Mel Brooks was on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked, as Mel was writer, producer, director, and actor, what was the hardest part of making a movie? Without missing a beat, Mel replied, “The hardest job is punching all the little holes in the sides of the film so it’ll go through the projector.”
I was giving a talk on comics at a local school, and during the question and answer session, one of the parents in attendance asked: “How do you make the people look the same from one drawing to the next?” Good question. Real good question. In fact, maybe the best question, because – in comics – if your characters look different in each panel, you’ve negated the whole notion of sequential art. And to tell the truth, it’s a question I’d never been asked before. It was a question I’d never given much thought too.
I knew what my homework assignment was. How do you make the people look the same from one drawing to the next?
Consistency in the look of a character is such a primal, instinctive element of comics art, not much thought is given to it. I honestly cannot recall ever – ever – having read a piece on it in any of the many, many books about drawing or cartooning that I’ve read over the years. It’s so very basic, the knowledge is, perhaps, assumed. So, just how is it accomplished?
Well, like many things in art, it depends on the artist. Some have a personal “Central Casting.” They have standard looks for heroes, heroines, thugs, villains, femmes fatale, and many of the stock characters that appear in adventure stories. The basic physiognomy is the same and details like hair style and color, costume, and shape of nose and eyebrows are given minor alterations to create a difference between characters. Artists who use photo reference or models refer to the images they have and either copy or trace them to maintain consistency.
But what if the artist doesn’t use reference and tries to make his people look different? Tries to create a character that will be immediately recognizable, without the benefit of a brightly colored spandex suit to help identify him or her? That’s my goal, and it’s not easy, and it’s not always successful.
To examine my personal approach we have to fire up the ‘ol RetroSpectroScope™ and travel back through the Mists of Time… to my freshman year of high school. To graduate from my school back in those days, you had to have at least one credit in “Practical Arts.” This could have meant a business course. This could have meant typing. This could’ve meant cooking, or personal finance, or auto repair, or – the course I took – General Shop.
Shop was a course designed to teach you how to safely use tools and to plan and build rudimentary projects. At the time, my dad was a carpenter, so I already knew most of this stuff and figured the class would be an easy credit.
I was right. It was.
But then the teacher threw me a curve that ended up benefitting me more than just earning the class credit. Because the first two weeks of General Shop were spent learning about mechanical drawing. Now, mechanical drawing is used to visualize machines, machine parts, tools, buildings – anything that is manufactured or constructed, that’s mechanical drawing, right? And this process starts with a precise, detailed drawing of the object to be built. Since the object is going to be manufactured, actually created, it needs to be drawn from all angles, in order to record what shape and size the components need to be.
Much of the class consisted of being given a drawing or a picture of something from one specific angle, and then drawing that same object for a different, specified angle. At first blush, this sounds enormously difficult, but if you apply a little logic and common sense, the key to how this is accomplished becomes obvious.
Goes like this: everything you draw, every thing you draw, is composed of basic shapes. A sphere. A cube. A cone. A cylinder. Basic shapes, shapes that are easy to reproduce. Shapes that are easy – with practice – to draw from different angles. When drawing a machine or a tool, this becomes far more apparent than when you’re drawing an animal, or a tree, or a human being, but the basic truth remains. How these shapes look from other angles is easy to imagine. This applies to everything you draw, even a person’s face.
I don’t need to go into the mechanics of drawing a face. You can find that in every book that’s ever been published on the subject. But, in essence, when you draw a face, you’re drawing a collection of basic shapes composed in a singular way. The eye is a sphere. The nose is a wedge. While it’s more complex than most things you’ll attempt to draw, the same rules apply. The differences occur in the distances between the objects and their relative size to each other. Thus, this character has a high forehead. That one, there, has a flat nose. This one over here, her eyes are close together.
It’s like playing with Mr. Potato Head. No matter what angle it’s viewed from, the eyes will maintain the same position and distance from the other shapes on the potato. Even when drawing the face from a foreshortened angle (meaning, from above or below), the shapes don’t change. The trick is figuring out the distances between them and what they look like from that position.
Now, let’s take this a step further. Another place to see mechanical drawing at work is in animation design. Animated characters must be designed in a manner that allows them to be reproduced by hundreds of artists, thousands of times, without variation. They’re composed of the same basic shapes mentioned before, arranged in very specific combinations. The designs, as a rule, are simplified, but the theory applies. In fact, the animation model could be used as an aid in character design. Start with very simple components, and when those are established and easy to reproduce, you can add all the copious detail you want. Just be sure the detail is the same shape and in the same place every time.
Consistency in character design is like anything else: the more you do the more comfortable you’ll be. As a rule of thumb, it is essential to draw model sheets of your characters. Take the time to make precise studies and draw the face from all angles and exhibiting as many emotions as you can think of. Add to the sheets constantly. Study the drawings. What works for the character you’re creating? What doesn’t?
Remember, this isn’t just a design. This is a character, and some of what that character is and what they represent should show in their design. Creating characters like this is some of the most fun comics can offer an artist. Enjoy yourself. Have fun with it.
I now return you to your regular programming.