In this class she covers: 
  • The key elements of story creation: working from the inside out, letting intuition flow, working with limitations
  • Seeking out prompts to springboard story
  • The elements of Character development

Mary Jane will give you a prompt to jump start story and demonstrate how to develop it. You’ll learn about the fundamental human response to a particular character style, and how to make decisions that elicit story.



  • Amazing lecture! Everything an illustrator learns in art school covered! Thank you for sharing. I miss the imput and critiques I experienced during my college years and this class brought to mind so many enjoyable memories. The advice was given in a generous and kind, inspiring way!
  • Such a great class! MJ is really inspiring and encouraging. I've never known how to approach drawing characters, but now I feel much more capable....hoping to one day write and draw my own children's book!
  • Very nice class, I really like it. It works more like a workshop, very dynamic.