Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Demo: Finalize Image with Color

And I hope that people at home are encouraged to draw, get the pencils out, use some shadow shapes, and start to think about what they can do with characters. I mean, you know, I have students sometimes that'll do all these great characters in their sketchbooks and then they're at a loss when, you know, you just ask them to draw something and they're kinda frozen, but it's because it's also sort of a private act when you're sketching in your sketchbook, and it's something you do for yourself, so that's another reason why I really recommend having a sketchbook on hand so you can draw anytime you feel like it. Now I'm drawing the black parts of the fox with purple, 'cause again I like to layer color. So the purple, I think, will add a little interest instead of just using a pure black colored pencil. And I might throw the surroundings here so that we have some contrast for this little fox as well. But I just think it's, you know, if you think about where we started, we started with the s...

imple shape, it's really amazing how much has already come out of it in all of the students' work, and even for myself with this little funny little shadow shape. All right. I don't wanna forget about the tail. And then I'll do the surrounding color. Yeah, it's interesting, I don't usually use colored pencils on a white-tone paper. (laughs) I always start with a ground of color, so this is like, it's freakin' me out a little bit, but it's in a good way, like okay, practice what you preach, do something that you're not entirely sure about. So I have to work a little differently than I usually do, but that's good. How do you go about choosing a ground, and maybe explaining what that is? Yeah, so a ground of color is simply a tone that you start with. You could start with the white of the page, but I paint with watercolor, or acrylics and watercolor, sometimes. I start with a color to react to. It's kinda that put yourself in a box thing. It's like, okay, I need something to respond to. The white of the page makes it hard for me to think, so I choose a ground, or a layer of color, based on the overall expression of the page in addition to what colors will react to that, and that's true for all the books I do, I always work with a ground to start with and then what's the overall feeling of that ground color, how is it going to sorta infuse expression in the pieces, and then what colors will be on top that should react to that ground in some way? So that's part of that decision making. And I paint, so I, you know, if I had to select out what each color will be without having that ground, I don't have something to unify those colors and so the ground really helps me to do that. In the course that I taught, Color Fundamentals, I really talk a lot about that process, and show some examples of how I use grounds of color. But, again, it's like it just takes away some of the terror of looking at the white page, like okay, I gotta respond to this colored ground now, let's see what I can do with it. But today, I'm using the white of the page, and it's actually kinda fun. Though if I were choosing a ground for this color, for this little character, because she's orangey-red and she's the most important thing in the scene besides her little doll, I would probably choose something that would react to that red, and that would be a color opposite, like a complementary color, and a complementary color is the opposite color on the color wheel. If you look at a color wheel, the opposite of an orangey-red would be like a purple or a purple-blue. So that's probably good for two reasons. The purple-blue would create a sense of the coolness of this winter space, and my orangey-red fox would pop off of that. So for two reasons that would work out nicely, that would be a good color. Now I'm trying to remember if foxes have white at the end of the tail, or black at the end of the tail. Does anybody know? Is it white at the end of the tail? Okay, I'm gonna go with white, 'cause I don't remember. When I'm at schools and a little kid will ask me, oh, can you draw, you know, a such and such vehicle? I don't draw vehicles, so it's like, I'll do my best. Airplanes I always have a hard time with. So it's hard when you literally don't know what it looks like, that's when I look at my references. Okay. General consensus is white. Okay. Then we'll go with that. And I'm just gonna give a little, kinda create this space around this character with this cool tone, and I might bring a little warmth into it, just a little bit, so it connects color-wise to this reddish color of the fox. Again, I always layer color, I don't just use the colored pencil out of the tube, and I encourage you guys too with the colored pencils, you wanna make a green, you can put a blue over yellow, over a green, you know, later a little bit, 'cause it makes the color just a little more compelling, little more interesting. And also, just like with the pencil weight when you're using a tool like a paint brush or a colored pencil, you can use the side of it which gives you a wider mark, or use the tip, which gives you a more sharper point, but be sure to play with how that tool works in your hands, you don't always wanna go in the same direction in terms of a stroke, like right now I'm thinking of the air and if it's snowy and there's air around this character it's coming in a certain direction, sorta sideways, a little bit of diagonal action as opposed to how I did the fox which was a little more curves and curly mark making to build up that tone. And as I'm adding color to this, it's really feeling like a world, I can almost imagine a story that I might go home and sit in front of the computer and arc out the tale of this fox child going out to play in the snow, and romping around with her little stuffed animal, and then losing it and getting, perhaps she gets lost herself. But how that might unfold. So this could be a springboard for a story that I write, I don't know, we'll see. I haven't decided on the color of her suit yet. I just don't know yet. But it should be something that is not the same as the red, it won't be warm, but I don't want it to be blue 'cause that's the color of the snowy world around her. So maybe a color that might work well, I'm thinking maybe something minty, like a minty green, because I want it to feel cool like the rest of the picture, the only warm thing I really want is her body and the body of her toy. So I'll probably use some of the blue I just used for the sky I will probably use in the suit as well, but then I'm gonna add some yellow to it so it's not the same as the background, so here, I'll do this. And actually I have a fabulously minty looking blue here. I'm also gonna think about the silhouette of this character in terms of the darkness of the color I'm using, because I want it to stand out from the background. So I think when I was talking before with one of the students, I talked about saturation variation, your colors shouldn't all be the same level of brightness, if they're all the same it makes it a lot less interesting. So I'm gonna deepen this so it's a little darker than the sky, but maybe not as dark or as saturated or vibrant as the fox itself. I'm also using the side of the pencil to make a sort of thicker, heavier mark, I'm pressing a little bit more. Yeah, I like that color, that works. There. Now I sorta have to decide, I don't want the white of the fluff around this hood to be the same color as the tail, so now I have to make another decision, what color will that be, what will frame the face really nicely, what will work well with this? Maybe it has a little mintyness, but maybe it has a little more yellow. But not super warm like the fox, 'cause if I make this super bright then it'll compete with the vibrancy and the color of the fox, who I probably would make even brighter still. But see, I've taken the blue I just used in the suit, and I've added the yellow to it so they relate to each other, they connect, they have a relationship, and I'm doing that because I don't have a ground to help me do that, so I'm doing that just thinking it through. I'm also gonna take some of the blue and maybe pop some of these little snowflakes, just so they're more visible. And again I'm using the color that I used for the snowsuit so that there's a color connection between them, and that's one of the things, like, you know, harmony of color, you have to bring colors together to make kind of a voice, that really helps. But that's kinda like once you've gotten into, you know, a more finished image, which this is start to feel like a little more of a finished image rather than a study or a sketch. Okay. Now the mittens and the boots I have to decide on, so again I'm like hmm, what color could that be? I'm also thinking that I'd like the sky to have a little more oomph, and when I say oomph just a little more color reaction with what's here, so I'm actually gonna bring this pink into the sky because this is a happy moment in the story, you know, the story as it is right now. The pink symbolizes kind of like it's, pink with the blue is making a little bit purple, a little purple-blue, which symbolizes a kind of, to my mind something a little more magical and so that feels less dour, or scary, or sad, as just the straight on blue. And it also just reacts well with the turquoise around it, 'cause they are, purple and green are the color opposites. Just gonna add that to that, then I have to decide two more things to make this particularly resolved, and that is the color of the mittens and the color of the boots. Maybe I have a cast shadow, just a little bit of a cast shadow on the snow. Add a little more of that purple, yeah I like that purple. And your shadows usually reflect some of the color of whatever the object is. I'll put a little blue in there on top of that pink, and it's reflecting the sky, which you know, shadows, if the snow is white obviously it doesn't really have a color, but it might reflect the color of the air around it, that's really common. So now I have that, maybe the tail has a little shadow on it. It's also white, so it should also reflect the sky, the air around it, the objects around it, because it's white it's gonna reflect color. Cast a little shadow under her. And I'm using, again, pink and blue as part of the shadow color because these are white or light toned things and they're gonna reflect the sky. I still have to decide about those mittens, I just don't know. Maybe, again I want the fox to be the warmest thing so I don't wanna choose something warm, but I'm not sure what cool thing, 'cause it's already got a cool down here. Maybe, hmm. Maybe that could be, I think about symbolism and also the overall composition of the picture, those are the two things running through my mind in trying to choose a color, so maybe it could be, I'm gonna bring that yellow into it 'cause I have it here, I think I'll bring a little more yellow into the hood, fur of the hood, and maybe the boots have a yellow cast to connect it to that fur, but it's not exactly the same color, I don't wanna repeat the color. So I'll start with this yellow and then it seems not right to me, like it needs something else, so maybe (clicks tongue) I'll add, and just bring this green into it. Yeah, this feels good. And the reason why it feels good to me is because I have now brought in a green which relates to this blue, there's a lot of this color actually in the color of this pencil, it's a blue-green tone here, and this is just straight on green, but they feel related and so there's a connection in the piece, one thing to the other. When people are coloring things, sometimes you just, I'll make this red, this blue, this orange, but if you do that the colors don't bear a relationship one to the other and that's a really important part of choosing colors is making sure they harmonize, they work together, and I'll throw a little green into that shadow. And maybe the mittens will be that same color. Maybe they'll be just dark green. There, okay, I think that's just about done. And I'm just gonna get up and take a look at what they're doing, and maybe each person can walk through what they've been doing with me. There. I think that's pretty good. Just wanna make sure this is resolved. Actually, before I do that think I'm just gonna bring a little more green into the suit to connect it to the mittens and the boots, even though it's still a separate color. I think I'm also going to use my purple tone to emphasize the smile. Oh, and the whiskers. Almost forgot about the whiskers. The whiskers are pretty happy now. There. Just wanna make sure the eye is visible. And the thing that we look at first is the little character's faces. Make sure this separates from the background of the figure, there, okay, I think that's pretty close, pretty good. I'm just gonna get up and take a look at what everybody's been doing. Put my glasses back on. How are you doing? Oh, wow. So some ants happened upon the scene, and so I'm now kind of working on, like, the reaction to the ants. And what is the reaction to the ants? I'm trying to get there, I can't really get the worried look, so I'm, yeah-- The eyes go like this. As soon as you tilt the eyebrows this way and the eye shape, that's worried. So tilt. Yeah, it's like that slant. I love, is this like food? Yeah, like it's a paper bag, so the ants are getting in there. Okay, and now he's really curious about them. Yeah. Cool. Oh yeah, I love this, this is wonderful. (gasps) He's got the rifle, the (mumbles), he's got, what is this little-- You know, my nephew has one of these and it's like this decapitated animal head, it's got a bear, and then it's like a-- Like a blanket? Piece of cloth, yeah, kinda like, yeah, but they have animal heads on top. Funny. So I don't know. Almost like a puppet. Yeah, it's just like a square, like a wash cloth with a head on it, so that's just what I kind of... A little tuft of red, like dad, it's so cute. And you made the teddy bear red too. Yeah. Why did you make the teddy bear red, I wonder? I meant to make it orange, I just grabbed the wrong color honestly, so. Yeah, there's orange here too. Yeah, I love that that's the most intense thing and he has stubble that's red, which is perfect. Yeah, and now that you've brought color to this I'm starting, I feel myself like it's making this world more believable, does it feel that way to you? A little bit, yeah. Yeah, yeah. A little sketchy right now, but yeah. Yeah, I mean you're just starting to figure out the notes of what's happening. Where are they standing, what is this surface? I don't know, it's some sort of grassy, not a grassy knoll but a weird strange, grassy, something. Yeah, yeah, yeah, awesome. I don't know yet. Yeah. Keep going, yeah, this is really cool. Oh, this is really terrific. I love that the pants are one tonality that's darker than this, and that's one thing I would suggest. There's a tendency in doing color is to light everything the same way, like the light on his red shirt's the same. So you-- I wanted his belly to stick out, but then I was trying to find the light source and I was like (sighs) I don't know. So he could stay like this, but maybe this character, this is a tone of green so it's not the same. Right. As long as they're both not the same, it still works. But I love the contrasts here of the colors, the elements, and the relationship. You have some of that yellow in his legs, it relates to the orange, yeah, it's super fun, are these his stains? Yeah. (laughs) He could probably have even more stains 'cause he looks like-- So it's more obvious. Yeah, 'cause I was like, is that just a color mark? But yeah, I would make those stains a little more clear, and there's a little tree. Yeah, this is lookin' great, I mean it's amazing to me how much narrative I feel coming from each of these. I actually, it's interesting because you never really know what's going to happen. When I give this exercise in class I don't know where it's going to go, because I don't know what they're gonna think of and what I see in each one of these is a tremendous amount of expression, thinking, problem solving, riffing, and an acceptance that they don't know what the story is about and they're letting it unfold and unfurl. And we've never met before, have we ever met before? No, this is my first time meeting my students, and so it's just, this is the excitement, this is the fun part, is that we don't always know where we're going, surprise is one of my favorite words, it's the first word I learned how to read, and so if you engage in a sense of surprise. Surprise yourself, allow yourself to be surprised, and then let it flow forward, I think that's really the best way to go.

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.