Illustrator Alfonso De Anda on how to create playful, whimsical characters

Stay loose when sketching, pour doodles onto paper and stay open to whatever comes out, Alfonso says. Later you can refine.

Alfonso De Anda is a Mexican illustrator currently living between Mexico and New York City whose whimsical characters, sketchbook linework and bright colour palette have us hooked, as well as a number of clients including Vans, Absolut Vodka, Nike and magazine BeerAdvocate. After recently graduating from the School of Visual Arts' (SVA) MFA illustration programme, Alfonso dabbles in creating editorial illustrations, animation, advertising,T-shirt design, magazines, murals and posters – it seems there's nothing he won't turn his hand to.

Describing his style as a mix of "mellow folk music and angry dudes yelling at a microphone while exploring around a constructions site", Alfonso says his greatest inspiration is life itself – something he's increasingly more aware of as an influence.

"I used to work mostly from my imagination and lately something clicked. I’m pulling content from my life in a way that I hadn’t before and it’s blowing my mind."

Going out with friends, food, colour palettes seen on the streets of New York, and of course, funny dogs all have the potential to be later told as a story or illustration, he says.

"I find it super inspiring to see other artists work that gets me excited. It makes me want to chase that excitement with my own work and creating something myself that delivers it. I’m a junkie for that feeling."

What we love most about Alfonso’s illustrations are his larger-than-life characters. He has always been interested in cartoons and it’s one of the reasons why he started to draw. You’ll see men with bright green hair and pink skin crop up in his work a lot, long skinny legs and eyes that pop out of heads.

Aside from Googling 'silhouettes character design' and 'volume hierarchy', he gives three tips for character design.

"Try to notice that moment when you feel like, 'Yes! I just hit something interesting' – try to understand what that is. Maybe it’s the way you interpret X or Y, but notice what makes you feel nice. Just be careful not to use it as a crutch,” he says.

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"Another thing that works for me is staying loose when sketching and not labelling what I'm drawing as good or bad – that comes later. Just pour doodles onto paper and stay open to whatever comes out; later you can refine.

"Lastly, try to understand your characters. Think about their personality, how they would talk, how would they walk, who they hang out with and what kind of music they listen to."

Because of the vibrant, cheeky nature of his characters, they work perfectly as animations or GIFs as well. Before studying, Alfonso was working full-time on a series development and art directing at animation studio Mighty in Guadalajara, México.

Alfonso starts most of his projects the same way – doodling with a pencil and sketchbook.

“Once I have a sketch that I’m satisfied with I bounce between digital and analog for making the final. Sometimes I’ll create textures or linework with analog materials and scan them – or sometimes if I’m in a hurry – I’ll work fully digital.

"By this point, if I haven't already, I choose a colour palette. This depends on what the end product will be; whether it will be printed and what printing process, if it will be animated or stay in the digital world.

"At some point I’ll hit a place I call 'the hater stage', which is where I think, 'What I’m making is crap'. I buckle down and keep going, hoping to get out of it quickly. After everything is coloured I step back and make minor adjustments," he says.

"Lately I’ve been working with risograph and screenprinting so I’ll buy paper, cut, mix inks if it’s screen printing or print – it’s a whole separate thing from drawing but I love it."

Alfonso is about to enter an artist residency at the RisoLAB – an interdisciplinary space for printing, publishing and production of risograph-based printed works in New York. He’ll be printing his next zine, Burnt Mountain.

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Despite only recently graduating from SVA, Alfonso has an impressive client list. He says self-promotion is about reaching out to people you want to work with.

"Knock on doors and grow a little bit of an elephant skin for when no one opens up or the door gets slammed in your face.

"One thing I try to do is find ways for people to remember I exist. Making promotional items that can be used somehow, not just looked at. I really like making merch and that makes great promotional work.

"Also stay active, make the things you want to make and then tell people you made them."

Alfonso keeps himself busy. He’s teaching a life drawing and zine-making workshop in México, before making an appearance Comic Arts Brooklyn and Mocca Arts Festival.

He's also putting together a project called Flat Joe's, an online store of his own merch and limited edition items.