How to Draw Cartoon Characters from Observation
Updated: 14 Dec 2020
In this guide, I will demonstrate my process for drawing ANY cartoon character from observation.
I teach these techniques for my students to draw accurately. It is a preparation for realism drawing.
Table of contents:
How to draw accurately:
The actual drawing process:
Before drawing, there is the planning stage. This is the time to choose our subject.
Many cartoon characters are popular.
Therefore, drawing cartoon characters is similar to drawing the outlines for a portrait, we must be accurate!
Depending on the figure we are drawing, usually the overall proportion is the first thing we want to check.
To do that, we use our drawing tool (pencil in this case).
We look at an existing mark on our drawing tool (or use our finger to mark a spot) and then check for proportions.
In this example, we see that the height of Snoopy's head is approximately the height of its body.
We can mark some points on our drawing paper to make sure we draw it in proportion.
We want to check that each part of our character is in proportion to its other parts.
In the case of several characters, we need to see that they are all in proportion to each other.
In any case, we want to plan for our drawing to fit inside our paper sheet.
2. Curved Lines
Many cartoon characters are a collection of different types of curves.
We can see these curves as body parts, muscles or objects (like hats).
First, we look at the direction of each curve (up, down, left or right).
Then, we determine the tip of that curve (toward the direction of the curve).
For Snoopy's left side of the ear, we can see that the tip in that direction is touching the neck.
If we do not pay attention to that, we can draw the tip of that curve at the middle of the ear instead of the bottom part.
The same works for every curve. We hold our pencil (or pen) vertically or horizontally and look at the tip of each curve.
We can see that Snoopy's belly is bulging not in the middle, but more to the bottom.
The tip of the back is even lower, almost where it meets the leg.
3. Straight Lines
Again we use our drawing tool (pencil) as a measuring device. This time for angles.
This is one of the best techniques for drawing accurately from observation.
In the next example, we check Goku's angle of eyes and then check if our drawing is accurate (and correct the angle if we need to).
We do the same for each part we want to draw accurately.
It is best to close one eye when using this method.
For each angle we find, we make sure our body is stiff, and we bend only using our lower back. That way, we keep the angle while checking that our drawing has the same angle as the photo we look at.
Make sure to rotate the pencil left or right to find the angle.
Do NOT rotate the pencil forward or back. The world is 3-dimensional but our paper is 2-dimensional.
With time (and practice), we learn to see the angles in our mind without using a pencil to measure them.
*Later, we will see how to ink and color our Goku drawing.
When drawing, we have to pay attention to overlapping.
Overlapping means an object that covers part of another object.
In the next example, Speedy Gonzales's head is overlapping its hat. The lines for the hat need to have continuity for it to look natural and correct.
Often, objects (like weapons) are partially hidden by a body part (hand in this case).
One way is to draw the full object and then erase the part that is overlapped.
For straight objects, we can use a ruler.
While some cartoon characters do not have overlapping parts, some will have many overlapping parts that we need to pay attention to.
Tex Willer overlapping parts.
The techniques that I demonstrate above are exactly how I teach my students.
With time (after drawing many characters), we learn to see these techniques in our mind and draw ANY character from observation, and do it accurately!
Accuracy is the most important part of drawing!
Use the methods above to practice drawing accurately. The next 3 steps will guide you how to draw and render your favorite cartoon characters.
1. Pencil Drawing
First step is drawing with a pencil.
The pencil-drawing step will be the hardest. Accuracy is the key for likeness.
The main advantage of drawing with a pencil is the ability to erase and correct mistakes.
It is important NOT to press hard while drawing, in order to prevent any scars or dents on the drawing paper.
Drawing, erasing and adjusting our sketch until it reaches the desired outcome:
Here is a list of supply you will need for this step: essential drawing supplies for beginners.
2. Pen Drawing
The second step is drawing with a technical pen.
Technical pens (also fineliners) come with different nib sizes.
A smaller nib is great for small details, while a bigger nib is better for thicker contour lines.
It will take around a minute (or less, depending on the pen brand and type of paper) for the pen's ink to dry. Only then, it is safe to gently erase the pencil marks.
With practice, it is possible to draw directly with a pen and disregard step 1.
The result at this step will be a homemade coloring page.
If you are unfamiliar with drawing pens, you might want to check my guide for recommended drawing pens.
By pressing gently when drawing with a pencil, it is easy to erase the pencil marks.
3. Painting with Markers
The last step is painting with markers.
Each cartoon character has its own unique colors.
If we are to paint accurately (faithful to the original character), we need to pay attention to 4 color attributes:
Hue - Color family (red, green, blue, orange...).
Brightness Values - Also values or tone, how dark or light each color is.
Temperature - Warm and cool colors.
Red, orange and yellow are warm colors (they bring to mind fire).
Blue, green and purple are cool colors (they bring to mind the ocean or wet grass).
Each color can be warmer or cooler. In the next example, we have a cool green (with a blue tinge) and a warm green (with a yellow tinge).
Also, cool red (a bit purple) and warm red (a bit orange).
Some colors can be neutral, but in many cases, colors will be a bit warm or a bit cool.
It depends on the object's pigments and on the color of light sources and reflections.
Even a gray color can be warm (a bit brownish) or cool (a bit bluish).
In the next example, the gray colors share the same brightness value (close your eyes partially to determine brightness values), but with different temperature.
Saturation - How rich and intense each color is, or how dull and gray it is.
Also in this example, the colors have the same brightness value but with different saturation.
How to pick colors:
The color on the marker's body or cap is not necessarily the color that will show on paper.
It is very useful to create a palette (color chart) for all the marker pens we own.
Now it will be easy to pick the right color.
After choosing the colors we want to use, it is time to paint our figures.
And paint the background too.
What type of paper sheets should you use?
For painting with markers, it is best to use non-absorbent paper sheets.
When painting with a dry medium, like colored pencils or pastels, paper sheets for drawing and sketching are a better solution.
Still struggling which color to choose?
It is possible to use ANY image-editing program (like Adobe Photoshop or Paint.net) and utilize the color picker tool to check for the exact color.
Filling a large area with the chosen color will help to see the correct hue.
Then using a marker pen with the same color:
If you are new to marker pens, here is my list (and guide) for recommended marker pens for artists.
Examples for Inking & Coloring
Step 1. Drawing from observation with a pencil.
Step 2. Drawing with a technical pen (inking) on top of the pencil lines.
Then, erasing the pencil lines (when the ink from the pen is dry).
Step 3. Coloring with markers.
Paying attention to all color attributes (hue, brightness values, saturation and temperature).
Painting the Background
With markers, it is hard to reach a smooth texture for a large area because the markers dry fast.
Different marker brands (and different types of paper) produce different results.
It is a good practice to divide an area into smaller areas by adding objects like trees.
It is recommended to use a paper suitable for markers, especially when using water-based markers.
When using a paper that is made for drawing & sketching, alcohol-based markers will work better than water-based markers.
How to paint the sky with markers?
For drawing clouds, start by painting the sky (which is darker), leave empty areas for the clouds.
Then, use lighter markers on top of the darker areas to gently create a smooth transition from dark to light, yet keeping a distinction between the brightness values.
For a smoother transition, like in sky color and brightness values, start with the lighter values and gradually use darker markers.
With practice, anybody can learn to draw & paint!
Keep in mind:
Cartoon characters have outlines (contour). When drawing realism there are no visible lines.
If you want to learn how to draw in a realistic style, drawing cartoon characters from observation is a great way to practice your accuracy!
When we create our own unique art, we want to use reference material (images) free of copyright.
That said, when drawing cartoon characters, we are drawing figures that are a property of their creator.
We do it as fan art, not to sell (unless we have permission).
Where to go next?
To understand depth when drawing, read about the 15 methods to create the illusion of depth (including MANY examples).
For learning to draw and paint online, check out my list for best drawing instructors on YouTube.