Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell

Lesson 5/14 - How to Make Characters Feel Authentic


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

How to Make Characters Feel Authentic

Now when you're trying to illustrate characters and tell a story, you're not doing it in a vacuum. There's no way that you can so I research costume anatomy, environment and color palette to make my characters feel more authentic. This is my daughter here, who's kind of a ham so she was happy to pose as the sorcerer's apprentice. I use a lot of photography, especially when it's human but even if it's an animal, I use photography. I did a lot of research on the renaissance to capture the costume and the feel and (mumbles) on the sketch here and for my sketches, I don't work digitally, I work in traditional media, so I sketch on what's called Vellum trace paper, and Vellum trace paper is a really solid trace paper that it's not flimsy like tissue, so it's a wonderful tool and when you draw on tracing paper, if you wanna change an aspect, something, maybe the face is too large or the hand or what have you, you can make the change just to get underneath the tracing paper. It works the way ...

Photoshop would work, but it's just literally a physical layer. And sometimes I'll cut out shapes and plop them right on the sketch to make the changes, but it's really useful. So for this book, I relied heavily on all this research to make this world more believable, and that's really what you're doing is you're trying to convince the reader, the viewer, the person looking at your picture that your world is real. And when it goes past the edge of the page or frame, there's more to it and that's really critical. You're convincing people of what you believe. Now The Dragons on Dazzle Island was the second book that I did with Hasbro and Little Brown and by the time I worked on this book, there were five seasons of My Little Pony already out. And I actually was asked to do the Art of Equestria book which is the art of the book about the show, so I had to research Pony. I literally watched all four seasons of My Little Pony. I know the theme song and I'm not gonna sing it. But I watched it sitting on the couch, my sweetheart Tim would be drinking a glass of wine with me, he'd light the fire and I would play this, and you know, what was I thinking, I didn't put earphones so he could hear this song over and over. But I watched every episode and what it did was it pulled me into who the characters were, which was really critical for this book because by then, the fans existed and the fans pay close attention to the characters and the lore and who they are and where they live and really important to get that information right so I did that research for this book. Now my recommendation here is to look to sources of inspiration for shape and color and imagine how your character moves, so you can explore its anatomy in a really believable way. So if we're doing this, I created, these are the Island Ponies and of course I always do sketch first and then I do my finished illustration in full color, this is pastel and water color as well. So for these characters I thought, well, if they're from islands, unlike the usual Pony characters with flowing hair, they would have spiky hair like tropical birds or bird of paradise, so hence the color and the shape of the mane. They might have tattoos because if they're from, I was thinking like Maori, there might be some kind of facial tattoos other than just, what they call, the cutie mark on the pony. So I tried to pull from some things that made sense to me for Island Ponies, but I also asked my daughter, my daughter Gates who at the time was at Rydal School design studying in film animation video, if she would make a prototype for me, a posable prototype so that I could see the ponies from different angles. Because it's not like a real horse, it has very specific proportions and that was one thing Hasbro was like, it has to be the right proportions, that head to body ratio is critical because if it's not right it won't look like Pony. So she created, 'cause she's talented, she created a sculpt of this character then she created a casting of that sculpt and she made, I don't know if you can see, the metal interior armature, the skeleton of the creature so it could be posable and she set that into this gelatinous material that made this posable figure. Don't ask me how she did this because this is not my wheelhouse, but she made this thing and then she extended it on a form so that I could put it up in the air, whether it was flying or running or jumping, and that was such a help because when I started to illustrate the ponies, I could see them from top view literally, I had this one in front of me. So I recommend if you can, get physical objects that you can look at. That's why photography is really important but that was a really useful thing for me. Now researching the details to make imaginary characters more believable. One of the common things that my students do at Rizzy, is they come up with an idea for a character, they sketch it out, but then they forget that they have to make it authentic, so they don't do the research, they don't look how the scales actually fall on a creature. What does it look like? Well I can't imagine that so I look at photography, I look at pictures, and I start with really rough sketches, you can see to the right, that's where I began. I began really with a scribbly, loose sketch, then I start to refine it, the lower right, and then this is the final sketch here. But in investigating this, I also had to determine, it's a dragon, so I had to decide, well, what kind of wings would this dragon have? Dragons always have wings, they always do, that's just a thing. So it's like could it be bird wings? Maybe, I tried that, didn't like it. Then I was like, oh, bat wings, that would be really cool. So that's where I came up with the idea of this general shape and format but there were two things I needed to think about for this, the dragons are mother dragons, so they had to be fierce and maternal, so I wanted them to both have this sort of fierce sense but also that you could feel that there was some warmth there. They weren't like evil characters. You're not sure that early in the story, but then you realize they're not evil at all. And here's the finished illustration. And the interesting thing is with the dragons is in the pony world for the animation, the dragons are always cast as evil characters. Always and fans were like, finally, dragons that are not being maligned as being bad, so I hadn't thought about that, that didn't cross my mind but I was really pleased, pleased to create a character that was dimensional, that had something other than just like, oh, the mean dragons. Now understand the motives of your characters to help describe them, so for me, the important aspect of this story is, and I'll just tell you in summary, and I have actually, I have the book right here. The Dragons on Dazzle Island, and for this story, basically the dragons have landed on an island, and they are sitting amongst all the gems that the Island Ponies harvest, so there's all these huge dragons are basically in the spot that the Island Ponies wanna get to. But the dragons won't let them near this spot because, for a reason, and the gemstones are actually creating a source of energy for the eggs that these dragons have laid. They're mother dragons who've laid eggs in this spot and hence, they don't wanna move because the energy of the gemstones are trying to heat the eggs to help them hatch. Well what happens here is that the dragons and the ponies have a conflict which brings things called Windigos, these wind creatures who cause coldness and chaos, it's why the picture was so cold, so that creates this conflict an this particular character is the only Island Pony who realizes that they're actually, they wanna have their babies, that they're trying to hatch their babies, they're not just there to cause trouble. And I based her on Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is a hero of mine and I was like, oh of course, Ruby Red Heart is the character name I chose 'cause she has a big heart. She recognizes that these dragon eggs need love and attention to be able to be born, and so that's really the crux of the story. So I looked at lots of pictures of Jane Goodall and the binoculars and the ponytail, so that's the source. You don't always have to know the person, it can just be someone that you admire. And there's the color finish for these. And in the story, Ruby Red Heart recognizes when you hug an egg, it starts to glow and when it glows, it warms the egg, and that action allows the eggs to actually hatch and this is one of the little hatchlings here. Now the choices here that I made in terms of color and there's some colored pencils for you guys too, if you feel inspired to work with color later, absolutely feel free to do that. But I chose a kind of, and I debated about this. I wasn't sure what color she should be. I knew she should probably have red hair, Ruby Red Heart, but at first I thought, well, her body could be white. I thought, no, that doesn't make sense. It just seems so cold. Then I tried green, I was like, green sends a weird message, I don't think so. I tried dark purple, that didn't work. It was just too heavy. So what I realized here was that I really need to have a color that was both symbolically accurate, not the same as the other characters, unique to her and work well in the scene, so it was kind of a tough call. Finally I landed on a kind of lavender coloration for her which was just light enough to be contrasting to the other characters and made her hair kind of flaming red. So color does have meaning. The tricky thing is, the color is not exactly universal. The west and the east don't have the same idea about certain colors, so the only thing you could do is rely on how it reads to you and hope that that is communicated to an audience or to other people. The final step in storytelling is, I had to think about the context that my characters lived in. And I think it's really helpful once you have characters, start to imagine, what is the space that they live in? What do they eat, what do they do, who's a best friend? Start to imagine their world and so in this case, I really tried to imagine, it's a tropical island, everything should reflect in style and sensibility, a world of Pony, that was a really critical piece for me. And so every book is a little bit different. The little boys' books don't look the same as the Pony books so I have to keep that in mind in terms of palette and in stylization, and it changes from book to book. And finally you can see here, this is for Under the Sparkling Sea. This is all an imagined space, Nautilus Hall. I don't have a reference for that, how would I? It's all in my head, so I started to think about, what do I like to draw? Shells, I love to draw shells, and I kept imagining this magical place with reflective iridescent shells, and so that was where the palette came from, and everything is built from sort of the sea creatures and their elements architecturally are shall-based for the most part, and that was really fun, I looked at a lot of mussel shells and a variety of shells and started to put this together. A lot of sketching before it landed with the final piece, obviously, but this is a space where you take your imagination and you merge it with the real world. It makes it convincing to the viewer because it's fantasy, but there're things in there that you recognize and you understand. So we'll just review what the elements are that I've just talked about, and we'll talk about them again with the exercise. You start with silhouette, think about the overall impression. What does this tell you, what's the immediate impression of this character shape that you'd be looking at? Facial expression. How can you use that to tell us about how your character feels and who they are? The body movement and anatomy. How does that thing move across the earth, even if it's not moving, your page is still, you wanna think about how it would move. Proportion. The characters can have a large head and a tiny body, or a tiny head and a big body, it can be long or it can be really small, it's really about your decision about proportion, but typically, you don't want everything to be too symmetrical because that's not so interesting, so play with the proportions of the parts of your character. Costume, it helps to tell us the time, the place, the feel of where this character lives and exists. And then basing your character on real people. If it's an unflattering comparison, then just don't tell the person, because that happens, I have friends who design characters for animation and it's not a flattering comparison, they just don't let the person know, but if you use real people, I tend to use real people that I really like so that it makes it, I feel connected to them, but I think if you do that, even today, if you see, recognize somebody you know in your shadow shape, go for it and bring their characteristics into the character. Color and style for symbolic expression. Those are things that can help give the viewer more information on who your character is. And finally developing the environment. If we have time today, we have big sheets of paper, if you get your character you're like, oh, let me imagine where it could live, what's its surroundings? And this is, again, when you're sketching today, keep it loose, keep it gestural. You're thinking through drawing. You're playing, you don't have to worry, 'cause that's not the thing to start with, you never start with worry, start with like, oh I'm just gonna be intuitive and it's like your dream space, let it flow. It's totally stream of consciousness. You got plenty of paper and we have more, so not to worry.

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!