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A song of research and reference

  • Published at 05:56 pm January 21st, 2019

Finding inspiration for your character design

A lot of people think using a photo as a reference is lazy, weak, or a shortcut. You’d be surprised to know that even the most accomplished artists use photo references. It is an integral component of the “grammar” of drawing.

Let’s say you’re drawing a man holding a cup. Whether you use a live reference or a photo one, you’ll definitely need to study a subject holding a cup, note his posture, the pressure exerted by his fingers, and all these little details so that your drawing becomes more lifelike. 

The same applies to character design. Researching your subject, drawing up as many references as you can is the first, vital step to character design.  It’s a little like preparing for exams. The more you research your subject, and the more samples, examples, and references you can dig up, the more unique, well-rounded and realistic your final design will be.  An artist can look at two different kinds of references:

Text references – these can be newspaper articles, or stories and fiction. These often include useful physical descriptions, and also provide context for your character. What ’s his name? What does he do? Where does he live? And so on and so forth.

Image references – photos, videos, similar artwork, etc. This gives us a visual reference about the character. What is his overall shape? What kind of clothes/gadgets does he wear? What kind of colour tone is appropriate?     

The final design is an amalgamation of the two kinds of references.  

Not too long ago, Cartoon People had the theme “Pirates of the Sundarbans” for their Deshi Character Design Challenge (DCDC). This is a good case study to help make my point about referencing, so we can go step-by step into how references were used to create the characters:

To know more about this challenge please visit: https://medium.com/@cartoonpeople/dcdc8-shundorboner-jolodoshshu-winner-announcement-a2f14de45490 

Step one: Google search

I’m sure those who started their research with a Google Image Search for “Pirates of the Sundarbans” were sorely disappointed with their findings. This is because a) the search engine is still lacking in categories for local visual references and b)the kind of character that the DCDC wanted had nothing to do with Pirates of the Caribbean or Peter Pan’s Captain Hook. Now what? The answer lies in better search keywords.

Instead of heading to Google Images for the pirates of the Sundarbans, it’s better to dig through news reports of bandits caught in that region. Upon doing some digging through articles and old news footage, I learned the following things from the RAB Website:

Between May 31, 2016, and April 29, 2017, some 132 members of 12 gangs of bandits operating in the Sundarbans made an unconditional surrender to the authorities.

Upon their surrender, the pirate gang ‘Master Bahini’ appealed to the government for clemency, and 10 members have been released from prison.

The largest and most notorious gang ‘Jagangir Bahini’ turned themselves into the government

Now I had the keywords ‘Master Bahini’ and ‘Jahangir Bahini’ to use, and these led me to some Jamuna TV news footage on Youtube. I quickly took some screenshots to use as references for my pirate. Reading these hair-raising stories, I was reminded of the infamous Phoolan Devi, so I used the keywords ‘dacoit’ and ‘bandit’, and the resulting searches led me to the mythologies surrounding Bon Bibi, gol pata, and Chitral deer, which also added to the concept.

Step 2: Other media

And now we take a step back from Google and look around us. The research isn’t limited to the specific image; you can get more well-rounded inspiration from anywhere, be it a film, a play, a magazine, or even a t-shirt. Movies in particular, are great sources, because a lot of thought has already gone into the costume, styling and makeup of a character, so if you watch something related to the kind of character you’re creating, you’re bound to come up with a lot of ideas.

I checked out Ghatmal, Jungle, and Veerapan, and found some great references.

Step 3: Reference library

What really helps a lot is if you have your own reference library. Whenever I see some artwork I like, I save it on Pinterest, or create a Facebook album. Unless you’re making a direct copy, the work of other artists can be great inspiration. You can never tell when some fanart or photo will prove to be useful. I found two saved book covers that had the tone I was looking for, and an illustration from the Shondesh magazine that really helped me. 

You can be inspired by foreign artists, but it’s a little tricky. It doesn’t do to make a ditto copy of that artwork; for the DCDC challenge in particular, you have to have the deshi element to it. Nonetheless, there’s no reason why the gesture of one foreign character, and the mood of another can’t be woven with local elements and motifs, such as ethnic clothing, skin tone, etc, to create a unique, deshi character. 

The more you research, the wider the doors of imagination. I wanted a powerful, negative, completely insane type of character, for which I curated a bunch of different villains. Placing them in one collage, I had my work cut out for me. Seeing them together showed me what elements I wanted to ‘borrow’ from each. The thing about inspiration is it opens up your door for imagination.

These three steps should help with any character design project. Just remember, do your research, use multiple references, and do a lot of rough sketches, and you’ll have a killer character.

This article was translated by Sabrina Fatma Ahmed.