How To Draw a Cartoon Character: Step By Step Tutorial With Examples | CharacterHub (2024)

Cartoon character drawings are entertaining to make and can be very appealing, especially when you learn how to apply the principles of cartooning to original characters. One of the biggest compliments an OC creator can receive is someone looking at their original character and asking what show or movie it is from, only to reveal the character is an original creation.

But what is the key to drawing polished, authentic-looking cartoon characters? If you have been looking for a guide to how to draw a cartoon, then you’re in luck because we have compiled four principles of cartooning you can apply to your original cartoon character designs.

When you search for guides on drawing a cartoon, you may get results focusing mainly on animation instead of the more basic concept of cartooning. Animation and cartooning share a common heritage; however, many of the techniques of producing a great animated cartoon apply to the drawing characters and how to make them appealing. Let’s break these down.

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Principles of Cartooning

Most cartoon characters benefit significantly from thinking about the principles of animation, even when you’re doing a single illustration. Brilliant cartoon illustrations benefit from concepts such as squash and stretch and exaggeration, and even animation principles such as rhythm have a role in making a cartoony character appealing. When drawing your cartoon characters, consider the following four principles.

Line Shapes and Forms: The Structure of the Cartoon

One of the first things to consider in cartoon character drawings is line shape and form. Figuring out these two elements goes a long way in establishing your character.

Line Shapes

The basic line shape is the first thing to consider, of which there are three. The first would be the straight line. The next would be a “c” line. And the final shape would be the “s” line. These lines are considered shapes because they are part of larger forms. It may be easier to refer to these as “line shapes.”

The line shape you choose establishes the “flow” of a character and often is the first indication of motion. An essential part of drawing a cartoon character is developing a sense of motion, even in a still image. A sense of motion conveys character and energy, making a cartoon character stand out, even when static. Your line shape is essential when orienting your cartoon character and establishing their pose.

Let’s look at some cartoon characters and see what line shapes they are built from. Studying iconic cartoon characters is an essential part of building your knowledge. I’ll include a red line for visual reference. We’ll start with one of the simplest ones, the straight line.

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Straight lines do not need to be boring, and Flapjack, from The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, is anything but boring. His design features many adorable elements, and his generally lollypop shape makes him a cute character. Flapjack is an easy-to-draw cartoon character. His pose here is based around a straight line. However, that straight line also does an excellent job of reflecting his nature as an eager-to-please character.

Now, let’s up the complexity a bit with a ‘c’ line shape.

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Buck Tuddrussel of Time Squad is an excellent example of a beefy character, but despite his solid frame, he can also adapt to curves. Here, we have a ‘reverse c’ line shape. A lot of motion and character is conveyed here, showing him reacting to something. A singular sweeping curve is a great way to establish motion in a cartoon illustration.

Now, we’ll use an example of the most complex line shape, the ‘s.’

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At first glance, it may look like Daffy Duck is standing straight, but his body shape bows outward at the belly, showing him putting his all into the pose. You can practically feel his excitement radiating, throwing his arms out. His torso, head, and rear do not align, indicating some curvature.

You can do this exercise with any number of characters and poses used by those characters. One tip on how to draw cartoons is to do a similar exercise yourself and see what line shapes you can find in cartoon characters. From there, when you start drawing a character, start with a line shape.

Forms

When you combine line shapes into more complex structures, we can consider these forms. For example, combining “c” shapes can result in circles, while combining straight lines can create squares and rectangles. Combining multiple line shapes can create more complex forms.

For example, a simple circle can represent a head, while a rectangle can represent a torso. Combining an “s” curve with overlapping ovals can serve as parts of a character’s body in motion.

If your line shape establishes the motion and pose of a character, then the forms give them a sense of volume, even with 2D figures - a flat cartoon illustration has a conveyed or implied volume. Let’s look at some cartoon examples and see if we can find any forms within their designs.

Sometimes, a character is a simple form. Let’s look at Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory.

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In many ways, Dexter is just a rectangle. His essence is a stocky, short, boxy form. Of course, we could also see that his head is essentially a pentagonal shape overlapping the core rectangular form. But, if you were drawing Dexter into a scene, you’d be on the right path if you just drew a rectangle.

Now let’s take a look at Moopsy from Star Trek: Lower Decks. This bone-sucking creature (yes, you read that right) is pleasantly friendly shaped and is essentially made of overlapping circles and ovals. However, the overall form is a simple circle. Starting a drawing of Moopsy with a circle is a fundamental step and reflects how shape-driven character design can be.

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Now, let’s look at a more complex cartoony form with Grunkle Stan from Gravity Falls.

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Grunkle Stan is great because he is comprised of a lot of rectangular shapes. He is a “thick” character but doesn’t take to the trope of having a ballooning torso that contrasts against thin legs. His proportions here are pretty “standard,” even though his head is slightly bigger. If you can draw lots of boxes, you can get the basic structure of the character.

Cartooning with Hubert

If you’re looking for easy cartoon characters to draw, you have a great option with Hubert, the icon of CharacterHub. Let’s see how we can use these principles with Hubert in mind.

So, first things first, at an early stage in drawing a cartoon, your art is likely to be messy. Take, for example, these three takes on Hubert.

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My first step was to figure out my guiding line. From there, I built a pose around the line. Having drawn Hubert a lot, I don’t need to block out many of the individual forms that make up the character, but that is a viable option at this stage. In any case, having an existing reference sheet can keep you on track.

While loose and messy, I feel a lot of personality coming from each sketch. That is an excellent way to start iterating on a cartoon character design.

Squash, Stretch, and Bend: The Implied Motion of the Cartoon

Cartoon character drawings have an inherent quality of distortion that you may not see across other original character styles. Most of that is through the implied motion created by three possible techniques: squash, stretch, and bend.

Much of squash, stretch, and bend is already established in your initial line shapes and forms, but you can always push these further to give a character more energy in their pose and design. These elements are readily seen in animation, such as in Cuphead. The exaggeration of “squash and stretch” gives the series a retro feel, harkening back to the early exaggeration of form in animation. But even more “modern” animations utilize these principles. For example, there is the infamous “wide Superman” from Superman: The Animated Series.

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This sort of transitional frame in the animation is known as a “smear” but is, in many ways, the ultimate extension of stretching.

But what do these animation tools have to do with designing the art of a cartoony OC? They can be honed and used to give a single image a sense of motion and kineticism. Stretching a form can create a sense of speed. Squashing can create a sense of weight. Bending can create a sense of force. Suggesting these physics properties in an image through squash, stretch, and bend can result in a cartoony OC having incredible appeal.

Just take a look at some of these examples.

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Variation and Rhythm: The Flow of the Cartoon

Variation and rhythm are some of the more abstract parts of cartoon character design. When we consider the forms of human-like characters, we generally have an innate feeling about what proportions feel right. Do you notice if someone draws your OC with their arms a smidgen too long? Most of us do because they seem off. However, variations in these proportions are also an excellent tool for cartoonists. The trick is to make those proportions appealing instead of off-putting.

It is no secret that imperfections add a lot to a character design. Some of the most iconic cartoon characters have body proportions that would be alarming in real life but have a cartoony appeal on the page or screen. This is quickly established by dividing a character into three parts. Playing with the proportions of these three parts can do wonders in creating cartoony designs.

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Rigby and Mordecai of Regular Show pay homage to the comedic trope of the tall guy and short guy, and their designs complement one another and lend inherent comedy to their cartoony forms. While Rigby’s proportions are mostly balanced between his head, torso, and legs, his short stature is funny in contrast with Mordecai. Meanwhile, Mordecai’s proportions emphasize his legs, giving him an awkward tallness that plays well against Rigby’s stature.

Part of understanding these proportions of characters is thinking about them as rhythmic. For example, the more uniform the proportions are, the less exciting they are. Look at the rhythm of these iconic characters to get a sense of how this works.

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If we divide Ren and Stimpy into three segments (a, b, and c), which correspond to their features, we see that despite their similar heights, they have different rhythms, with Ren being more torso and Stimpy being more head. The rhythm comes from the relative proportions of their features, such as head, torso, and legs. Organizing a character into parts is an excellent strategy for designing a character.

Figuring out the rhythm of a character design for a cartoon can be tricky, and finding one that works is usually the result of a lot of trial and error. That said, finding suitable variations and rhythm in a character design goes incredibly far when making something cartoony.

Cartooning with Hubert

Hubert has a distinct rhythm, thanks to his variations. Let’s see how this all plays out. Further, can I convey even more motion in the drawing?

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I went with the jaunty strut pose based on the ‘s’ shaped line. It was the most fun overall and presented the most exciting challenges. I wanted to get a little more spring into his step, but I squashed the torso a bit by jutting out the chest and throwing back Hubert’s hips. Hubert’s proportions are also marked here, giving us an indication of the rhythm of his design. His head, in the context of this pose, is the largest part when we divide him into three. We can attribute this to the distortion of his torso.

Exaggeration and Minimizing: Giving A Cartoon Style

Exaggeration and minimizing are contrasting elements that help you emphasize elements of a cartoon character’s design. Exaggeration can take many forms and is usually an exaggeration of the base form. For example, in Popeye cartoons, Popeye’s muscles would grow to indicate strength after he ate his spinach.

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The character already has implicit exaggeration baked into his design. Just look at his forearms! However, even then, he can be taken further for comedy.

Or, for a more contemporary example, in the Super Smash Bros. series, character limbs grow larger to exaggerate the strength of their attack.

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Drawing a cartoon character with exaggerated elements can emphasize something, whether the character is “powering up” or they are closer to the viewer. However, this exaggeration usually is applied to an already strong base form. Consider extreme exaggeration when you have a locked-in cartoon design and want to build on it for some sort of effect, like a fighting pose or gag.

Minimizing is the opposite of exaggeration in how to draw cartoons. Minimizing an element of design is meant to pull focus away from the element. Again, this is often done with an already locked-in design to convey an effect or pose. For example, if you are foreshortening a character, you would exaggerate the scale of the closest part of the figure while minimizing the furthest portion.

These examples show you how helpful exaggeration can be.

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However, exaggeration and minimization are also things to consider in the base design of a cartoon character. Look at Dr. Neo Cortex from the Crash Bandicoot series.

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Neo Cortex evokes the trope of the egotistical genius by giving him a gigantic head to his body. It’s a visual joke that reflects his personality and archetype, fueled by clever exaggeration.

You can also emphasize cuteness with exaggeration and minimizing. Look at all these adorable characters and how exaggerating features, such as the size of their eyes and heads, contrast with minimizing other features, such as their bodies and limbs.

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Exaggeration and minimizing are potent elements of cartoon character design. They are tools that can emphasize motion or be used in the initial design stages. Just be wary of going overboard with them.

Cartooning with Hubert

Hubert’s simple cartoon design benefits from exaggeration and minimization while being a sound basis for those elements to emphasize motion and depth.

While my initial sketch of Hubert strutting could have been good for ink and color, I want to push myself to give it a little more depth, such as using exaggeration and minimizing.

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One of the first things I did to help exaggerate and minimize elements of his design was to take the previous sketch and skew it. The attempt was to roughly map out the proportions and then draw over them with more accurate and exaggerated features to create a better sense of depth and motion. I work digitally, so working in layers allows me to control all aspects of the character design process more easily. However, you could just as quickly do this technique by eyeballing it. The critical part of the process is identifying how big the closest parts are and how small the furthest parts are.

Once I am happy with my sketch, I can polish up the character design, resulting in an adorable and dynamic Hubert. Paying extra attention to line weight and color choice is important at this stage.

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Further Reading

There have been many great cartoon design books with invaluable advice and guidance. While many of them focus on animation, those principles are also great for character design in a general sense. Here are some outstanding books you should add to your library in the future: The Silver Way, Cartooning, Caricature and Animation Made Easy, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, and Action! Cartooning. Each one offers something unique and touches on topics we’ve covered in further depth.

CharacterHub for Cartooning Examples

Once you have your cartoon character designed, the next step is to show them off and gather impressions. Using CharacterHub you can develop a detailed profile of your cartoon character and the world they occupy. Hubert, for example, has his own profile.

One of the best parts of having a profile is that it serves as a space to gather different illustrations of the character, including fan art. This is important when it comes to how to draw a cartoon character because you can learn new techniques by observing how other OC creators tackle character design.

So, once you have your iconic new cartoon character ready to go, be sure to share them on CharacterHub so we can all learn from one another.

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About the author

David Davis

David Davis is a cartoonist with around twenty years of experience in comics, including independent work and established IPs such as SpongeBob Squarepants. He also works as a college composition instructor and records weekly podcasts. Find out more about him at his website!

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