Demo: Facial Expression & Body Anatomy


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Demo: Facial Expression & Body Anatomy

So now I'm gonna go back to my little fox character who looks kind of worried. I think, I actually think she might have lost a favorite stuffed animal in the snow and that's devastating. I wonder where that story comes from. (laughing) Hmm. Those traumas of childhood, they come back again and again. And it's snowing so she lost it, you know, it was just, she just feels like it was her fault. Oh, wait, a fox needs a tail. So again you know, I encourage you guys, if you need to, if you want to look at pictures for something you don't know to draw, go ahead and look, but you also, don't feel obliged to, you just, you know, imagine what you'll imagine. I'm just gonna think about what a fox could look like and it might not be too accurate, but it'll be what I'm thinking about. And the other thing, like I'm really thinking about the overall shape of this character. I'm thinking about her silhouette. I've riffed from here, now we have this character but I would start to think about this shape...

and how it would move through space. So I think I might sketch her a couple more times. Let's see what she would look like, here she's really angry. What she might look like if she were, "Oh my gosh, I've lost my stuffed animal!" When she first discovers it, what does that face look like? I have to imagine. "Oh", the mouth, "oh no!" And the little nose. "Oh!" That looks more like a cat. (laughs) Oh yeah, they need the little fuzzies on the side. So again, I'm just trying to, I'm keeping this super, super gestural and simple. I'm not worrying about it looking exactly like the character so I'm trying to just capture the expression. "I lost my favorite stuffed fox doll." And this is, when I do this kind of thing, I can spend, sometimes, you know, you can get into it and you can spend minutes or hours thinking through, and this is really, it's thinking with a pencil. That's all this really is, is thinking with a pencil. Again she's faced forward. But maybe her stance is, her feet are planted wide in the snow. Maybe they're ding-toed. That's actually how I stand a lot in pictures is with my toes facing inward, so maybe I'll do that with her. Like I said, all, you know, everything you do tends to have some level of biography, autobiography. And that's okay. We know our own stories. It's a great source to pull from. You know, she just realized, she's been out playing, she was having a great time, and now she's lost her favorite stuffed animal. But you can see, like, you know, I'm creating this gesture. Oh, maybe she has like, she's young so she has two, she just has her two front teeth, that's it. There, get that fuzzy hood around her. And in a way, by creating the stuffed animal character I've got to figure out what it looks like, how big it is, but that's kind of like a foil or just another character for this character to react to. And of course, you know, you're thinking about things like the eyes are slanted to be like, oh, sad, and maybe the ears are flopped. Maybe they're not pointy, they're like, what would a sad ear look like? I don't know. It might look, and I don't even know if foxes ears do this. But maybe it's turned down a little bit. Oh, maybe just one of them is turned down. The other thing that I'm thinking about as I sketch this is um, like the tail, I'm gonna turn that tail, it's turned downward because it's really, it's reflecting her unhappiness. Again, she's out in the snow. I'm trying to think of what a snowsuit, a child's snowsuit, might have a zipper in the front. Maybe it has some pockets. Maybe the stuffed animal fell out of the pocket of this little outfit and that's how it got lost. I don't know. I think I'll make the boots bigger, just proportionately, you know, you don't want everything to feel too even. You can stretch and squash things so that, you know, you have a varied proportion, a variation of shapes throughout the, the character there. Maybe there's a little tuft of hair in the middle. And whiskers, oh, the whiskers would be super sad, oh. "I've lost my stuffed animal." And again I'll think about the snow. As you're doing this, which I just love how you're combining the emotion and the story in realtime with the actual shapes that you're creating, and we did have a question come in saying, "You have exceptional drawing skills. "What is the best way for a person "to improve their own drawing skills "other than observation and practice, "are there any specific books or types of classes "that people would start with to get to the point "where they can translate that emotion?" Yeah, I mean, the most, I think the most essential ingredient to trying to get to a point where you feel more comfortable drawing, there's a couple of things, and I always go to observation as the first because it's how we're gonna learn to interpret the world. So start there. The second thing is doing different types of drawing exercises like there's a thing called blind contour and just contour, and it would be me literally, like if I were looking at you, if I'm blind contouring, I am looking at you and I'm not looking back at my paper, and I'm following, my eye is imagining, I'm touching the surface of your head so I understand the form. And so this usually makes the weirdest looking drawings you've ever seen, but when you're doing that, when you're drawing without looking or you're occasionally looking but you're not lifting your pencil up, a contour drawing, it gets you to observe things with more care. You're slowly looking at the shape of the overall head, the hairs as it moves around, then the interior of the face, positioning, but you're, it's a sense of feel and observation at the same time. So contour drawing is a really good thing to do. The other thing is, I'm trying to think of some books that would be really, I know we have someone who'll be teaching a course soon, Amy Wynne, who's amazing. She's gonna be teaching a course for CreativeLive. She actually was a teacher of mine recently. We're the same age, and I took a RISD class with her, I think it was last fall, because I just wanted to brush up on my drawing skills. And I hadn't drawn from the figure in ages. I'd drawn, you know, for illustration, but I hadn't drawn from an actual person in the room or studied anatomy in years, so it was like, "Oh, this will be a good "six week class for me." so I went to Amy's class, and she was super, because she deconstructed everything in a really simple way, broke down how the body is a series of shapes, what the musculature was doing and had us do really quick gesture drawings, like I described before like super fast, one minute pose, which, you can't, you just have to capture the gesture. You know, oh, it's bending down, oh it's turning, how does that look with a few pencil marks? She also did some contour drawings with us, so that we were feeling around form. She had us think about the body in terms of physical shapes. So all those things really helped me and I would highly recommend that people who want to strengthen their, just the base, core level drawing skills, take that class. And she's a great teacher, she's awesome. I also think there are some life drawing books that could be really useful. I could probably put those in the resource file because I don't, there's certain titles I know I'll get it wrong if I tell you what it is. But there are some good basic drawing books to work from. But I sometimes feel that when you refer to a book for drawing, it's harder than having a person talk you through it, and it's not always clear for every learning style, so reading can be helpful for some and not for others. So my thinking is if you're just starting out, you don't feel confident drawing, draw the simplest thing you can think of. The simplest thing. Put in front of you, you know, it could be, um, a tack. It could be a pencil, and just look at it and study it. And then, doodle a lot. Doodlers really know how to draw, because they're not worrying about, it's just intuitive, it's like, "What's coming out of my head? "Oh, that weird creature I always draw." Boom boom boom. Trust yourself and doodle. Keep a sketchbook wherever you go so you can doodle, if you're bored you can doodle, doodling is highly encouraged. In my classroom, my students are listening when we critique the work, but they're also doodling in their sketchbooks, and they're drawing the most amazing things because it's not being instructed, it's from their own sort of spirit. So those are just a couple of go to things. I also believe we all start out drawing when we're kids and then, we sort of define and pocket, "Oh, those are the artists. "I'm not one of those so I can't draw." That's baloney. That's not the way it works. We all start out drawing, making, painting, creating, and I truly believe every person is at heart, potentially creative, we just have to let the genie out of the box, and not be worried about what other people will think. If there's fear there then just do it when nobody's looking if you're really worried about it, just draw for yourself in your own space, and if you don't like it, nobody's going to see it, so until you're ready, then you can engage, be in a classroom, do whatever feels most comfortable for you and your personality. Yeah, just draw, draw, draw, draw. The kids ask that question too when I have kindergartners in a classroom 'cause I work with elementary school kids. They panic and worry, "Am I doing this right?" And I'm like, "There is no wrong way to make art." So if you're inclined, do that thing. Now I want to take a peek at what you guys are doing if that's okay, I can get up. Oh, and we have some color. Oh and I love, you've done a couple things that are really interesting. You've weighted the line a little bit more so we can see with clarity, but the lines go from strong and heavy to lighter, which helps move around the form, that really helps with line-centric art. And you're starting, wait a minute, okay, before the color, what's he doing? Well (laughs) he was holding drum sticks and I thought it would be funny if he was holding drum sticks and a drumstick. So does he always have snacks on hand? He always has snacks, yeah. Well, he's a big dude, you know, I can imagine. He is a big guy. That would need to happen. And now, what about, I see, is that like a guitar? I don't know, I felt like he either was something tough about him, like the teddy bear was a little too soft, so I was like maybe they just had a show and he didn't play well. Of course I can't draw a guitar for anything, so that was-- That's actually a pretty good guitar. Really hard. Yeah, that's better than I can imagine drawing myself. You get the basic information, right. Something, yeah, but I didn't want to put too much detail into it. You know, it's like you're like focusing, "Oh, I want this to be perfect," but then I'm like, "I don't want it to take away "from the overall story anyway. Yeah. So I was like, I'll just leave it. But yeah, I thought that it would be kinda funny if they were in a band together, he's trying to cheer him up, having snacks, getting stains on his shirt, I don't know. Stains on his shirt. That was why I was like, I gotta get some color in here. I love it. And the red, what do you think red means to you like when you choose the red? To me I was gonna do, I think this guy's gonna be kinda dark and kinda like-- Sort of goth-y. Yeah, just kind of, for that, I thought a lot about what you said with like the symbolism with the color, like he's gonna be kinda dark, and I wanted this guy to be bright, and I think like a poppy red is kind of a bright, happy, kind of-- So they're really opposites, then, in their nature. Right. But that sort of makes them connect because they feed off of each other. Yeah. What does he play? He plays drums? Oh he plays drums, okay, I was thinking-- Drum sticks. Oh that's right. Drum sticks and drumsticks. The other thing I would think about is like you could even land them in a space, you can indicate a couple things, you don't have to, you know, you could fill the page, or you could just give us a little indication of where they're standing. I love the idea that he just had a show and he didn't play well. And he's trying to encourage him. I mean, there's so much tenderness. I don't know where it's coming from, honestly. I know, this is, I love it. It's crazy how much you can get from a shape. We need springboards. We need a little, boop, and instantly, there's like a feeling and a flavor that you know, our mind builds story. We are natural storytellers, every single one of us. I totally agree, totally. So this is, I love it. Thank you. Keep going, it's totally cool. Oh (laughs). In the time you were away, he hooked up with a chick and had a baby. (Instructor laughing) And now his baby's sad to see him go off to the military. Of course, of course. Little teddy bear right there. Yeah, I don't know. And he has a little, does he only have the one ear? Well, no, 'cause he's kind of looking that way a little bit. Oh, so it's a little sideways, okay. Yeah, yeah. And one arms a little longer than the other. Kind of like dad, I guess. Yeah, he takes after dad. Oh my gosh, he's super sweet. I love the cargo pants and the sneakers, and this is him from the side view? I, yeah, yeah, that's a little strange, yeah. He's a little out of shape, obviously, like some people when they go into basic training, he's got to lose a little bit in the middle. (laughs) He's got a little girth there. Yeah. I would love to see them interacting. Okay, yeah. You know, he could be holding him, or some connection, something-- Got it, yeah. 'Cause I love the size relationship, I love the idea of the storytelling in terms of he's so sad because dad's gonna be leaving. Yeah. No, that's great, yeah, keep going, this is so much fun. Oh, what are these? Kind of like little bugs. Somehow a little-- I was wondering, is this spiders? Not exactly, because it doesn't have enough legs, but I kind of went with a kind of bug theme for his pants or his shorts, and then he came across this little, kind of like a turtle friend, I'm not really, again I kind of feel like I need resources to kind of pull from. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But um, his friend's worried 'cause he's so big and he doesn't know how they're gonna play together. So they've just met. They've just met. Okay, this is really fun. So you could even take them and you could even think of gestural poses 'cause right now you've got him straight and then you have him sideways, but think of how this character would bend down maybe to talk to this one. What would the first meeting look like? Right. You could even give a sense of the space of where they're in, if it's the beach or what have you, but this is fun, this expression is so dear, like, "Oh my gosh." (girl laughing) And he's pretty confident and looks friendly, he doesn't look scary. I like your resolution too of that wing-type shape. It's pointy, it contrasts, it's like round contrasting the pointy, which is fun. And is that a little bitty-- Little tail. Tiny tail. I love it, this is great. Yeah, keep going. Thank you. So, Heather Jeans asked, "Do you ever have to draw characters "that you are not drawn to, "and how do you get past not liking a character? "How do you put those kind of traits "into what you're creating?" That, you know, it's interesting because usually I've either chosen the story or written it, so the characters are invented by me, so you know, I know that I'm gonna care about them, but the exception is the My Little Pony books, the first book, I honestly, I looked at the toys, I couldn't connect with who they were, and I was like, they're so, cartoony looking, that's not how I draw. That's probably why it took me so long to come up with a story, because I couldn't engage with the characters. I didn't have a sense of their soul, and I drew them and got nothing. I kept drawing their proportions and shapes. I got nothing. So it helped me to then go to the narrative, the arc, the conflict, where they would go as opposed to, that story, I didn't start with the characters. I started with what are they doing, what's happening in this book? What is the event that will unfold? And by doing that, I was able to then step back in and know them a little bit better, but the honest truth is, the Under the Sparkling Sea book, I feel like I knew the characters less well than the second book, and if you compare the two, I love both books, but Dragons on Dazzle Island, I definitely put more expression in the characters' faces, I emoted with them more, and I can see the difference between the emotional spaces of book one and book two, the Dragons book versus the Under the Sparkling Sea, so it can be a challenge, but you have to get inside it, you have to find another way around. If you can't come through the characters then maybe you find you go through the story. And sometimes people, if they have to illustrate a stroy, and I know this with friends, if they have to illustrate a story where they really don't like the characters, they'll turn down the contract, or just say, "This isn't my wheelhouse, I can't do this." 'Cause you spend with a book, months, can even be a year or more on this project, you really have to love the subject matter, you have to love the characters. Even the villains, you can still love them, you know, they can be evil or awful, but usually in children's books they resolve, but I think you still have to feel connected to them and understand them in some way, otherwise it's probably not the right project for you. It's amazing how much emotion goes into this. Yeah, yeah. Which makes sense when you're trying to pull out emotion. (laughs) Well, and it's, you know, every illustrator's different in terms of how they get inside of a character or a story, so this is just the way that, for me, that makes sense and it works, but when I work with my students, I can always tell if they haven't considered the emotional space, and I just worked with a student who was developing a whole project that, it was her story and she was creating characters, and the first sketches she did were stiff, and there was no emotion, there was no, they just looked like a cartoon, they didn't have, all the drawings here already have more expressive qualities, like I can feel who they might be. It's a direct connector, one human being to another, so without that, I think it becomes more about style and about, you're letting the story drive the bus, the characters are just moving the story along. It's not my favorite kind of book that's like that, and I don't think for children's books it makes the strongest books. The ones that resonate, I think with people, are the ones that do connect on an emotional level. One that I'm thinking of is Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which is a classic, right? Is it, right, oh my god, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and the style is super simple, but you instantly feel compassion for Sylvester. I don't want to be a spoiler, you know, you have to read the book, it's very short, but yeah, I think it's a critical piece, and I know from experience that it really helps people enter the space of stories and characters when you pull on the emotional thread and you understand who they could be.

Class Description

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.


LIse Brown

I didn’t pay enough attention to the description so was surprised by the focus of the class — but in a definitely good way. As a member of SCBWI, I’ve learned a lot about illustrating characters by going to conferences and participating in our active local group. Most of the instruction I’ve received, as I suspect is also the case with most formal instruction, has been from the point of view of being given a character from a story to illustrate. This class covers creating a story based on the characters you draw, placing the drawing first and finding the story as you work. Of course there is overlap in the two approaches — overlap that emphasizes important steps. The creativity process is demonstrated clearly and in depth here in a gently encouraging way. However, while I, like the instructor, believe that everyone can be creative, I also question whether this approach would work for all illustrators: not all have time to write the stories that go with the characters they create, as ours is usually a business driven by clients who already have a story and characters. I’m not saying that this would not be a valuable class for them, just mentioning the different take on the subject. I had expected more of the usual angle of how to create a page of character sketches for your portfolio or how to develop the illustration of a character from a manuscript. Though help with these topics is partially covered in the progress of the class, they are not the main focus. All-in-all, the different approach is to the credit of the class — encouraging and expanding a student’s horizons. Also, plenty of little gems are thrown in during the lecture and demos, from techniques to the psychology of creativity. The instructor is competent, clear, and pleasant. She conveyed a lot of information that I didn’t realize until I was thinking about it later. One note: the titles for the breakdown of the demo are not exactly accurate, The demo is of the instructor creating one character as she draws. I understand that the producers wanted to segment it, but really it’s one continuous process, and some of the titles for those lessons are misleading.

Lynne Perkins

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!

Aimee Nicola

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!