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Using Contrast and Pose to Tell a Story

Character Designer Kyle Sarafolean tells us how he pushed his designs with feedback and weekly challenges in Character Design for Animation.


My name is Kyle Sarafolean and I am a character and prop designer for animated film and tv originally from Michigan. In college, I studied Graphic Design and Art at Saginaw Valley State University because my dream of becoming an artist in the animation industry seemed impossible for me to achieve. Almost as soon as I began working professionally as a graphic designer, I realized that my true passion was for character design and storytelling and that was when I decided to begin pursuing my career as an artist. After working diligently on my own for 3 or 4 years, I knew that I had to take decisive action if I was going to meet the industry standard for professional artwork. It was then that I decided to leave my full-time job as a graphic designer in order to focus on my art education and on improving my craft. CGMA’s classes have been a key part to me gaining the skill set, knowledge, and confidence that I needed to begin a successful career as an artist without having to take on the massive financial burden of a traditional art school education.

Character Silhouette

This assignment was to design a Medieval Crusader. I decided to create my character, the Pumpkin Knight, who is a jovial and lovable glutton. Perhaps once he was a proud warrior, but now he is more likely to be found at a feast than in a fight. His jolly nature is reflected by his rotund figure and his round and soft shape language.

I based his character on the shape language of his namesake, the pumpkin. If you look at his silhouette, you will see that his overall shape is round and plump, just like a pumpkin. He also has motifs in his design like the ridges on his round shoulder pauldrons, the little leaf shapes at the bottom of his chain mail, and his wavy axe handle that recall the shape of a pumpkin, their leaves, and vines. The orange and green color palette that I used was a clear and intentional tie in between the knight and a pumpkin.

One of the tips that Nate gave in his draw over was to make sure that both of the knights arms are pushed out far enough from his body that they can read well in silhouette form. He also had me push the axe out a little farther from the knights body to give it some comfortable space in the pose. One piece of advice from Nate I can recall is that you can frame a character’s silhouette against a cape, or even frame a characters limbs within their own body. As long as you avoid tangents, your silhouette will read clearly.

 Character Line Up

This assignment was to create a character line up of three pirates in order to create a diverse cast of unique characters. I set out to tell a story in my designs by having all three characters interact with each other. The story revolves around the capture of an old man who is in chains. I call him The Prisoner. He is proud and defiant of his captors, noted by his upright posture with his chest thrust out and his shoulders back while glaring fiercely down at his foe. Despite his chains and his tattered clothing, he carries himself with dignity and strength as if he may yet again gain the upper hand. The long and elegant lines in The Prisoner’s body and legs evoke a rangy grace to his physique but this smoothness is punctuated by the sharp triangular shapes in his wild hair and beard, which speak of the resilience of his frosty demeanor.

The next character is the captor, I call him The Firecracker Captain. He is small but fierce with a flamboyant mustache and an oversized hat that seems to be his way of making up for his lack of height. He uses it to bolster his power-hungry persona. He carries a notched cutlass and harpoon to make him seem more menacing, though he isn’t really a fighter, as indicated by his small pear-shaped physique. He is hopping up in the air with wicked glee as if he has firecrackers that go off in his boot heels as he walks around. I imagine him to pop up and down and move in quick rapid bursts like a small fierce bird. You will see triangles repeated in his design, from his pointy boots to his weapons to the sharp ends of his mustache. These sharp shapes reinforce his aggression and volatility.

The third character I call The Muscle. He is the brute force behind the Firecracker Captain’s brains. He is large, and rotund with long powerful gorilla arms and is fittingly on the other side of The Prisoner’s chains. He has an underbite and heavy bushy brows that help indicate his mean and simple brutality. He is large and formidable but he can be outwitted by a crafty opponent. His bulkiness and size contrast sharply with the thin Prisoner and small stature of the Captain in a way that underlines his considerable strength.

To create a successful character line up, I made it my mission to create three characters that fit within the same world but are all distinctly unique from each other. I achieved this by creating designs that are all thematically similar, i.e. they are all pirates, however, they are all based on different shape language and have distinct personalities. By amplifying the contrast between their sizes and shapes, and by choosing poses for each one that underlines their reaction to this situation, we end up with a line up of three unique and interesting characters whose designs tell the story of the Prisoner’s capture.

Matching A Style

In this assignment, we were tasked with creating a character design for a dragon in the style of two iconic artists: Ronald Searle and Jay Ward. I chose to draw a dragon who is relaxing while drinking a poison green cocktail and smoking a cigarette in his fashionable cigarette holder. The dragon is mellow and fairly contented with nothing to do but enjoy himself in a smoky dragon bar.

The first step that I took was to break down the key elements of both artists’ styles before I attempted to draw my character. The key marker of Searle’s style is his wobbly rough ink line and that he typically works in india ink. He tends to use a lot of contrast both juxtaposing heavy ink lines next to delicately thin lines and by placing large shapes next to tiny ones. For instance, he might design a character with a large body who has small and dainty limbs. Searle also draws bulbous close-set eyes with a lot of wrinkles around them. I found the wobble in Searle’s linework and his messiness to be a challenge for me to replicate. I tend to have a very controlled and clean line, so the looseness of Searle’s style took some practice for me to replicate.

Jay Ward’s style came more quickly to me. The key marker of his style is the simplicity of his shape and the economy of his line. Ward has a clean and “swooping” line that carries through his characters’ designs. Ward’s line weight tends to be uniform, clean, and minimal and his characters are classically “cartoony.” His characters have 4 fingers on a hand and have large, round close-set eyes with a dot for a pupil. He uses a flat color scheme in his characters’ designs with usually only 3 to 4 colors per character. His style is graphic and relies on iconizing shapes and details in order to minimize the linework and make it easy for hand-drawn animation.

Animal Design

The assignment for this week was to design an animal character. I chose to design a villainous cockatoo and tie him with the characters from my Pirate line up. This project eventually became a large part of my portfolio and I’ve added many characters and props to it from this world, but one of my favorites is still this pesky bird.

My goal with this character was to create a pesky sidekick to the main pirate villain. The cockatoo himself is more of a thorn in the hero’s side than he is a danger. He is somewhat scheming and troublesome but he never poses an immediate threat. I wanted to create a sly character who can easily spy on and taunt our heroic characters while staying safely out of their reach from the air. Because this cockatoo character is mostly harmless, but is a scheming and malicious pest all the same, I chose to use primarily round and soft shape language in his wings, body, and feathers while punctuating his design with strategically sharp, triangular shapes in his beak and claws. I aimed to create a character with a 80/20 round to triangle shape ratio.

In the pose where he is in the branches of the tree, he is silently spying on our hero while plotting his ambush. I wanted to taper his pose and use a clear line of action to show the moment of anticipation before a strike. His silhouette is smooth and streamlined to show the direction of his attention and draw the eye off-camera where he is looking.

In the pose where he is flying away carrying the amulet, it is a story moment immediately after the first pose I drew, when he swoops in and snatches the enchanted amulet from our hero much to his dismay. The cockatoo is overjoyed at this moment and I wanted the feathers in his wings to form a radial uplifted “U” shape which to me symbolizes triumph or an explosion of action or success. The contrast in this character comes from the careful ratio of round to sharp shapes in his design and in the contrast between his closed pose in the first drawing vs. the explosiveness of his open pose in the second drawing.

Final Thoughts

When I decided to pursue further art education post-college, I faced a bit of a dilemma. I already had a bachelor’s degree and going back to traditional college for a Master’s or for another four-year degree didn’t seem like the right path for me. I needed to fill the gaps in my existing knowledge and I needed professional feedback that would help me take my art skills to the next level, but I didn’t want to lock myself into a rigid college program or take on the massive cost of a big name art school education.

When I found out about CGMA’s 2D Character Design program it seemed like the perfect fit for me. The classes were taught by experienced and current industry veterans, and I could fit the lectures and homework around my freelance schedule. The price in my view was a fair and reasonable cost to pay for high-quality art education!

One of the first CGMA classes that I took was Nate Wragg’s Character Design for Animation course. I was interested in it because I have been a fan of Nate’s work for a long time and I have a high regard for his experience as both a talented character designer and as a seasoned art director. In this class, I learned how to create designs that will work for either 2D or 3D animation and I also learned how to adapt my drawing and design abilities to breakdown and work in various different art styles. Nate’s draw overs are probably the best that I’ve had in any class. He has the ability to see what the intent of a design is and he knows how to identify what needs to be changed to make a tangible improvement to a design. His notes on character posing and clarity of silhouette have made me able to spot tangents in my own work. His emphasis on understanding and using contrast within every element of a design has been a key step towards me mastering my craft. His class has given me greater control over what I am able to communicate using my design and drawing skills and have made me a better artist overall.

A 10/10 art education investment!

You can see more of Kyle’s art on his website: https://sarafoleank.myportfolio.com/work