Art Direction for Character Designers | CG Master Academy

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Art Direction for Character Designers

An 8-week course on adapting and designing characters for unique productions; learn what it means to be art directed as a professional character designer

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Adapt and design unique characters for productions

One of the biggest challenges in working as a professional character designer--whether in a studio or freelance--is being able to adapt and design for all of these unique looks and productions. Character designers work on a wide variety of projects throughout their careers, and each project has its own unique look. Every movie, TV show, short, & series is designed with a different look and style. This course focuses on cultivating the adaptability to work in a variety of different styles and looks. The assignments and lectures are each designed to focus on different art direction concepts for character designers and will require students to focus on their creative and stylistic adaptability. Think of this class as 8 weeks of freelance and professional production assignments. This class will focus on what it means to be art directed as a professional character designer; and the work from this class will add variety and demonstrate versatility in any character designer's portfolio. (Only available for the Winter Term)


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   8 weeks
Assignment:   Due each week. Expect to spend 8-10 hrs/wk viewing lectures, q&a, and time on assignments.
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Photoshop (any), Wacom tablet or equivalent
Skills level:   Advanced
Prerequisites:   Character Design for Production

Art Direction for Character Designers WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Three of the biggest elements of design are line, shape, and color and in our first lecture, we focus on using all three to create our first designs of the semester. The concept here is trying to find the balance between letting certain details of your character be only described by line, others only by shape, and allowing color to help set the mood and tone of your character’s personality.
In our 2nd lecture, we explore the concept behind owners resembling the pets that they own. This idea can be a really fun way of thinking about similarities between people and animals and finding fun design elements to build off of. We will want to focus on design elements like hair, size, and also thinking about how a similar personality can be portrayed in to different characters.
An abstract shape or piece of line work on its own can be anything you want to imagine. But designing a character around abstract elements can ground that element and make is an abstract interpretation of a character’s features. For example, a squiggly line is just a squiggly line, but if you put it around a character’s mouth, now it’s a beard. This kind of design adaptability is critical in terms of thinking about different ways to vary up your design work.
Designing gross and creepy characters is always fun, but when you have to design the gross to be cute and sweet, while still being gross, you have a real challenge on your hands. As designers, sometimes we have to make contradicting concepts work together, and in this case, we will be focusing on making two different designs different ideas work as one single design concept.
As designers for animated projects, it's very common that at some point in our careers we may design a character that advertises a product. And the more that we can think about why a certain character might be good to advertise a certain type of product, the better our design will play alongside the product it’s advertising.
One of the coolest aspects of movie making is designing a title sequence. It's usually stylistically bolder than the movie, but still shares the same design language. And when a title sequence showcases a stylized version of the main character from the film /TV show, then as designers we have to make sure that the character is recognizable, and the title sequence fits with the design of the film.
In our 7th lecture, we take on the task of bringing life to an object that is not alive. And by this, we don't mean zombies, but think about what an appliance would look like that came to life. What type of character would a fruit or vegetable be? Whatever isn't living, it's your challenge to make it a living, breathing character.
One common element in movies, comics, & TV shows are the rivalries that exist between characters. Good vs. bad, hero vs. villain—there are hundreds of examples in thousands of movies. It's these rivalries between the characters we love that make their stories and personalities stronger. And in many cases, it takes both characters to showcase that contrast which fuels the rivalry. In our final week of art direction for character designers, you are to design a rival for your character from Week 7.

Real heroes don't wear capes - they teach

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.

Student interviews


January 24th!

Spring TERM Registration

Feb 8, 2021 - Apr 26, 2021




January 24th!

Pricing & Schedule

Even though our courses are the most affordable for the quality of education.

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Employer Reimbursement

Animation Guild CSATTF

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Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

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Imitation and the Art of Finding Your Style

Interview with Linh Bui

Animation student Linh Bui tells us about his experiance adapting to various art styles and how he learned just how different he could be in Art Direction for Character Designers.

Imitation and the Art of Finding Your Style


Hello, my name is Linh. I am a 3D animation student in Canada. When I was a little kid, I always watched cartoons on the tv screen of my neighbour through my window. Cartoons always make me feel happy.  Unluckily, my parents did not allow me to draw until 2015 April, when I was really making an effort to explain to them that art for televisions, games and movies was a professional career. After days and nights of learning through free tutorials on Youtube, buying many many books and practicing, I realized something was missing - I needed solid feedback. I started looking for good quality online schools, and I was very thrilled when I discovered CGMA. 
After I improved my drawing skills as well as my design thinking through fundamental courses, I decided that I wanted to become a character designer. After three character-design classes, I have improved more than I can imagine. However, I had just one style for character design. So, I was really looking forward to taking the last class with Nate Wragg, which is Art Direction for Character Designers, to learn more styles. Unfortunately, that class is offered only one time per year. I wanted that class so much, and I finally attend that class Winter 2019. 

*Art Direction for Character Designers if only offered during CGMA Winter Term


Line, Shape, & Color / Characters & Their Pets  


The style of Week 1 & 2 was a different way of thinking for me, so I have to plan ahead before I commit to my design and make sure everything is consistent to the style. The style only allows to have one color (middle value), solid black and white (black line wrapping around). 


I wanted to tell a story for each of my Character designs. She is a Baroque Aristocrat, she is really arrogant, and she does not care about anything else but herself. Moreover, I gave her a white poodle companion to emphasize her arrogance. For the main character herself, I emphasized the hair, bow, flowers and dress to give my character a noble look. I combined a skinny body with a chubby face to give her beauty. Also, to describe the arrogant characteristic of my character, I designed square ears, sharp eyebrows, and well done eyelid and beauty-spot.



I had some challenges with the environment. I asked Nate Wragg for his advice before and during the Q&A and his advice really made my design a lot different. One of Nate’s advice was that my shot was far away, he told me to bring the camera closer so the viewers can see the characters more clearly.


Animated Title Sequence


My choice for Animated Title Sequence was Game of Thrones because I am a big fan of Game of Thrones, as well as the way they tell the story, the way they develop their characters. I did think about the specific moments such as the first time Arya has needle, Arya’s reunion with her wolf and training with Brienne.  However, I wanted to capture more about Arya’s journey--What Arya had been through and where she is now. So, I chose this confident pose because before, she was a confident, brave but miserable kid. She lost her parents and one of her brothers, struggled to survive, and was being bullied during her training, but now she comes back to her home with confidence and ready for everything that will come next.

Additionally, the style for this assignment is combining Alexander Lindberg’s style and oil painting texture. I noticed that the style of Alexander Lindberg has curves versus straight line and I used just a few lines to describe details and indicate the form. After I finished with my design I applied the oil painting texture (which Nate Wragg provided). The texture not only added texture but also made every single element of my design have the same tone and it really put a more epic look into my design.


Bring Life to an UN-Living Object / Rivals 

After watching Nate Wragg’s lecture of week 7, I always wondered what object would be interesting. So, I took a lot of pictures of daily objects that surround me and drew faces on them to get the feeling and inspiration. It was really fun.  

My first Character was a Matcha ice cream. He is a dashing and confident kid and he likes a Lollipop, which is a little girl who just likes to hang out with other girls doing girly things.  

In each feedback, I got direction to improve my designs. For example, when I first designed the Matcha ice cream character, he looked skinny and funky not exactly the look that I wanted. I wanted for him to show his confidence and dashing personality, but after the feedback I recognized what I did not do well and fixed his look.


After the first character, I was having a very difficult time choosing his rival, because I spent 5 days focusing on what is opposite of an ice cream, but I realized that I do not have to focus on that. I just needed to focus on what story I wanted to tell. So, I came up with a story of an ice cream who likes a pretty Lollipop and follows her everywhere and tries to win her over, and he starts to annoy her. I wanted to give the Lollipop the look that she wants to say: “someone lick this guy, please!”



Final Thoughts

The reason I took this course was to be Nate Wragg’s student again. He is a very good instructor and he provides good and early feedback and even helps us with our portfolio and our personal work without hesitation. The main skill I have learned from this course is that to be able to adapt to whichever styles in the industry and developing my own style. Now I can share my portfolio with confidence that that is says “I am versatile. I can adapt to your style as well.” Thanks to this course, I have more than one unique style in my portfolio. Before, I had only one style and was scared when applying to companies because I was afraid that I could not adapt to another style. This course helped me not only to adapt to a new style but also to know how to combine styles together to make unique styles. Now, I have a process to learn more and develop my own style.  

Through this course, the most fun assignment for me was Animated Title Sequence and Line, Shape, & Color / Characters & Their Pets because they were new ways to approach design for me. After the course, I still do some work for my own in those styles and have had good response. Nevertheless, I have some difficulties with Make Abstract...Not Abstract. The task was combining between 3 styles: An Abstract element, a specific Bulky & Chunky style and Ronald Searle’s final line. I was having a very difficult time matching with the Bulky & Chunky style because at that time I was still too attached to my own style.

The CGMA courses helped me to develop my own process for designing, strengthened my weaknesses and I found what I am really interested in. I would like to recommend this course to people who want to further their character design. This course will definitely help character designers have a unique portfolio.

You can see more of my works here:

Embracing Change: Practicing new styles for a stronger portfolio

Interview with Cassandra Mazur

Cassandra Mazur is a nocturnal artist looking to make the move to daytime character designer. In this interview she tells us how Art Direction for Character Designers with Nate Wragg helped her break old habits and create new portfolio pieces. 

Embracing Change: Practicing new styles for a stronger portfolio


My name is Cassandra Mazur. I am an artist living in Chicago, Illinois. I work at an Advertising/Marketing agency during the day and pursue my other creative endeavors in my free time under the name Cult Fiction Press. I’ve also been pursuing a full-time career in the arts and entertainment industry. Classes offered by CGMA have helped me tremendously by keeping me accountable while also helping ensure I have portfolio-worthy, relevant art pieces. 

I previously received an art degree from a university but felt I needed to retool my portfolio for my specific goals of working in animation as a character designer or another production-related role. I chose this particular character design course as a recommendation from another teacher. They suggested it would help beef up my visual design language and make for an overall stronger more consistent portfolio. 



 Character & Their Pets


For this first assignment, I chose to illustrate a yogi/guru-type character. I knew I wanted to use the color yellow and this type of personality seemed like a good fit for it. I also knew I wanted my animal to be some sort of ape and the idea of the two characters doing yoga together became very appealing to draw. While collecting reference, the character became clearer. He was inspired largely by John Lennon and I took a lot of the shapes for my character from him. The round glasses were repeated in his head shape, and the hair and beard were taken from my reference. I love to draw hair so I put a lot of emphasis on it as I knew I could do the same for my ape character. 



The hard part about using the limited color palette was making decisions on where there would be lines and where negative space would be used. I wanted to limit the number of details on his body because I had already added many lines in his hair and beard. To balance this out, I decided to use his pants to help define the shape of his legs. 


For the critique, Nate suggested exaggerating his posture and elongating his arms to elevate the character. Looking back at my drawings now, I could have pushed this more in the drawing for the second week. I could have made his arms longer and pushed the proportions farther than I did. For the background part of the assignment, I decided on a meditation garden. It was inspired by one at my local botanical garden. Nate suggested that I simplify this more as the characters were getting lost in a lot of the details. I also really liked the composition of this layout and later decided to paint the garden as another piece for my portfolio. 



Make Abstract...Not Abstract 

At first, I was really struggling to come up with an object to use. In my house, I came across a straw and because of its unique shape, I thought it could be an interesting prop for this assignment. I thought it would be clever to tie the function of the straw back into human anatomy, so I made it the mouth of my character and the focal point. From there I worked backwards for inspiration and started looking up news articles that I could use to tie the concept together. I found an article about sports drinks and I built my character around that. The abstraction of the straw really helped me push my shapes and helped take me out of my comfort zone. I was better able to see past more obvious choices I had made in the past out of habit. I really like how this one turned out. 



Week 4 & 5: Characters & Advertising

This turned out to be my favorite assignment. I played around with a few different monster concepts before I got to a place that I was happy moving forward with my yeti creature. For the critique, Nate suggested I smooth out his hair and simplify some of my shapes for a more polished look. I wanted to do a take on a yeti as a mascot for an ice cream company, my take on Blue Bunny. Using my graphic design skills, I made a logo and a mockup for my ice cream box. Nate helped me push the design of the character on the box and have him really sell that he wanted this ice cream with more expressive body language. I think it turned out great! One of my favorites! 


Animated Title Sequence

This was one of my favorite styles that I worked in. Nate had provided a short list of movies and tv shows we could choose from for this. I wanted to do a movie I had never seen before, mostly so I could watch a new movie. I chose A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood's character in the film has the best costume and props so I chose him to illustrate. I found screencaps of the movie for reference. The most pivotal scene was the shoot-out. I loved working in this style since it helped further push me into more abstract shapes and away from design choices I would have made previously. Nate suggested that to help with his silhouette that I change the placement of his cigar, which I took directly from what I saw in the movie. The new placement reads much better as a cigar. I also think this style works really well with the film. The history of this illustration style also comes from around the same era as the movie. The gritty sandy texture used throughout, also helps tie everything together nicely. 



Un-Living Objects/Rivals 

During this last assignment, I was watching a lot of Project Runway so the idea of making part of an inanimate object also part of their clothes just naturally came to me. I liked how the peel of a banana could become part of its wardrobe. Because of the color of what I imagined would be her hair, this Marylin Monroe-type movie starlet character came to mind. Nate suggested that I push her pose to help sell this character and her actions. A more simplified silhouette did the trick. I used this for the next week’s assignment. For the rival, I based this on an older jealous starlet. My story revolved around the idea that this fresh banana was new in Hollywood and the more established overly ripen banana was jealous as her fans now favor the new girl in town. The innate characteristics of the banana and how the color of the peel changes color over time made for a great costume for the character foil. The ice cream fans were the cherry on top. 



Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a very fun class. It has several levels of challenges in each assignment that helped me make some great work. First, the ability to match the style of the art direction. This is something that is very helpful in production work. The second is understanding the character you are creating. The more you understand who this character is, the better the clearer the story becomes through your choices. The third is acting, which comes through posing, silhouette, and use of props. My biggest challenge is and was the acting aspect. Being able to balance the clarity of the silhouette while exaggerating the pose is something, I know I need to work on more from taking this class. 

The first assignment was the most difficult for me because the limited palette forced me to concentrate on shape and line more so than I would have without the limitation. The later assignments helped me get out of some of the habits I naturally tended toward when I draw. Looking back at my first assignment I can see opportunities to push these shapes further. Some of the shape choices I normally make out of habit were easier to move past. I was better able to push through some of my choices and was better able to exaggerate within the limitations of certain styles. 

If you’re looking to push your natural style and unlearn some bad drawing habits, this class will help you get there. You’ll also get some great portfolio pieces if you put in the effort. 


You can see more from Cassandra at the sites below.




Fun with Form: Approaching new challenges with a pen and a pun

Interview with Matthew Quickel

Environment Artist Matthew Quickel shows us how he focused on shape and form to create characters that cracked us up in Art Direction for Character Designers.



Fun with Form:  Approaching new challenges with a pen and a pun

Hi there!  My name is Matthew Quickel and I am from Pennsylvania, United States. I have had an interest in art and animation from a very young age and while I earned a degree in animation, my interests have shifted more specifically to environment design and modeling.  For the past 15 years, I have been working in the video game industry on such franchises as F.E.A.R., The Elder Scrolls Online, and Civilization, and I am currently a Lead Environment Artist at Firaxis Games.  Because I believe you can never stop learning, and I wanted to be able to do more of my own design work rather than rely on concept artists, I signed up for the CGMA course Fundamentals of Architecture Design with Tyler Edlin.  I saw immediate results in the work that I was doing professionally and the positive experience I had with my first course prompted me to sign up for others.  

Art Direction for Character Designers was both an opportunity to do something outside of my day-to-day environment work, and an opportunity to learn from Nate Wragg, whose work I have admired for years.  When I took the course, I was also in the process of creating a children’s book – The Big Book of Horrendous Diseases – and was hopeful the course would help me in the design and development of my own characters.



The assignment for weeks 1 and 2 was to create characters using only lines, shapes, and a single color.  For week 1 I created a carhop – Carhop Carline – who clumsily falls on her skates while carrying an order to hungry guests. For week 2 we were able to add a pet and I developed a nasty, Cruella-De-Ville type character who wears elegant furs and accessories and yanks on the leash of a dog so hard his front paws are off the ground.  The design of these characters were all very much influenced from a time period where this type of limited line, color and shape were found in animation, mostly from the work of UPA.  



I have included a quick process video of the Carhop piece (Carhop_Process) and you can see I started with some rough silhouettes, a more refined middle drawing, and then polished until I was happy with the final result, but I kept playing with her nose shape the entire time.  





While I don’t have a process video of my week 2 project (above), I tried several different dog breeds/types and poses.  The main issue I kept running into was that I was making the dogs too literal and detailed and it would break the vibe of the simple line, shape and color assignment, or it simply wouldn’t work at all.  The first two weeks were probably my favorite because of their restrictions and their tribute to the art you see in limited animation.  



In week 3 we were tasked with creating a character using a style similar to Ronald Searle and adding an abstract element and a fake headline.  I have young children who – and let’s face it most adults agree – don’t care for vegetables, so I thought of this idea where the shape of a lettuce leaf could look like projectile vomit.  Again, I have included a process video as well as my initial sketches (below) to show how this final character evolved.


 I played with his pose quite a bit even though the initial sketch and the final piece weren’t that different from each other.   I was skeptical of how this piece would turn out or how well the abstract element would integrate, but in the end it was a neat assignment.  I lucked out with this piece since it seemed to click on the first try, but it was important for me to incorporate the abstract element in the initial sketches.



For weeks 4-5 we were asked to use an existing villain or monster and ‘cute-ify’ them and then use them in an advertisement.  I’m a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kid (I still have a stash in my office) and chose Bebop for my design.  For week 4 I went through my process of initial sketching using reference from the TV series, comic fan art, and the physical toy from the late 80s. Because toy design already simplifies the character, it’s more digestible to study color, line, and shape.  For the initial pose Bebop was carrying a giant boombox and in the advertisement version, the props focus on the product he’s selling, turtle soup, which is a common phrase used throughout the cartoon series whenever he’s going into battle against the four heroes. Based on feedback, I made some minor changes to the second version of the character, such as some simplification and larger nostrils, but for the most part the character remained mostly unchanged.  For the coloring and shading I was inspired by the work of some children’s book illustrators and Nate, and included subtle shading with line work and sporadic patterning (such as the hair stubble). 



Nate’s course lectures resonated with the general design rules that I also try to adhere to in environment design and helped me to evaluate the characters I was developing for Horrendous Diseases and make changes accordingly.  It also allowed me to improve my Procreate skills on an iPad, which is how I completed 95% of the work for this course.  Unlike being in a studio doing full production where you’re racing to get content in, the class setting really challenges you to pause and question your work. Students should come into this particular class willing to take the time to explore different ideas or iterate on different shapes, designs and poses of a single character.  


You can follow Matthew on his Instagram @mquickel

or check out his work here:

His book is available on Amazon