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: Appeal is Key

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I wanted to say in my first blog post after the initial redesign of the main website. I jotted down a list of ideas and I decided that the topic of this post is really the meat and potatoes about who I am as an artist and therefore a great place for me to start.

I’d like to share a few of my thoughts about character design and some of the things that I’ve learned from my experiences in doing it over the years.

In this blog posting, I will talk about a few principles of character design that all good character designers and artists in general understand. This will be the first in a series of on-going character design articles that I write and I hope it is informative for anyone who needs help or guidance in designing characters. Let’s get to it!

Appeal is key. If your character lacks appeal, he (or she) is un-relatable, which means that your audience will not connect or care about him/her. Think of your favorite character from your favorite movie or TV show. What is it about that character that appeals to you?

For the purposes of this article, I would like to use one of my own characters as an example. I’ve selected the puffin character seen in my logo and star of my college senior thesis project titled “Puffin Stuff.”


Naturally, the first thing I did when designing my puffin character was… wait for it… research!

Research will help you make your character more appealing and get to know what makes your character tick. You above all else need to understand and connect with your character first, otherwise no one else will!


My puffin may not have ended up looking exactly like a real puffin, but the design choices I made along the way helped add to his own unique appeal.

What makes a  puffin a puffin? Why are they so dang cute? Just looking at the picture above, the distinguishing characteristics are primarily in its very vibrant coloring. They are somewhat penguin-like with the white belly and black feathers. They have very bright orange colors in their webbed feet and distinguishing stripes on their beaks. There is a large, white mask around their eye and they have a plump cheek. Puffins have the ability to fly and they live in rocky areas near the sea in the northern hemisphere around the arctic circle (unlike penguins, which are in the southern hemisphere, ranging from the equator all the way down to the south pole).

Wow, I sure know a lot about Puffins (because I did my research)! This is just one example of how you can use research to influence the appeal in your character design.

The next thing to consider after you do your research (or during) is your character’s back story and personality. Who is your character? Where are they from? What makes them tick? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes your research will impact your character’s personality or vice versa. You can use these to influence the design of the character as well.

The things I knew about my puffin based on my original story treatment (sounds like an idea for a future blog post!) was that he was very persistent and he would have to be a pretty smart puffin in order to solve the challenges he faced while he was visiting a beach where they do not allow animals.

Steal from the best. In this day in age, it’s a practical impossibility to come up with a completely 100% original idea. Everyone on the planet is taking inspiration from something, which was created by someone at some point or another. The difference is to innovate the original and change it to make it your own.sniffles

I learned this from Chuck Jones at an early age. When Chuck first started animating for Warner Bros., he was almost fired because his Sniffles the Mouse cartoons were too “cute” in comparison to the edgier cartoons that the other directors at the studio were creating. Chuck Jones later admitted to actually stealing his whole animation style from Disney because Disney was the only one at that time doing it successfully. He had no one else to turn to for inspiration back then, so he “stole from the best”. His words. Looking at it in retrospect, the Sniffles the Mouse cartoons from Chuck Jones were certainly more appealing and they stood the test of time more-so than the zany, goofy, rubber hose shorts did (this was pre-Bugs and Daffy). Chuck would eventually develop his own iconic style, but he used Disney as a jumping off point for his success.

When approaching your character, and in particular to appeal, look at what has been done before. What was appealing about what they did previously? What would you change? How does it relate to what you are doing now?

I asked myself all those questions when approaching my puffin character.

If you look at him now, he is essentially an amalgamation of several things that came before him, with a touch of my own flair. He has the wings of Iago (from Aladdin), the feet and line work of Daffy Duck, the beak of Foghorn Leghorn, and the blue eye color of Donald Duck. The rest of the design was inspired by an actual puffin and the spiffy Hawaiian shorts were added for additional appeal and helped make him more human-like (and besides, I LOVE Hawaiian prints as most people who know me will tell you).

In the case of the puffin, I needed to design him to work in a 3-dimensional world, while still maintaining his 2-dimensional appeal. This is true for all 3D artwork and sometimes 2-dimensional appeal does not translate itself so well to 3D, so changes are often made. Feasibility must be taken into consideration.

One of the challenges I had faced from the get go was how to approach is wings. Bird wings (feathers in particular) are difficult to emulate, especially for a solo artist creating a short film in college on limited resources. They also have inverse elbows and their wings work differently than human arms work. I looked at what had done before and used my personal favorite Disney character as inspiration to solve this problem. Iago from Aladdin.


You will note that Iago uses his arms similarly to how humans use theirs. He has modified feather fingers, which are also colored differently than the rest of his body on the tips to help them stand out better. I borrowed this feature for my puffin as well for the same reason. This allows you to read the character’s poses better, which again adds to the appeal.

Donald Duck’s blue eyes were also a key feature, which I borrowed to help with the puffin’s appeal. Disney made Donald’s eyes blue to help them stand out better in the plethora of white feathers that surround his giant egg-shaped eyes. My puffin had the same problem, so the trick Disney had used previously worked for my character too!

A few other things I used in my design was from the Looney Tunes arsenal. Check out Daffy’s feet and Foghorn Leghorn’s beak.

In addition to Daffy’s feet, I also borrowed another interesting feature of his – his line work. You’ll notice in the areas where you see black-on-black color, they switch the line art to white, and I made a conscious choice to do exactly that on my puffin’s design. This is a similar reason as to why I borrowed Iago’s features, to help his poses be more readable, which in turn would make him more appealing.

I believe the puffin from my thesis was a successful, appealing 3D character. I could probably recreate him now and make him even more appealing than he was then, as my skills as an artist have improved immensely over the past 10 years. In the end, it amounted to a lot of hard work and as you can see, a lot of thought (and love) was put into his design.

Appeal is the most important part of character design. All the other principles that I will talk about in this blog in regard to character design in the future will link back to some of the topics that I’ve talked about here and will directly affect the appeal of the character. The next topic that I will cover in this series will be about Line Quality.

I hope this article has been informative and gives some insight into what goes into making a successful character. In the comments below, I would love to hear some of your thoughts about your own designs. If you have ideas for a future article about art or character development, please let me know and I would be happy to consider it!

Schmitty out.