Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Character Art

To get to know my characters better I often make portraits of them. I wish I could say I always do that strictly by imagination, but alas, I'm not that talented.

My trick is to convert photographs of real people into digital sketches, parts of which I transfer as line and perspective references while I'm working on the art. Recently I've been revisiting my old love from high school, pen and ink, so I'm using that for all the portraits of my crew from Taken by Night (as you see here, clockwise from the cute guy at the top: Chavez, Kim, Ara and Deuce.)

Most of the writers I know collect pictures of faces and bodies they find inspiring or interesting. Unless you base a character on a real person from the very start, however, it's almost impossible to get an exact match to how you envision them. Sketching, painting or inking your characters allows you to make those adjustments.

If you'd like to try this, start with a clear photo of your character model that has strong lines and good contrasts. Here's one wallpaper I found of actor Matt Bomer at a fan site* that I'm going to use as a character model for James Brand:

Enlarge or reduce the photo to the size you want for your character portrait, convert it to a black and white sketch or outline in your photoshop program (if you don't have photoshop, there are lots of photo-to-sketch freewares and generators online you can use.) Erase what you don't want to transfer (the handsome Mr. Bomer here looks a bit too scruffy and hollow-cheeked for my character, so I airbrushed away those shadows), and print out the result on plain bond paper:

Take some erasable tracing or transfer paper and put it between the printout of the photo and a sketch pad, and trace the lines of the features you want to duplicate. I use red transfer paper because I can't do a portrait in one sitting, and the contrasting color makes it easy to see where I left off. Once you've done that, trace very lightly the features you want to alter. Once you've finished you'll have a foundation outline of your character portrait (and you might first scan or print out a copy of it so you have an extra one if you mess up and want to start over.) Here's the transfer of my photo:

Starting with the lightly-traced features you want to alter, sketch in with pencil your changes. You are allowed to erase whatever doesn't work. Once you've done that, use the medium of your choice to detail, colorize and complete the portrait, like so:

I like filling in negative space (the empty parts of an image) to suggest things like hair, nose shapes and other hard-to-draw features. It creates a kind of wood-block print look that I think is neat, too:

One of the side benefits of creating character art is increasing your knowledge of and familiarity with their physical appearance. Now that I've inked Matt Bomer into James Brand I know that face from his cowlick to his square jaw. I hadn't decided on his exact eye or hair color until I drew him; now he's definitely green-eyed and silver/black-haired.

Character art is created for you, so you don't have to make it perfect or show it to anyone. You also don't have to use traditional supplies or techniques to make your portraits. I once made a character portrait using bits of old junk jewelry and broken necklace chains glued to a piece of slate. If you're a scrapbooker, try using cutouts from your favorite papers to assemble a collage portrait. Art quilters often "paint" portraits in thread, which I'm going to have to try someday myself.

However you choose to make character art, just have fun with it. You'll always enjoy it, and you may end up surprising yourself.

*Image source URL: http://images4.fanpop.com/image/photos/20700000/Clarity-matt-bomer-20714313-1280-1024.jpg


  1. Shizuka9:21 AM

    I love this post.

    I was having a hard time picturing my heroine.
    After collaging photos on Polyvore and doing a drawing based on
    different faces I like, I feel like I know her a lot better.

    Thanks for the instructive/inspiring posts.

  2. I like this a lot better than just trying to sketch my characters. Usually I end up with a lot of stick figures.


  3. What a clever idea! Getting to know your characters is always important. My wife would hear me laughing, and would ask what was so funny. My response would be "you won't believe what 'so and so' said now.... he's a riot that guy." Making the characters real is vital!

  4. Sketching our own character photographs is a good concept. It shows how exactly we are and it helps a lot to change the persons mind in a good way, because He'll get to know his own behaviour in a better way through pictures.


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