Course overview Course overview
Bring your characters to life
This course will cover a lot of reference and breaking it down into the importance of things to consider regarding animation design. Allow your imagination to push what we can do in design and to push our boundaries in what we are comfortable with and what we feel we can do in animation. Beginning by using shape as a building block for building characters, we will start with simple shapes and push the design to its limits. We will also discuss what it takes to become a professional designer.
Character Design For Animation WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The more you know, the better.
Taking your skills to the next level
Nate Wragg was born in Davis, CA in 1983. He took an interest in drawing and painting at an early age. After graduating high school, he studied animation and design at The California Institute of the Arts in Southern California. Since then, Wragg has gone on to work as an illustrator and designer on various projects-including Ratatouille, Toy Story 3 and Puss in Boots. He was one of the primary character designers on the Pixar Feature Toy Story 3. As well as designing characters, Nate was also the Production Designer of Pixar’s short film Your Friend the Rat and has been involved in designing several main title sequences, most notably the animated end titles for Ratatouille. Most recently he was the Production Designer on Captain Underpants.
Character Design For Animation Student gallery
spring TERM Registration
Feb 10, 2020 - Apr 18, 2020
Fantastic class! Nate is a great teacher and an incredible resource, I'm so thankful for his dedication to teaching!!
The course content is broken down structurally so that it allowed for nice linear progression and growth. I am leaving with a better understanding of character design.
Nate Wragg continued to impress me with his knowledge of the material, and the skills he displayed in demos and in the Q&As! He really knows his stuff, and the fact that he is willing to share that knowledge with us is really great. He is also open and honest about the industry, and what we will face when we get there. Honestly, I feel honored to have studied with him, and hope to work with him in the future.
Really enjoy Nate Wragg's approach to teaching online. It felt authentic and really helpful. This was my second course with him instructing, both times were equally great.
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Letting the Character Shine Through
Interview with Laura Gómez
Character artist Laura Gómez walks through her creations — from timid crusader to lazy dragon — crafted over 8 weeks for Nate Wragg's Character Design for Animation course.
My name is Laura Gómez and I’m from Guadalajara, Mexico. I graduated from UDG with a Visual Arts Bachelor Degree where I learned traditional arts and techniques. I work as a freelance artist for independent animated short films, mostly in my own country. Currently I’m working on an independent shortfilm titled Nemi.
I have taken a lot of self-directed Character Design courses over the past years, but I was looking for one which provided personalized feedback. After some research, I decided that the CGMA courses were my best option. As a mostly self-taught character artist, I was getting concerned about my development, and I wanted to get a professional opinion about my work and the opportunity to open myself into a global market.
Focusing on Design Silhouettes — The Timid Crusader
My knight isn´t the bravest man in Jerusalem: he is not that young anymore and he isn´t in the best physical shape either, which makes him a little bit insecure about himself. He was never much of a fighter—he actually wanted a quiet life inside his little castle—but you can't stay at home when all your friends and the king are going to fight in the Crusades so, yeah, life is hard.
While I was working on this assignment, I wasn’t focusing on this character specifically. Instead, I started playing around with different shapes: circles, triangles, etc, and thinking about which kind of personality matched better with each of them. I sketched a circle knight, a rectangle knight, an old curved knight, etc. (see above). Finally, I decided to go with the "nervous" triangle. After making a general sketch I started adding some detail to his costume, props and facial features. As you might notice, I tried to put a triangle in every single detail of this character—that was the most time-consuming stage of the designing process. For the pose, I often checked my design as a solid color block, just to make sure that everything was clear and in place.
Character Line-ups — The Pirates
I love pirates, so I really enjoyed this assignment. For these characters I wanted to display a mix of toughness, silliness, and dirt. These guys are sailing the seas stealing things, fighting and drinking… and they don’t really have the time nor enough spare clean water to think about taking a shower that often. They are like eternal teenagers with the whole “you only live once” and “nothing to lose” attitude.
For the design of these characters, I started the silhouettes with solid, flat, simple shapes. At this stage I was more worried about shapes and proportion. A short while after this I started adding props, like hats and weapons. At that point I was playing with basic shapes to make sure that every pirate looked different from the others. I kept asking myself questions like: what if I make this thing bigger or smaller? How can I make this character stand out from the others? what will happen if I use a different basic shape? It was a really fun and playful part of the design process.
After that, I picked 3 out of my 6 original pirates and began to refine their designs by thinking more deeply about their personalities and how to show that up through the design. For the girl, I wanted a personality that’s sharp, fierce, and a little vicious, so I added a lot of pointed shapes, like her hair, bandana, eyebrows, nose, fingertips, and obviously, her dagger. For the short guy I wanted a wild and fun-loving character, so I added a lot of rounded shapes and circles and really crazy eyes. The big one was stoic and massive, so I went for big square shapes. For this assignment I didn’t add the basic shapes to every single detail as I did with the knight. Instead, I experimented with using a wider variety of shapes while still trying to stay focused on the basic form that I picked for each character.
The Story Moment — "Hello, Sailor!"
For the story moment we have this old, lonely and tired sailor, seated on a bench, passing the time with the good company of smokes and booze when this little posh kid with his little boat and a big lollipop (who is a great fan of the sailor), approaches him like “Hey! I’m a sailor too, let´s hang out!” The little boy feels like he is meeting with a hero, while the old man is surprised and maybe a bit uncomfortable.
I started this assignment with an idea about a thin lady eating nuts at the park, with a squirrel trying to steal a nut from her, then I changed it to an old lady feeding birds at the park being interrupted by a little girl with a lollipop full of dirt, and finally I changed that to the little boy and the sailor.
I picked this moment because I wanted to have a closest connection between the characters in the scene. For me, a little boy who wants to be a sailor and tries to catch the old sailor’s attention has more backstory potential than the other two options, that feel like more casual encounters.
Style Matching — Searle & Ward Dragons
Both of my dragons are quite silly-looking: one is distracted watching a moth while the other is telling a really bad pun to someone. I didn't want to draw them as fierce and dangerous dragons. For both of them I was thinking more about a creature that’s chubby, lazy, and not that bright.
The more challenging style was definitely Ronald Searle. I finished the Jay Ward dragon (above) in like a single day, but Searle’s dragon took me a whole week. His style is super detailed and loose, with a lot of pen drawn textures. I have never tried to emulate anything similar to his style and it took me a lot of effort. I started with the general, basic shapes, and then I gradually started to add more, and more, and more detail. I had lots of thumbnails with his drawings pasted on my canvas during the whole process because I had to check the references really often in order to stay close to the style.
Animal Design — The Sleepy Anteater
For the animal design, I picked an anteater because it is one of my favorites animals. I think they have a really funny looking shape, with the long nose, the big fluffy tail and the huge claws. In my opinion that’s a really neat mixture of features to have in a single animal. My anteater is a nice, cool guy, but quite sleepy.
The approach to this design was really different to the first assignments of the course. For week 1, the assignment was to design an alien or monster and those can be easily based on any shape and look like anything. Since in this case we are working with real animals, I had to use a lot of references. After all, people should to be able to recognize the animal that I’m drawing. I took a really close look at the real animal in order to really understand the basic shapes that I had to use before pushing them into a more stylized version of the same animal. In the sketch you can see the two passes I did before the final version of this design.
The course was all I was expected and more. Nate Wragg’s comments about the assignments were really helpful, and always clear. Sometimes you get lost in your own work and start doubting if you´re doing things the right way, so being able to get the kind of advice that tells you exactly what you need to improve on is priceless. It’s amazing how making a little change here or adding a small detail there can take a design to a completely different level. Also, Nate wasn’t only giving us advice about the classes, he was always open to any kind of question about the industry. He has really, really helpful in so many ways. I highly recommend to take this course to anyone who wants to improve as a character designer.
Using Contrast and Pose to Tell a Story
Interview with Kyle Sarafolean
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.
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 Prisoners 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 contrasts 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, ie. 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 style 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.
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 strikes. 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.
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 in around my freelance schedule. The price in my view was a fair and reasonable cost to pay for a 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 be 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
Back On Track: Mindful habits of character design
Interview with Eddie Betancourt
My name is Eddie Betancourt, and I’m a Texas based artist/animator working in both Gaming and Television production. Past projects I’ve worked on include Axe Cop, League of Legends, The Banner Saga, Agents of Mayhem, Call of Duty, and The Adventures of Kid Danger. I took this course specifically to help push my current abilities as a designer. As artists, we're forever evolving and forever a work-in-progress, but sometimes having a little more structure and the right guidance can really help expedite that growth, or get us past artistic plateaus.
I went through a variety of designs and settled on keeping with a rigid, square shape language. Typically, characters with sharp angles tend to be a bit more menacing or antagonistic. I wanted to take that idea and flip the personality trait, making him more cowardly. I wanted to make his eyes more rounded in contrast, to soften his appearance. He has the capability to at least face his foes, but whether he’s successful in thwarting them, or particularly courageous as he attempts to, is a whole other story. I think the one thing I wanted to make sure was clear was that he was cowardly, and had features that were distinct to a knight, or at least read like one through his silhouette. Another important addition to his posing were the buckled knees against his squared body - to give a feeling of both a grounded but non-resilient personality.
Character Line Ups
I imagine these misfits trying to carve their names in history as the greatest pillagers that sailed the high seas, but collectively never actually getting anything done. The captain can never get his cohorts in line to do some serious pirating, but he also can’t afford anybody else. I never imagined them to really be threatening, so I went with softer shapes for all of them, with the captain having some slight sharper edges here and there to reflect his more focused, rigid pirate ideals. I mainly played with their posture and shape as a quick visual way for the viewer to read their personalities. The Captain I made with a sharper hat and much broader shoulders than the other two - compared to his companions, he is a little more serious about his goals, a little more grounded, and a little more commanding. His posture is meant to read as someone who commands presence and exudes confidence. His second mate I made smaller, with a hanging gut. He's the more gluttonous one out of the three, and compared to the sharp and confident pose of the captain is far more relaxed and carefree. His expression is intended to read cocky and self-assured. Lastly, the dim-witted brute, who is drawn to be a little larger than life and more physically imposing - but contrasted by his soft shapes. Though he is the strongest of the three, he isn't necessarily mean. They're all tied together as a 'team' or crew by their manner of dress and complimenting shapes.
For the librarians, I was interested in portraying cheerful, strict, and exhausted personality types to allow for a nice, distinct variety. For the cheerful, peppier librarian, I wanted to use softer, rounder shapes to make him more welcoming and approachable looking. I imagined him as both excitable and laid back, which might often result in him unintentionally sharing his excitement of the latest news or books a bit too loudly in what should be a quiet library. I wanted this to reflect in his exaggerated expression.
The strict librarian I chose to give more edges and angles, to reflect her more rigid, wound up personality. She holds up the law of the library and cracks down on any riffraff who breaks them, armed with nothing but a scowl and an upturned lip. Even the large, 'softer' shape of her hair bun is carved out by edges and angles. This librarian is put together and unmoved by the more emotive librarians.
Lastly, the poor, exhausted looking fellow with the five-o-clock shadow. His whole concept for his shape design was to show 'downward' motions. Downwards crescents, drooping curves, hanging eyes and disheveled hair. This was to spotlight the feeling of someone being 'down on their luck', weathered, worn, and weighed down. This librarian is tired, and has been doing this job for way too long. Of the set, this character had the most particular nuances, and it took a few tries to balance the sharp edges and curves together until it clicked to combine these all with hanging, drooping shapes.
Character Story Moment
For my story moment, I was really into the idea of creating a scene of a confident character who thinks they are doing a fantastic job of serenading and wooing someone... moments before reality was about to hit them. I'm a huge fan of comedic moments built on expectation vs. reality. In my initial sketch, the girl looked excited and joyful over being serenaded. In another iteration, she's grown more irritated and was plugging her ears from all the racket. However, in the final version, that need for a bit more of a comedy punch kicked in. So, in comes the pepper spray. It just felt right.
Since the characters were aliens, I had to figure out how I wanted to design the bench they were on to fit the setting and universe the two characters might be from. I did a regular bench design at first, but decided to rework it under the idea that every bit of the scene should tell a little bit more of the story, or about the world these characters are from, no matter how minimal it is. So, it ended up being something a little more 'futuristic'!
General (non week-specific) questions - How did the feedback and mentorship from the instructor help you make decisions about your characters and stories? - What assignment was the most fun? - Do you have any tips you could give other artists that would like to this class?
This class helped give me a little more direction and pinpoint where I should really push and plus my design choices. There are a lot of things we do and try to keep in mind as artists, and sometimes a lot of those teachings can fall through the cracks as we start to develop consistent habits. They aren't necessarily bad habits, but it is easy for artists to become complacent and comfortable with things they are simply used to doing. Taking this course helped me get back on track and retrained me to again be mindful of trying new things, to find more ways to really push my designs to the next level. The librarians were probably my favorite out of the whole course. Playing with their shapes, pushing and pulling and exaggerating their features or expressions were a lot of fun. My advice to new students is to just be willing to try new techniques, really push outside of your comfort zone, and just have fun trying something new.
You can see more from Eddie here: