How to Draw Characters | Learn to Draw Characters like a Pro

In Art, Tutorials by Toni Justamante Jacobs

Characters are the first thing that I remember drawing when I was a kid. Back in the day, I used to copy my favorite TV cartoons: Goku, The Mutant Ninja Turtles, Macross, and many others. When I grew up and wanted to draw my own characters I discovered that this wasn’t as easy as I thought. 

Character development is a skill that requires not only to be able to draw well, also the right mindset and methodology. Of course, back in the day, I didn’t know anything about character development, I only knew that I wanted to create my own original characters, and I wasn’t successful at it. The reasons I wasn’t able to draw my own original characters and make them look as cool as the characters I used to watch in cartoons and videogames were my knowledge regarding human anatomy and my methodology when designing a character.

It took me years to reach the artistic level that I have today, but I wish I knew some of the things I will speak about in this article. But, before we move forward and unveil the methods and techniques that catapult me to the next level, allow me to introduce myself so you have a clear idea that I´m not speaking out of my ass here( excuse my language).

My name is Toni Justamante and I´ve been working as a professional concept artist and illustrator for the past 10 years. Most of my work has been done for editorials and video game studios. Some of my clients are Games Workshop, Gameloft, Fantasy Flight Games, Socialpoint, or Kunlun games, and my art has been featured in franchises like Warhammer 40k, Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Lord of the Rings, March of Empires, Dragon City and Lord of the Rings.

Now that you know me better, let’s get to the matter, do we?

Get your anatomy right

I know, I know, you already know that. In order to draw characters, you need to know about anatomy and more specifically human anatomy. You already heard that statement before, probably dozens of times. Nevertheless, this statement is true and is the main reason why probably your characters look goofy( if that is the case). 

Remember when I was telling you about how I used to copy my favorite cartoon characters when I was a kid. Guess what happened when I started to create my own characters?

 Yes, you are right! I had no image to copy from, and soon I discovered that copying something without understanding it wasn’t helping me develop the right skills to draw my own stuff.

So, after years of practice, lots of misses and errors, I understood that when drawing human anatomy you should differentiate between body proportions and muscle structure. Often beginner artists, confuse both or are aware that they should focus first on getting the proportions right before they start to build the muscle structure, but they get carried away by the fun factor of drawing the details first. I understand this feeling very well, I know how exciting it can be to draw a defined musculature or focus on drawing amazing face details that give personality to your character. The bad news is that you often end up with what I call a Frankenstein, a character with ultra defined muscles but with weird body proportions or with arms or legs drawn in a wrong perspective compared to the rest of the body. Or my favorite, what I like to call, “The Cardinal Sin of Anatomy Drawing”, a super detailed face paste to a body drawn in an uninteresting pose and with flat-looking anatomy. I´ve been guilty of the last one myself, many, many times.

Now that we established that getting the body proportions and pose right is the first thing you gotta do when starting drawing a character from scratch, let me tell you how I like to go about it.

My method is quite simple, create a dummy composed of simple geometrical shapes. Mostly cylinders of different sizes and thicknesses, spheres and squares. You should think about this dummy like the beams of a building. The beams are hidden under the different layers of concrete and bricks, but those beams are the reason why the building doesn’t fall apart.

The same way the dummy is the underlying structure that will secure the details drawn on top of it, like muscles, clothing, armor, etc…

I will like to stop here for a moment before I keep moving forward with this article. I want to introduce you to the course that I made on “How To Draw Characters”. In this step by step course, I dive deep into the body proportions principles I’ve been speaking about previously in this article, plus many other techniques that will help you develop the skills necessary to draw professional level like characters. If you wanna know more about this course please click the image below.

Once you have your dummy ready, you can draw the muscle structure on top of it. In reality, you can use the dummy lines, redrawing some parts of the dummy to make them look like muscles. The tubes we drew for the arms can become biceps and triceps and. In the same way, the tubes we drew for the legs can become quadriceps, femoral biceps, or calves muscles. In the head, we can use the lines we drew as references, like guidelines of where to draw the different facial features( nose, eyes, ears, etc…).

My advice here is to not overdraw or hyper detail the different muscle groups. First of all, you should consider the fact that if your character will be wearing any kind of costume or armor, all the work and dedication you could put into drawing each muscle perfectly will be totally lost when drawing the different layers of clothing on top of them. All the time and effort you dedicated will become pointless. And even if your character will wear very little clothing, over defining the musculature will leave your character looking like the skinned body examples you can find in medical webs. I don’t think this is the type of effect you want to achieve in your character drawings.

Learning how to avoid these types of mistakes is something that I taught in my course on “How To Draw Characters”.

Learn to gather references

This is one of the most important aspects of character development. The images you use as references will help you shape, first in your mind and later on the canvas, the final design of the character.

Often, this part of the process is totally overlooked and as a result, artists usually end up with uncharacteristic and unoriginal designs. To solve this, you should try to move away from conventional references, mostly from similar artwork done by other artists. Remember you need to avoid ending up copying other artists’ work. Producing original art requires you to find inspiration in unconventional designs. Try to find designs that communicate something unique, adapt them and make them fit into your drawing. 

For example, if you want to design a cool sci-fi armor, you can find inspiration in other people’s work, but you will end up with an armor that could be seen in many designs. But if you find inspiration in unorthodox places, you end up with something unique. In the case of the sci-fi armor, you can take inspiration from vacuum cleaners, hairdryers and shaving machines. If you don’t believe me just take a look at a home appliances catalog and start analyzing the shapes of the electro domestics. Very shortly, you will start seeing space ships, laser guns and lots of other cool things if you have enough imagination.

Developing your designing skills

Reading the title above it sounds quite obvious, designing skills are a must in order to achieve success when creating characters. But, and this is a big but, this other key success factor is not as straightforward as it sounds. Character development is a skill that requires the right creative process and most importantly, the right mindset. Is not just assimilating designing concepts and transfer them into your drawings, is also having the right attitude towards your creations and the openness of mind necessary. 

The first thing is to establish your creative process. For me, the most important thing is to gather the right references before you start drawing. This pre-production process will help you visualize your character before the drawing part begins. Surely, this mental image you could create of the character is only an idea that could be subjected to different modifications during the sketching process. This means that you don’t have to attach yourself too much to any preconceived notions and that you should be open to the new ideas that could appear during the drawing part.

This last statement links with what I was telling you about having the right mindset. Yes, having a great taste for aesthetics is very important, but being able to not attach yourself emotionally to your creations is equally, or if even more, important. Letting yourself free from any bond or link to your drawing gives you the flexibility and adaptability, otherwise impossible to have if we feel attached to our creation. I know, this can sound a little bit mystic, but in reality, this detachment from our creation often translates in a more objective point of view. We will be able to honestly analyze our drawing and ultimately perform the necessary corrections without fear or regret. 

In my early years as an artist, I used to be quite emotional about my creations. I used to take criticism of my work quite badly. This wasn’t the right mindset, not only because criticism is always helpful, most importantly it was affecting the quality of the work I was delivering. My inability to admit, even to myself, that some of my designing decisions weren’t the best, was the consequence of my excessive attachment to my own ideas. 

Thankfully, I was able to change my mindset. In my video course on “How To Draw Characters” you can see how I change my mind regarding clothing design several times during the creation process. Also, you could see how I like to create variations of one drawing, once it is completed. This helps me push the level of quality in my designs. You should iterate over one design many times. In the course, I even redesign the first character I drew during the first lectures, who is a knight, transforming him into a totally different character, closer to a Mad Max Warband type warrior.

Now that you know the theory, what’s next?

We are arriving towards the end of the article and you are maybe thinking that all this sounds great, as theory, but in reality, all this will be difficult to put into practice. Partially you are right. Learning a new skill is always challenging and requires dedication. You will need to make a real effort from, dedicate your self to the task, and be methodical about it. But if you do so and follow my advice, I´m 100 % convinced you will succeed. 

If you want me to keep helping you improve your character drawing skills far beyond what you learned in this article, let me remind you that I have an in-depth step by step course on “How To Draw Characters”. If you are interested in knowing more about the course you can check the video.

Toni Justamante Jacobs

About the author: Hi, I’m Toni Justamante Jacobs. I´m a professional Concept Artist and Illustrator with more than 10 years of experience in the industry. Some of my clients are Gameloft, Fantasy Flight Games, Kunlun Games and Games Workshop. Currently, I´m working at Socialpoint as an in-house Senior Concept Artist.