Start with the Shadow Cast by a Character


Illustrating Characters and the Stories They Tell


Lesson Info

Start with the Shadow Cast by a Character

So what we're doing right now is you're all gonna get up and look at the shadow shapes I put out, and pick one that speaks to you. Just like, I really like that. And trust your intuition. If it speaks to you, grab that one. There's multiples of some of them, but not all. You don't wanna fight over the one. Just choose what you like. So if you guys can get up and walk over and grab the one that you think is interesting. Just one? You can take two if you want. Absolutely. This is art; I mean there are rules, but not too many. So MJ, maybe bringing the people at home while they do that. Mm-hmm. Where did these, where did you develop these, or where did these come from, or how does this concept, what are we gonna do? Well actually, this was sprung from something that one of my former students created for this non-profit entity. He made a game based on how human behavior works, in terms of impressions. And so he made a game about shadows. And so, he gave me permission to use the...

se shadow shapes for my RISD students to do this exercise. I came up with this workshop based on, oh, that's a really cool idea to think about how we perceive the characteristics when we look at a shape. What could I do with that in terms of character development? So this was probably five or six years ago. I started doing it with my RISD students. It's one of their favorite things in the class I teach called, What's Your Story? You get to riff off of the shadow shape. And so everybody's chosen, some two. Good, so you have like, foils or friends. So basically what I want you to do is to think about, when you look at the shape, what are the characteristics that come to mind? Like, the immediate impression. And think adjectives; funny, sloppy, silly, happy, goofy, whatever. You can even jot that down on your paper, if that helps you. It helps me to have words to kinda, descriptors to get into the space. So you can start with words. You can then, from there, sketch out, based on the shape, what you think it looks like. You can turn the shadow shapes upside down. Your character can be a beast, a creature, person, whatever you want. You might even see it in a couple different ways. So once you sort of, think about the descriptors, then jump into the sketching. And I'll do it too. I've picked out my shadow shape, which is really cute to me. I don't know why, I just respond to that big, round head. So I'll be sketching up here while you're doing your thing. Just because I want you to feel free to get started, and won't have me hovering. So I'll sit, and start to sketch. And should I talk through what I'm doing as I'm doing it? That's great. All right. Now I have to lift my chair because it feels a little low. I don't wanna feel like I'm at the kid's table, with a little, tiny chair. So, here's my shadow shape, and I don't work with my glasses because this is for a long distance. I'm gonna grab one of my favorite pencils, which is the one I used for the other course; my mechanical pencil. It's a great tool for getting a really sharp point. I just, I like the weight of this kind of pencil. It's meant for architects, but it's my go to pencil. And when I look at this character, the first words that come to my mind are: vulnerable. I just see, you know, I start to think this character looks vulnerable. And sometimes I'm not the best speller, so (laughs) I jot down notes I don't spell well. I also see childlike. And lost comes to mind. Sweet. I look at the character's shape and I see timid. And questioning. And that's it. So I'm gonna start with what I could see here, and for me... At first I saw that as the head shape, but now, I'm actually seeing it as a hood. It's not actually... I'm just gonna mimic the shape that I see, and then go from there. And I kinda see these things as mittens. So it's sorta starts to feel like a snowsuit. And it doesn't, the shadow shape doesn't have feet, so I'm gonna give it, I'm gonna give it feet. I think I'll give it boots because I think it's winter. I think this character is outdoors. And I don't know. There's a problem though. And I don't know what it is yet, but this character either feels lost, or has lost something. Now, I don't know who's in there. If this is a fuzzy hood, who is inside of this little snowsuit? Maybe the mittens. And you can, you guys can feel free to enlarge things, shrink them down, change, once you've drawn your shadow shape, you know, you can riff off of it. Don't feel like you have to be wedded to follow exactly what you started. You know, you can exaggerate and change. This is just a jumping off point to get you going. So I don't know, because everything is so round, I keep feeling like... Little round tummy. I sort of feel like this character would have, maybe a pointy shape. Maybe it's like a... Like, maybe it's a little fox. And the reason why I think pointy is because everything is round, so I want something that'll contrast that initial shape.

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!