Teach me to become a video game cartoonist
March 5, 2011 8:19 AM   Subscribe

How do I draw cartoony illustrations when my background is realism?

I grew up taking private watercolor lessons. Got pretty good copying paintings off postcards. Tried to draw comic books in grade school. Could draw monsters great but people and building and such looked weird. Took life drawing in college, got pretty good at that. Became a graphic designer, got good at Illustrator and Photoshop.

Now I have a job where I'm doing art for a video game. Style: think Angry Birds, World of Goo. Stylized, yet somewhat rendered, not flat.

I have to create a lot of art. A LOT. OF ART. All in a similar style. Although I'm okay with the style being somewhat fluid/changing a bit per level.

Sometimes I can do the cartoony thing. Sometimes I try and it comes out realistic. What I'd love is a book like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that will help me learn how to shift in and out of cartoony mode. Almost as good: specific tricks or rules of thumb that work often that I can just try until I get back into the flow on days where I'm making things too lush and gorgeous.

I don't need how to modify line weight, colorize, step by steps or
"draw this circle, this circle, then everything else." I need a breakdown of the principles.

Sample problem—how to simplify. I have to draw a building exterior, what do I keep, what do I exaggerate, what do I ignore?

There's a larger question regarding art direction and how to keep things in the same style when that style is ill defined, but I'll save that for next week.
posted by Brainy to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I find that so much of drawing depends on muscle memory and observation that it's difficult to quantify, but I have generally found the following to be true of producing stylised, less realistic drawings:
- exaggerate features/elements or eliminate them all together (Are the windows rectangular? Stretch them out. Shiny? Add a lens flare. For a character, change the shape and size of the eyes, nose, etc.)
- bolder line quality (I generally identify a heavier line with cartoony styles, but even a line that changes weight a lot, like turning a calligraphy pen, or a crooked line can be found in lots of children's books' illustrations.)
- a limited colour palette and defined shapes (e.g. instead of fading out a shadow, make it a solid black blob)

One thing I think is really helpful when trying to change the way you draw is to take a few examples of someone else's art that you appreciate and try to mimic them. That way your hand will get used to a different sort of movement, and naturally you'll pick up and discard properties that you like and dislike along the way so it won't look like a copy. If you're worried it might look too similar, pick a couple of artists with different styles and try to do a mix.
posted by droolshark at 8:33 AM on March 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: droolshark, that "copy, then do your own" thing is something I should have tried. Unfortunately, now that we're deep into production, it's tough to find the time. Still, maybe just taking screen shots on the iPad and tracing them in Brushes while on the subway be good enough to kick start the process.
posted by Brainy at 8:44 AM on March 5, 2011

Think more symbolically, eliminate extraneous details, when you think of the cartoon house picture it's 4 paned windows that are a staple of symbolic descriptives for houses. Or like hair, many illustrators just have the symbolic scribble of lines on top of the head. We all know that hair is on top of the head, so the scribbles are seen as "hair" without any effort...
posted by Max Power at 8:45 AM on March 5, 2011

For me, it helps to start out in a realistic style and then work from there. Exaggerate features, harden shading and highlights. Leave out finer details. Outlines are usually frowned upon in realistic drawing classes because it makes everything look too cartoony. So, outlines are exactly what you need in cartoons. You said you didn't want step-by-step instructions, but it's kind of necessary to explain the principle I'm talking about here. So, say you're drawing a building - like the Chrysler Building in Manhattan - you might draw the general shape, but only draw three fat arcs on the top instead of the actual number to scale. Maybe draw the triangle details on those arcs but leave out the finer art deco lines. From there, draw some black rectangles for windows, but just scatter a few windows here and there. The idea is that the viewer's brain will fill in the others. You're basically making the whole thing easier to visually consume. That's kind of the essence of cartoon figures like in Angry Birds and such. Exaggerations and simplicity.
posted by katillathehun at 8:48 AM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Forgot to mention - what often helps is to look at a photograph of the sort of thing you're wanting to draw, but look at it for no more than, say, 2 seconds. Then draw only what you remember, which is going to be the strongest details in that image. Unless you have a photographic memory, in which case this wouldn't work.
posted by katillathehun at 8:50 AM on March 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Try making yourself to draw very quickly, little gesture-like sketches that take no more than a few seconds. This forces you to simplify and streamline. Do it over and over and over again -- fill whole pages of sketchbooks -- until it starts to look fluid and comfortable. Then you can go back in and refine the drawings, tidy up the lines and smooth out the curves.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:52 AM on March 5, 2011

Response by poster: katilla...that second one is BEAUTIFUL. Exactly the sort of practical examples I need. It's easy to say "simplify" but it's so easy to start on one Chrysler arc and then once I'm in the flow I keep going until I have just as many as the photo.

Basically, to restate the original question in one sentence: How do I turn off the realism part of my talent?

Are there any art forums where I could post stuff to get critiqued by professionals in this sort of style? I wouldn't mind posting them here, if anybody's interested, but that seems a lot less like what AskMeFi is for.
posted by Brainy at 9:10 AM on March 5, 2011

The 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain' for cartoons is probably Preston Blair's animation books.

Like others have said:

-- do copies of the sort of drawing you want to emulate. Good sources for inspiration are the Character Design Blog and Drawn.ca, Cartoon Modern
-- look for the simplest geometric shape underlying a form (Fosters is great for this) and just draw that. Straight lines are straight, curved lines are simplest possible single curve. Drop all detail that does not convey the essential shape, and keep a clean overall sillouette for the whole. Contemporary cartooning comes from the same movement as modernism-- watch some UPA shorts.
-- exaggerate contrasts-- big head, tiny body, long legs, short body, etc. Then exaggerate them more.

Good luck!
posted by Erasmouse at 9:26 AM on March 5, 2011

I doodle a lot. Lots of little cartoony animals, people, whatever. I wouldn't say I'm some great cartoonist or anything, but people seem to like what I do and think I'm pretty good. So here's my method:

The internet is a great resource.

Let's say I want to draw a picture of a couple of porcupines with human characteristics. I google "porcupine" and see what the main attributes--what sticks out to me--of a real-life porcupine are. OK, cool. He's got those crazy quills, a pretty rockin' mohawk, and beady little eyes.

Then I google "porcupine cartoon" and see what there is to offer. This guy's pretty funny looking. Not what I'm going for, but cute nonetheless, emphasizing the large quills and showing how tiny his head is in comparison. This one is interesting. I like how they've rendered him standing up like a dude, but that face really isn't my thing. One more. I like how this guy's quills are sketched in.

But now I have something to work with. I know what I want to see in a porcupine drawing, and I know how a few other people have accomplished their porcupine drawings. And so I draw mine.

And so on. Pay attention to what others have done, notice what works and what doesn't, and see how you can apply it to your own interpretation of what you're trying to draw. That's what I do.


I also have a couple of eyeball/nose combinations (round googly eyes, tiny beady eyes, eyes with Charlie Brown-style worry lines around them, snouts, etc) that I've used and perfected to my liking over the years that I can trot out whenever someone demands a drawing. You can basically throw a good eyeball/nose combination down on any old blob-shaped body and make it look emotive. (This is very handy if you get thrust into a role where you need to entertain a large group of children for a few minutes.) So in addition to looking at the work of others, I would also practice a lot on drawing a couple of standard facial expressions.

And for godsake have fun! Don't get too worked up about drawing just the right cartoon...you've gotta let it flow!
posted by phunniemee at 9:30 AM on March 5, 2011

Best answer: Practice. There is no quick way to learn a new form of art.

You got very good at other forms of art by practice. You weren't good at life drawing until you practiced in college, right? And you weren't good at manipulating images with Photoshop until you practiced, right? It sounds like you just never had the time to really practice cartoon art for long periods of time, so you never really good at it. Sounds normal. Don't look it as a right-brain/left-brain thing, just look at it as something new to learn. Had you spent the same amount of time you spent water-coloring while you were growing up as you did in drawing comics or cartoons, I'm sure you would have been just as good at it.

It's hard to exaggerate features and make things look cartoony when you even don't know where to start. So start with the basics. Copy something cartoony that you like. I find that people learn drawing techniques faster if they draw something that already exists that they really like, like their favorite comic book character.
Find some cartoony art that you like and/or admire and draw copies and copies of them. Alter the designs a little bit, put them in new poses or angles, add your piece of flare to them, tinker with them, change them up a bit. After a while, you will start creating original cartoony art on your own. You like angry birds? Draw some angry birds. Plagiarize the art styles. This is all for your personal practice, so you can copy whatever you want. However, when you start publishing work for the real world, you can be more original.

If you're pressured for time, then you have a lot of homework on you hands. Treat it like a crash-course in college. I know that sounds like tough-love, but there is no easy way out of this other than practice, practice, practice.
posted by nikkorizz at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2011

Response by poster: If you're pressured for time, then you have a lot of homework on you hands. Treat it like a crash-course in college.
I very much am! I just want to know the textbooks!
posted by Brainy at 9:44 AM on March 5, 2011

There's a lot of blogs out there that talk about the principals of cartooning. I read Rad Sechrist's and John Kricfalusi's regularly. Their blogs contain links to other cartoony ways of thinking. I find the posts about contrasting shapes and construction hierarchy the most useful so I've linked specific posts on those.
posted by Mister Cheese at 10:01 AM on March 5, 2011

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is really good for observational illustration. But there's a second "pincer" of this that RSotB tends to gloss over. You know all that "this is a nose" "this is an eye" stuff that the exercises in RSotB are meant to overcome? To do cartoon illustration, you actually do need to bring that back in to the fold. But you have to bring them back in with an understanding of what a nose or eye really looks like, based on what you've learned from your improved observation.

Look up the JohnK blog for any post where he's talking about "hierarchy of forms." That's what all those "draw this circle, this circle, then everything else," things are about.

Here's another good blog for cartoony drawing theory:
posted by RobotHero at 10:07 AM on March 5, 2011

What I'd love is a book like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that will help me learn how to shift in and out of cartoony mode.

Sounds like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.
posted by ovvl at 10:24 AM on March 5, 2011

Response by poster: These are all great resources. I used to subscribe to John K's blog...and I have reread Understanding Comics every year since it came out. Scott's a genius for sure.

In the interest of time, I'd love recommendations on specific articles because the entire history of a blog can be a bit daunting. But still valuable of course.

You guys are so great.
posted by Brainy at 10:32 AM on March 5, 2011

Have you tried the Famous Artists Cartoon Course?
It features instruction from Al Capp, Milt Caniff, and Rube Goldberg. If you're looking to learn "big foot cartooning" it has a lot to offer.
posted by lilnemo at 11:01 AM on March 5, 2011

The Andrew Loomis Fun with A Pencil has good instruction for building characters from simple rounded forms. It'll be downloadable from somewhere - the availability of his books seems to move around. It's written for an enthusiastic novice, but all his books have value for people who are looking to improve their fundamental drawing skills.

My style was always cartoony, but when working from photo source I still struggle between a need to be faithful to what I see and creating the impression I desire. There is no formula for how reality should be shifted. There are lots of styles of illustration that can be considered cartoony - from flat colours with outlines to heavily modelled, from forms built with simple symbols to realistic forms exaggerated and distorted. If you're already comfortable with technique for creating realistic art, then it may be more a matter of you finding a style of cartoon art that appeals to you (and your employer) and requires the skills you already excel at, and then doing a lot of doodling and practice.

When I grew up there were books in the library that taught drawing through building from the inside with circles and squares. But the examples in those books were usually so lifeless and dull that I was sceptical of their instruction. It's only now, many years later, that seeing the work and advice of animators on their blogs has inspired me to start actively thinking much more about shapes and forms when drawing. I try to look for basic shapes now, and then play around at modifying them.
posted by TimTypeZed at 12:30 PM on March 5, 2011

This post may help.
posted by Artw at 1:12 PM on March 5, 2011

The 'Art of...' books for major animated films are well worth flipping through. All the concept art inside shows the approaches of many different talented artists and sometimes discusses the reasoning behind their choices. Drawings are for both characters and environments. The design decisions those artists need to make to create a coherent yet stylized cartoonish world might relate to the choices you need to make in your video game work.
posted by TimTypeZed at 1:45 PM on March 5, 2011

A couple of things that have been linked at Mefi over the years (click through the "drawing" tag if you want to lose couple of hours!):

Thoughts on drawing for storyboards, Dave Pimentil of Dreamworks animation reflects on Bill Peet

Comic Strip Artist's Toolkit by Carson Van Osten
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:00 PM on March 5, 2011

Famous cartoonists of the 1940s draw their characters while blindfolded - a nice look at how few elements are required to make the canonical cartoon face.

One exercise you could try would be to give yourself a line budget: you get to make 5 lines. Get a list of 20 concrete nouns - you have to make a drawing of that noun using only 5 lines.

For inspiration, take a look at some Al Hirschfeld caricatures. For many of them he's using only a very few swoopy lines to convey something quite complicated about a person.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:44 PM on March 5, 2011

I love to draw but have the opposite problem from you. I can only draw cartoony stuff. I wish I could draw realistically.

I don't know if my technique will help you, because it's not like I try to do it. It's all I CAN do. But, who knows, maybe you can adapt it somehow: basically, I don't draw from life at all. I don't even try to draw from life and then exaggerate features or whatever.

Rather, I have a set of symbols that I use again and again: eyes are circles with dots in the middle, a nose is a big blob, etc. I have a few different eyes and noses (and mouths and bodies...) and I mix and match them. Same with trees, houses, etc.

Try sitting down and drawing 25 cartoon eyes. Just a page of eyes. Then draw 25 cartoon mouths. You know, a curve for a smile, an O for a surprised look, a mouth with dracula fangs, etc. Draw a whole bunch of parts like this and then randomly mix them to make a creature.

Take a look at explodingdog.com, too. I think he basically uses this technique. He has developed a whole symbolic language for himself.

Think of drawing as if you're building muppets for the Jim Henson company, and you can't make anything new. You have to use a bunch of premade hands and feet and heads and noses that are lying around. But you can choose from many different ones.
posted by grumblebee at 3:55 PM on March 5, 2011

Think of cartoons as simplifying visual presentation. The details you want (and of course in a stripped down style there are far fewer details) should be carefully selected as to preserve the visual feel of something. That means that only the identifying visual characteristics of something are there. Looking at Angry Birds, I see the artist has included eyes, a beak, and two feathers, surrounding that with a round shape. A real bird has a lot more identifying characteristics to choose from, but if I could only choose three then I would choose these. They have the minimal amount to see them as birds, even if they are oddly round like bowling balls.

Important aspects of cartoons (that I can think of)
-strong silhouette or shape
-typically geometric - lots of squares, circles
-consistant lines (mostly of one kind: straight, curved or slightly curved)
-more weighty lines on outline, less on interior
-larger than normal face and eyes
-smaller body relative to face
-exaggerated expressions
-underlying skeleton or form is very simple
-deformable body shape/skeleton to emphasize action/position
-strong, simple colors
-no excess details that don't contribute to the 'look'

Even realism is a style. You have your framework of form that you place your myriad details on top of that make it realistic. However no matter how detailed and realistic you are, you are still translating some incredibly complex thing into a lesser version of itself. You select to include that stray bit of hair or a bit of shadow, or merge it with some other bit, or else you choose to leave it out all together. A person for example, is infinitely detailed, there's so many tiny muscles and bits of skin and things. And you would never want to draw all of those - there wouldn't be much point. (In fact it would probably look ghastly) It's all choice and selection and translating how things look on to a page.

The main caveat in attempting to go from realism to cartoons is the allure of adding too much detail or small graphic niceties. In something that will be viewed small or moving, these will only be distracting or invisible. Worse, they may muddle up your strong visual look. Going back to Angry Birds, trying to push things so that the gently rounded underside of a bird for example, becomes a big ol' circle will seem to be rather lacking in subtlety or softness. That's to be expected, even emphasized in cartoons.

I suggest trying to draw things multiple times, stripping away or simplifying things as you go. Also take a good look at the sort of art/artists you wish to emulate and see how they approach these cartooning aspects in the list.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 12:53 AM on March 6, 2011

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