Character Design: Keeping it in Proportion

This is my third blog post about character design. This topic will build upon my previous two topics on character design, appeal and line quality.

Proportion is one of the more technical aspects of character design and I thoroughly enjoy breaking characters down and figuring out how each feature in their design relates to one another.

Basic knowledge of anatomy is important, and doing your research beforehand is incredibly helpful – that’s part of the appeal!

Take a real emu for example.


Some things to note about a real emu’s anatomy are the big, bulky body shape covered in long feathers, long neck, and very long legs.

Compare that to everybody’s favorite ninja emu, Master Sazuke.

3D Sazuke

Granted, Master Sazuke is a very stylized character, however he still retains some of those same characteristics I mentioned from a real emu. I’d like to start by proportionally breaking down each of his defining features.

Heads, Not Feet: Cartoon characters are typically measured in “heads” and their other body parts/features can also be measured in relation to their head size.

Emus are rather tall, and Master Sazuke is the tallest of my main canon of characters; he’s approximately 7 heads tall.

In relation to Sazuke’s head, some other things you can note based on his head size are:

  • Sazuke’s hands are about one head in size.
  • Sazuke’s arm is about 2 heads long, from shoulder to base of the hand.
  • Sazuke’s legs are about 2 heads tall from his hip to the base of his foot.
  • Sazuke’s feet are about 2 heads long.
  • Sazuke’s neck is about 2 heads long from his shoulders to the bottom of his chin.
  • Sazuke’s body is about 2 and a half heads wide and 2 heads tall.

As you can see, the head is a very useful way to measure your characters.

Heads, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes

Let’s take a look at another character from the classic Schmitty’s Toons! family, Dippy Duck:

Dippy Duck 3D

Obviously, ducks are much smaller than Emus, so Dippy is only about 3 heads high (although his head size is quite a bit larger than Sazuke’s).

Just like the example of Master Sazuke, a few other things you can note about Dippy based on his head size are:

  • Dippy’s body is roughly the same size as his head from the front view.
  • Dippy’s body is two heads long from the side view.

In addition to his head, you can use some of Dippy’s other features to measure some of his other features.

Tip: Using a sheet of scrap paper, you can make marks to help you measure your character’s features.

For starters, the height of Dippy’s eyes are roughly the same as the height of his wings.

The width of Dippy’s eyes correlate to quite a few of his features:

  • Typically, the distance between a character’s eyes is equal to one eye length (this is true of most humans as well).
    • Dippy has one eye length between his eyes at the bridge of his bill, as well as the top of his brows (below his tuft of feathers).
  • Dippy’s neck is also about the same length as the width of his eye.

Perfectly Proportioned, But…

I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of artists in my career. I always find it interesting because each artist learns and approaches this same concept differently.

One artist that I had the pleasure of working with unfortunately went a little overboard measuring every little detail of their characters in my opinion. It got to the point where it became more of a geometric drawing, instead of a character drawing. This unfortunately made their drawings look very stiff. While they still were both proportionally accurate and very good drawings, the characters lacked some of their appeal due to the stiffness. Remember, to try to still keep it loose and don’t go overboard with your measuring!

As you can see, characters are full of lots of patterns and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Every character can be broken down just like these two, and many more patterns can be found in the design. Understanding these concepts will help you create more appealing drawings and ultimately more successful characters.

Schmitty out.


Character Design: Line Quality

This is my second blog post about character design. In this entry, I would like to speak towards line quality, its effect on appeal (from my previous post), and how it can make or break a character.

To be honest, this is the one area of character design I’ve often struggled with maintaining consistently. I think that is why I chose it as my second topic, because it is so important, and I have difficulty with it as an artist myself. Sure, I can still draw and many of the characters are mostly appealing, but the drawings that have nice line quality always stick out as better than the ones that don’t. Why is that?

More often than not, I’ve noted that my line quality has a direct correlation to the physical state of my body. When my body is achy and stiff, my lines are stiff; when my body is loose, my lines are much more fluid. The fluid lines are generally more appealing and have much more life to them than the stiff ones.

This is why I always encourage artists to loosen their joints before they draw – shoulders, backs, arms, wrists, fingers, and whole body in general. Stretching, rotating your shoulders & wrists, and bending your fingers & elbows will all help with this.

In addition to loose lines, pressure is a common challenge I also see quite often. People commit to their lines often too early in their artwork by pressing down on the paper too hard with their utensil. I generally recommend starting with very light lines, applying very little pressure at first, and gradually building them up from there. As you are building up the darker lines on the lighter ones, make sure you are making intentional and conscious choices where you are placing them. It’s easy to get lost in your imagination and completely forget about what you’re doing on your paper.

Tip: I often find drawing with your less dominant hand can help you concentrate more and think more critically about your drawing technique and what choices you are making. It’s easy to get lost in what’s comfortable!

Beware the “hairy line”!

One of the biggest challenges I sometimes face with my artwork is what I call the “hairy line”. This is a line that usually looks very scratchy with “hairs,” coming off of it due to layer upon layer built up, and often committing to the lines too early in the drawing or being unsure of their placement.

Here is an example of Dippy Duck from my sketch book of how that can happen:

Dippy - Hairy Line Work

Now many of you might think that this is great drawing, and it isn’t bad. It’s still appealing and very loose, which are some of the things that we want to see in our drawings. However if I were to redraw this same exact drawing with better line quality, here is what it would look like:

Much better. Both drawings retain their appeal, however one of these drawings is technically better and more polished than the other.

Tip: Sometimes tracing is a useful technique to clean up line work, or to get a general feel for the lines involved in a character. Don’t be ashamed to trace – all the best artists do it!

Thick and Thin

Something else to consider when you are drawing your characters, especially once you are cleaning up their line work, is the thickness and thinness of your lines. The thickness of your lines will make all the difference in the appeal of the character.

I have a background in 3D animation, so I like to think of thick and thin lines as a way to “light” your character in a 2D world. Generally speaking, a thicker line will denote a darker area and a thinner line will notate a highlight. For instance, a character with a thicker line at the top of their eyes will make the character appear to have a hint of an eyelid or a shadow, without you actually drawing one.

Thinner lines typically look better on the tapered ends of the lines, or areas that you do not want to carry so much weight, such as the inner eye shapes.

Line Quality - Eyes

You should also keep your thick and thin lines consistent throughout the character. if you draw a thick line on the top of the character’s eye, then the line for the eyebrow should be equally as thick, as well as the head and so on. This will create an overall balanced look throughout the character’s features.

Connect the Dots

The human brain is a wonderful and mysterious thing. You can use that to your advantage when it comes to line work. Not every line has to be connected like in a coloring book. Your brain will naturally try to find patterns in lines and connect them whenever it is possible. Sometimes all you need to do is hint that the line connects without actually connecting it and your brain will do the rest of the work!

This concludes most of my thoughts about line quality (for now) and its correlation to character design and appeal. It is quite possibly one of the most challenging things I do on a regular basis as a character artist and it is incredibly important in order to maintain the appeal and integrity of the character.

In the comments of this post, I would love for you to share your ideas about line quality and possibly any tips or tricks you might have to overcome the challenges that you face.

In my next Character Design blog, I will write all about proportion.

Schmitty out.