11 character art tips from top illustrators

How the likes of Anima Boutique, Docvek, Jam Factory, Joanne Harker and Showchicken bring personality to portraits of people, animals and other characters.


(Barcelona, Spain)

“We don’t use a scientific formula to create our characters, which are positive and optimistic; indeed that feeling comes naturally when we draw them. We’ve tried to do a retrospective analysis, and have identified some common aspects in all of them.

"For example, they are usually walking in a manner reminiscent of classic slapstick cartoons. Also, they always seem to be smiling, even if they are missing some face parts or don’t have a face at all. A surreal detail, or touch of humour can be found in all of them.”

Read on for more tips.

Anima Boutique


“The eyes are the windows to the soul, and how they are drawn expresses any number of emotions. Their size and position conveys something about your character: bigger eyes tend to give a sense of childishness or childlike wonder, smaller ones a sense of seriousness and depth, wide-set eyes gives a sense of oddity, while close-set eyes are often comic.”

Dan Woodger 


“If I need a character to look as if he’s been up to no good, I’ll tilt the eyebrows up in the middle, raise the bottom of the eyelids and give him a big toothy smile. To finish, I’ll add a bead of sweat to emphasise the guilt.”

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“Start with a flat simple abstract shape for a head, and then add simple shapes on top to create eyes and other features. I recommend using Illustrator to ‘shave’ or ‘etch’ into the main shape, as if you’re cutting lino or sculpting clay. This gives characters an organic, handmade feel where the boundary between positive and negative space becomes blurred.”

Gal Shkedi  

(Tel Aviv, Israel)

“Use a reference – never work only from your mind. Take photos of people that might make good source material; for example, the style of their clothes, their hairstyle and, of course, the face. Even if your character isn’t human, think of the world that its DNA is coming from, be they bacteria, germs, underwater creatures, wild animals, and so on. Once you start using reference material, your characters will become more diverse. 

“Another tip is to consider the design boundaries of your character; try to see how far the eyes can be from each other, what’s the best balance between the size of the head and the rest of the body?”

JamFactory (aka Gavin Strange) 


“Play to your strengths. Personally, I can’t illustrate characters in mid-motion; I will never be a designer that can draw an elaborate set of characters to express movement, so for me the key is to keep it simple. My most elaborate design so far has been Shirley Creamhorn & Shithawk, a girl in a parka jacket with a poo on her head – that’s about as complex as it gets.”

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Joanne Hawker 


“You can change the emotion of your character in a variety of ways. One of these is the introduction of eyebrows and the way they are positioned. Take Mrs Foxly, for example; without eyebrows she looks calm and content (left), however, with the introduction of eyebrows, you can make her upset or super angry (middle and right respectively). This concept applies to all characters – give it a try.”

Motomichi Nakamura 


“When I design my characters, I start off by drawing eyes. It’s because I think they are the most important part of our emotional expression, and you can tell a person’s emotions by looking at their eyes. Once I’m happy with the eyes, I look into them and imagine myself standing right in front of the creature and start drawing the rest.”

Ryan Bubnis 


“I love the challenge of showing feeling and emotion through simplified gestures and line work. I begin by sketching, creating shapes and trying out different features until I arrive at something I would like to further develop.”

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“Always start with simple shapes; squares are good for a strong and bold character, while triangles are perfect if you need it to be scary. To make a friendly character like Mortimer use smooth curves.

"It’s also a good idea to exaggerate the expressions. Use any part of the face to give life to your character, such as dishevelled hair or teeth with gaps between them. Another tip is to draw gesture sequences and experiment with movement.”

Showchicken (aka Nick Sheehy)  


“I try to stumble into a design or a character; piecing odd parts together and teasing out the context. I draw many different variations of a character until I’m happy that they are interesting and different.

"Having the drafting skills to realise a character in various dimensions requires practice, but is invaluable in creating believability and atmosphere.”