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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.