Friday, August 30, 2013

Thoughts on Character Design and Illustration

www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
Clockwise from left: 
Playing Card Man, March Hare, The Caterpillar, The Hatter
 
I like characters, and I like the process of drawing them. Studying characteristics and personality, thumbnailing poses, researching clothing and objects that support believability, and finally bringing them to a finish on a surface are all part of a process that is deeply satisfying.

www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
A detail of the March Hare, private collection.

To me, there seems a difference between character design for animation or games and character illustration for books or pictures.

 Character designers must focus on the upcoming theatricality of the character. Characters in animated film appear to be players--actors on a stage, often aware of their audience. This is especially apparent in animation since the 1980s. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it seems McPackaged.
In contrast, the illustration of a character from a book or legend is often built for a different purpose. The creation of such centers on a frozen moment in which that real character exists within his or her world. Most illustrated characters don't often seem conscious of the viewer, and seldom appear to be acting a part.

Here's a detail of the Playing Card Man. Private collection.

(By the way, I know there's a marked difference between a real actor and a poser--between a Cate Blanchette and some Snookie-thing. But now there's such a surplus of pretense in the world that it's leaking into every aspect of life. The actors/personalities (chefs?) on the Food Network, the local newscasters, and even some customer-service reps slam your eyes with pre-packaged stance, facial expression, and language patterns. For me, that's beyond tiresome. Don't get me wrong, I love the legitimate art of actors, theater, animation, and movies, and I appreciate that animation character design is a different art form than illustration. But I definitely dislike seeing reality TV phoniness infecting any of it.)

I guess that's why I find illustrated characters most refreshing. They often originate in the mind of an author, and come complete with personalities, yet they go about their business within their environment, just like people--ordinary or extraordinary--caught in a candid photograph.

When I conceived the look of the fellows above, I tried to keep Lewis Carroll's descriptions in mind.  The Hare (and the Hatter) have unpredictable, vaguely threatening, (thus potentially dangerous) personalities. The card men painting roses? They are Everyman--every worker forced to do mundane and often illogical tasks. I thought about how sullen I'd feel if my job was all about bending to every whim of a crazy, spoiled, hot-tempered queen.

www.tomsarmo.blogspot.com
A detail of The Caterpillar.
 
Anyway, I drew and inked these last year and somehow they got stashed in a box full of unfinished works. Now they are finished, and they'll be available at the upcoming Arvada Center Fine Art Show and Sale.

Thanks for the visit, and for letting me think out loud.

10 comments:

  1. These are just awesome, Tom! Thanks for sharing. Oh, if only I were a visionary like you. What a gift you have for imagination. Keep 'em comin'! Sincerely, Kathy

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    1. Thank you, Kathy--I will do my best! Thanks for checking out my blog. I very much appreciate your comment!

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  2. These are nice looking cards, Tom. you have a distinct style. I agree with everything you wrote but there is one part of animation design that is often overlooked; an animation character has to be turned and visualized in different angles, and all these views have to look the same on the character model sheets which become the 'bible' for the animators to work from. It's easy for a character to lose a lot of its oomph when it's redrawn to be more animate-able. There are guidelines to be followed, and the character must 'turn' logically in the views. On the other hand, when illustrating a single character there are no guidelines, and that figure is usually only seen once and from one side, so for that reason I find character illustration much more relaxing and enjoyable.

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    1. Thanks Ted. I appreciate your points on animation--it has to be a most difficult job. In picture book illustration the characters often have to be drawn in many angles and different positions as well, but it sounds like you are saying that the lifelike--or at least convincing--movement required by animation throws even more hazards into the mix. Question for you: Do you find character illustration is more relaxed/enjoyable then because there's less pressure on an illustrator to conform (both to the financial pressure of film making and to the expected "norms/prototypes" prevalent in commercial animation)? I just find myself disheartened by the banality and predictability in some character design. Then again, I don't get out much...

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  3. Oh, absolutely. Character designers are almost always drawing in the established style of the cartoon, not their own, and are subjected to scrutiny from the directors on top of that. They are constantly tweaking and changing their drawings for committee approval. Usually their initial roughs are very fresh and spontaneous but after going through the creative gauntlet the characters tend to be watered down to satisfy everyone. Not true in all cartoons but in most of them.
    I focus on background design mainly, not characters, and have always felt that it's more difficult than characters because of the amount of drawing involved.

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    1. Thanks for the answer, Ted--very illuminating. It doesn't sound much different than other commercial art jobs, although your term "creative gauntlet" sounds more like an "uncreative chainsaw". Been hit with a few of those myself. Your background designs (http://tedblackmanart.blogspot.com/ ) are very inspiring--you make it look easy.

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  4. These are awesome! So one time my brother Chris was working on cards to get into the illustration major here at BYU and it was dark and I spilled water all over his watercolor projects. I was so scared because he had worked so hard on his cards for so many hours. When he got home and saw his project he didn't come up for a few minutes (probably deciding how he was going to act) then came up to me, terrified of his wrath, and just gave me a hug. An impressive moment. He loved that you taught your classes to do cards and has done a few sets of them.

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    1. Thank you Nick :) You are a lucky fellow to have a brother as calm and collected as Chris--that's a great anecdote!

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