Demo: Start with Shadow Cast


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Demo: Start with Shadow Cast

So I'm just gonna start with a character that looks like a little fox and I think it's lost, so maybe it's facial expression could be worried. What does worried look like when I think of my own face? Worried means the brows and the eyeballs, everything sort of slanted in a particular direction. So I'm gonna draw worried. And this is where I might go to my phone or something to look at pictures of foxes to make sure I've got the right proportions and all that sort of thing. I'm not too worried right now, but yeah, this fox is upset about something, kind of worried. I'm not sure why. Let's see. So this is just my first thought and impression. I think the ears need to be a little bigger. There. Maybe the mittens are a little bigger. I think this character lost something in the snow, so I think it's snowing out. I wonder what it lost. There. Some snow boots. Now I sort of, I did one sort of pose based on what I'm seeing here, but I think I need to turn this character around and see it from...

a few different angles, maybe a few different expressions. Maybe I'll draw the face. I'll draw a side view of this character's face and think of another expression that could be interesting. Maybe it's annoyed. So here is where you can play with proportions too when you start to redraw it. I think I want those ears to be a little bit bigger, so I'm gonna, and I'm gonna try to remember that the foxes have a kind of longish, narrow snout and they have like, fluff, side for fluff and very pointy ears. But now the expression, so I'm gonna try something else. What if this, it was annoyed about something, what would it look like. So all's I'm doing right now is trying to get to know who is this character, how old is it, what's its dilemma, and try to think about it consistently in terms of shape and proportion. This character's probably about one, two-and-a-half heads tall, so it's fairly young. I'm drawn towards young characters (laughs). (mumbles) characters or creatures. Maybe I'll put that fluffy hat back on. Now logically, would a fox need a furry coat, or hood, or hat? No, it's a fox. But I'm gonna imagine it's faux fur and maybe it's made of like, moss or something like that, made from some natural substance. And its hood. Maybe I'll see it. Maybe I'll start to think about its body gestures and proportions like, just maybe kneeling. If it's looking for something and it can't find it, what if it's kneeling? Again, I'm just getting to know who is this character, what does it look like? It wants to tell me and I'm trying to listen. And if I draw this character from side view, there is that hood, that hoodie shape. I'm trying to keep these loose as well. It's looking on the ground for something. And I'm imagining the character, I'm looking at the proportions I've established and then I'm just trying to imagine what it would look like if it were kneeling in its little snowsuit. Again, keeping these pretty loose and gestural, not trying to get too futsy with it because if you get locked in too fast, then you miss the opportunity to find some potentially really cool things. It's probably the biggest mistake a lot of beginner artists do and even people who have been illustrating for a while, is they kind of freeze up instead of just letting it loose. So I think my little fox character is trying to find something in the snow. I don't know what. So maybe here, it looks a little worried, but it's also curious because maybe it spots something. And eyebrows are really great (laughs) indicators of expression. Our eyebrows tell us a lot. So if you can't get the expression, you just like, throw some eyebrows and shift their direction (laughs). Very, very useful. I think, hmm. I'm not sure what my character's lost, but it's lost something in the snow, something it cares about. I don't know what. I'm gonna get up in a second and take a look at what everybody's doing. MJ, we did have a question from Amy Nicola, who says, "I really like the eyes that you draw "and the light and the expression in them. "Do you have any tips on approaching eyes in particular "in terms of bringing those to life and telling stories?" Well, so, and I'll draw a little eyeball over here. The secret that I've found with creating expressive eyes has to do with light, casting light on the eyeball, or the illusion of lights, not really light. It really helps to tell not just the shape of the eye, the direction of the eyebrows, but that sense of light. Actually, I'll draw this a little larger so it can be seen. But when I'm drawing characters' eyeballs, it's sort of my signature thing. And I learned this from Theodore Geisel, from Dr. Seuss because even though his stuff is super flat, he always put a highlight on the pupil to make the character look more empathetic and believable even though the style was flat and that, I sort of borrowed from that notion. And I'm just sketching out an eyeball where if the light is hitting the pupil from, let's say the direction is left, then the light is also hitting the iris on that opposite side here and you know, the lid is casting a little bit of shadow. So that's sort of a trick. It's the way it looks when you look at someone's eyes. If I look at your eyes, I can see that. If your eyes are light enough, you can see that. If the eyes are dark, then you just create a sort of single reflection in the pupil area and done worry about that secondary light landing on the opposite side of the iris, so that's my kind of, it's sort of a, I don't want to call it a trick, but it's a little art secret. But yeah, it's always about following the way light functions on the form. There, that's my little eyeball. There. Okay, so what I think I'll do now is just take a peek at what they're doing. Bring my glasses. Oh, wow! Super fun, oh my God. That's great. Who are these people? I don't know, I don't know yet. It's really kind of an interesting exercise. As I was looking at this one, I was like, it's sad, it looks like somebody's sad. Yeah. But he looks tough. I don't know if it was the long arms, but I wanted to do a guy and it just, you know, the whole process is really, it's pretty funny and then he's like, but it looks like he might have a soft side, but he's like, a tough guy. Is that when he has like, a stuffed animal, or? Yeah. Yeah, yeah. But like, and this is his weird best friend, this kind of a big guy with a mullet. I don't know. (laughter) It was just like, the story was unraveling in my head. It's great. I was like, I don't know if anybody else is gonna get that. No, no, no, totally. (laughter) Keep going and you know, kind of start to imagine him from different points of your angles or sitting or standing, anything that gets you to step inside for the, this is like, super great. (laughter) I love it, I love that they are buds. I want to know about that. Where does that friendship come from? What is that? I don't know. It's so cool. And who do we have here? Oh, oh my gosh! (laughs) He's just sticking out his tongue. Ah! (laughter) Who is this? He's like, shirmy, a little (mumbles). Ooh! Knuckle dragger. (laughter) She's mysterious, svelte yet sweet. Mm, she actually has like, like kind of sassy eyes, but yeah, this is a great start. I love that you've got two going on because it gives you something to sort of riff off of. Fabulous. Thank you. Oh! Oh, thank you for turning it around. Okay, so what is his story? Wait, is he a sheriff? He's actually in the military. I don't know why, but I picked this shape because it reminds me of the way the toddlers look in my family. We all have big heads. (laughter) And small bodies. And then it just, I don't know how he end up being an angry military guy after that, but. Is he a child or a grownup? He's entering the military. Oh, so he's fully grown? He's fully grown. I got it. Well yeah, but he's still got the big head. Yeah. Because he's still one of my people. So. (laughter) But he's a little skittish, as I put. Yeah, he looks like he's a little bit stressed out. Something's happened. Yeah, a little. He's a little stressed out, he's a little worried to go into the military, but yeah. He's, I don't know. He's just a strange little guy. Well, it's interesting because when I read this, I feel like it's like, he looks like he's worried. Yeah. He looks like something is about to happen. I don't know what it is, but he's kind of panicked about it, he's stressed about it. I would love to see like, because mine doesn't have anything on the feet either, so you could put like, what kind? (mumbles) Little tiny feet. I was gonna put little tiny combat boots. Yeah, because that shows. When the feet are really tiny and the head's really big, that's unsteady, so it goes to that idea of like, something that's skitterish or a little less confident. I'd also, you know, you could play with. Are they human hands, are they mitts, are they like, three-digit fingers? What do we have there? Does he wear a hat of the costume? Does he have accoutrement? Mm-hmm. Does he have like, a gadget, or a tool, or a weapon, or what have you? Yeah, okay. And then maybe where he's positioned, you could even. He would be a challenge to turn to the side part. But just try it, just turn it to the side and see what. Well, I don't want to know how that head looks (laughter) on another angle, but yeah, there's so much expression and emotion when I look at his face. It's instantly readable. Is that his tiny ear? That's a tiny ear, yeah. She's like, super tiny ears and super tiny feet. So he doesn't probably hear well. Apparently not. (laughter) If he's one of my people, then no. Keep going, that's awesome. Oh, we have a duck creature. Some sort of bird. I was gonna go with a walrus, but then I could figure out how to, I don't know, I can't remember what a walrus looks like. Of course, yeah. So I'm like, a beak works for me. And feel free, by the way, if you need your phone for references, visual references. That would be my go-to thing to do too. Totally. And so I also felt like this character, this shape kind of looked very sweet and goofy, and nice, and then I was like, oh, maybe it's an animal who wants to go to the beach who doesn't necessarily go to the beach all that often. You know? Oh! And others. Are these his swim trunks? Yeah, so I'm kind of trying to figure out how to make good swim trunks for him, so that's another thing I feel like I want to look into and I don't really know how to make wings. Mm-hm. So, and like, I want to rip off that image and then go from there, but you know, I don't know why he's holding them out yet, but I feel like he wants to go run and play with a ball and I feel like he's looking for someone to play with. Oh, I wonder who he would be playing with? And he just doesn't know yet, but he's putting on a friendly face to get there. Is he a large or a very small? Like, how, if you in realtime, how big would this creature be now? He's large, he's larger than. Just really big. Yeah, someone like, maybe. And maybe he's, I feel like he's a gentle giant. So a small, contrasting character would be really fun and it could be a creature. It could be anything you want, but. And the ball could be troublesome because it's too big for the other, something. Mm-hmm. But yeah, I love the start of this, I want to know what the pattern is on the shorts and then see it from a different angle so you can start to get a feel for what those body shapes are doing, how they would move. Does he walk like this, or how does this character walk? Right. Does he have hair? Like, a couple of threads. He has like, a little threads, little kind of feather hair going on there. So it's like, a little balding? Mm-hmm. Okay, that seems to be a theme. (laughter) Yeah, keep going. See the character from a few different angles and let's think about that other character. These are awesome. Can you tell us again about this pencil and the pencil sharpener? Now we've got folks asking online about that, actually. Sure, basically the brand is Mars Staedtler and for both a pencil and the sharpener. And basically what I'm doing is it's a very sharp sharpener in there that's bringing this particular lead to a fine point, and you could use a regular pencil like this, I mean, I use those too. But when I'm doing my beginning construction, I like to be able to change out the leads. These leads are, they can be any just like these pencils. They can be super hard, or they can be super soft. So in terms of pencils, H's are really hard lead and when you're touching the surface, you have to press hard to get any darkness. Anything that's an HB or a B, a 2B, a 4B, a 6B, the higher the number with the B, the softer the lead. And that's just basically, I have an actually, a 2B here. It gives you an opportunity to make a softer, mushier mark, and that was why I was suggesting like, when you're starting to do like, little sketches, sometimes it's good to have a lead that is not, it's blunt, it's kind of rough to do the sketches because then you're not getting too noodle-y. I say that, but I personally tend to like a really sharp point. Again, these are personal preferences. I use this pencil primarily and this kind of sharpener because I can get that sharp point and it's weighted in a different way. It's heavier than a regular pencil and it's just, I have large hands, so the weight of that feels good in my hand. And I'm a firm believer that you should use tools that make sense to you and feel good to you. If it doesn't feel good, don't use it, and that's completely a personal preference and it's funny. We have this certain favorite mug we like to drink coffee from, so why wouldn't we have those certain favorites when it comes to art? So that's the story of my mechanical pencil.

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.


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!

Victoria Arce

Very nice class, I really like it. It works more like a workshop, very dynamic.