8 Practical Tips to Improve Your Cartoon Character Design
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. Start with a simple shape
  2. Add depth with shading
  3. Play with proportions
  4. Use reference images
  5. Create expressive facial features
  6. Give your character a backstory
  7. Experiment with colors
  8. Animate your character

Ever wondered how to level up your creativity in the world of cartoons? Let's dive into a journey where we will discover how to improve character design in cartoon. This post is a treasure trove of practical tips and tricks, from simple shaping techniques to the art of animation, aimed at enhancing your cartoon character design capabilities. So sit back, relax, and let's get started.

Start with a Simple Shape

The first rule of thumb in cartoon character design is starting with a basic shape. This is a neat trick that helps in creating a clear and clean foundation for your character. It's like building a house—you start with the base before you add in the doors and windows.

Here's how you can do it:

  • Choose a shape: Shapes are the building blocks of character design. Squares, circles, triangles—each shape adds a unique flavor to your character. A circle, for instance, often gives a friendly vibe, whereas a square might indicate strength and stability.
  • Sketch the shape: Next, sketch your chosen shape. Remember, this is just a rough sketch, so don't strive for perfection here. The idea is to get a general outline for your character.
  • Work on the structure: Once you have your shape, start adding in the body parts. This includes the head, body, arms, and legs. Imagine you're drawing a stick figure within your shape. This gives you a basic structure to work with.
  • Refine and polish: Now that you have a rough sketch of your character, it's time to refine it. Smooth out the edges, add in the details, and voila! You have your character's basic design.

Starting with a simple shape is an effective way to improve character design in cartoon. It provides a clear direction and helps in maintaining consistency throughout your design. So, the next time you sit down to design a character, remember to start with a simple shape—you'll be amazed at how much difference it makes!

Add Depth with Shading

Now that we've got our character's basic shape sorted, let's move on to the next tip on how to improve character design in a cartoon — adding depth with shading. Shading, when used correctly, can make your characters look more three-dimensional and lifelike. It's like adding shadows to a sunny day, giving your characters a sense of depth and realism.

Here's a step-by-step guide on how to do it:

  • Choose your light source: The first step in shading is to decide where the light in your scene is coming from. This will determine where the shadows and highlights on your character will be.
  • Add shadows: Shadows are areas on your character where light does not reach. They are generally located on the side opposite to the light source. Start by adding a darker shade of your character's color to these areas.
  • Add highlights: Highlights are areas on your character that are directly hit by light. They are usually found on the side facing the light source. Add a lighter shade of your character's color to these areas to create highlights.
  • Blend: Finally, blend the shadows and highlights with the base color to create a smooth transition. This gives your character a more realistic and three-dimensional appearance.

Adding depth with shading is an effective technique to improve your cartoon character design. It gives your characters a three-dimensional look, making them more visually appealing and realistic. So, the next time you're designing a character, don't forget to add a dash of shading—it's like the cherry on top of your character design cake!

Play with Proportions

One of the most fun and creative ways to improve character design in cartoons is to play around with proportions. What does this mean? Well, it's about making some parts of your character bigger or smaller than they normally would be. This might sound a bit odd, but trust me, it can result in some truly unique and memorable characters.

Here are some steps you can take to experiment with proportions:

  1. Start with a basic sketch: Before you begin distorting proportions, create a basic sketch of your character. This serves as your reference point.
  2. Identify key features: Next, pick out the features that you believe define your character the most. These could be anything from big eyes, a long nose, to extra-large feet.
  3. Exaggerate these features: Now comes the fun part — exaggerating these features. Make them bigger or smaller, longer or shorter. There's no limit to what you can do!
  4. Keep the rest of the body balanced: While you're exaggerating some features, remember to keep the rest of the body proportionate. This prevents your character from looking too outlandish.

Playing with proportions can lead to some truly unique character designs. Think of it as a way to stretch your creative muscles and push the boundaries of what's possible. So next time you sketch out a character, don't be afraid to play around with their proportions — you might just be surprised at what you can create!

Use Reference Images

Remember when you were learning how to ride a bike? You probably watched someone else do it first, right? Similarly, when it comes to improving your character design in cartoons, using reference images can be extremely helpful. It's like learning from the masters!

Reference images can be anything from photos of real people and animals, other cartoons, or even objects. For example, if you want to design a character who's a chef, you could look at images of chefs in action. Notice the details — the way they hold their utensils, how their aprons are tied, the intensity in their eyes as they're focused on their task. All these little details can help bring authenticity to your cartoon character.

Here are some ways you can use reference images effectively:

  1. Collect a variety of images: Don't limit yourself to just one or two images. The more you have, the more inspiration you can draw from.
  2. Study these images: Look at them closely. Try to understand why the artist made the choices they did. What stands out? What makes the character unique?
  3. Sketch from these images: Try to sketch your own character based on these images. Remember, you're not copying — you're learning and incorporating different elements into your own design.

Reference images are a goldmine of inspiration. They can provide you with a starting point, guide you along the way, and most importantly, teach you something new. So, the next time you're stuck on a design, try using reference images. It might just be the push you need!

Create Expressive Facial Features

Let's talk faces. You know how a picture speaks a thousand words? Well, the same goes for your cartoon character's face. A well-designed face can communicate a character's personality, mood, and intentions without a single word of dialogue. So, how do we improve character design in cartoons with expressive facial features? Let's dive in.

First off, think about the character's eyes. Eyes are often said to be windows to the soul, and that's true for cartoons as well. Big, round eyes can give your character a youthful, innocent look, while narrow, slanted eyes might suggest a more cunning personality. Don't forget the eyebrows — a simple tweak can show whether your character is surprised, angry, or worried.

Next, let's move on to the mouth. A wide, toothy grin can show happiness or excitement, while a small, tight-lipped smile might indicate shyness or awkwardness. And remember, it's not just about the shape of the mouth, but also how it moves. Think about how your character talks and laughs, and design the mouth accordingly.

Lastly, don't forget about the other facial features like the nose and ears. While they might not be as expressive as the eyes or mouth, they still contribute to the overall look and feel of your character. A long, pointy nose might make your character look comical or sneaky, while small, round ears could add to a cute, cuddly appearance.

Creating expressive facial features is all about paying attention to the details. So, the next time you're designing a cartoon character, take a moment to really think about their face. It might just make the difference between a good character and a great one!

Give Your Character a Backstory

Every great character has a story, and cartoon characters are no exception. A well-thought-out backstory can make your character more relatable and engaging. But how can you give your character an interesting backstory that could improve character design in cartoons? Let's break it down.

Start by asking yourself some questions about your character. Where do they come from? What was their childhood like? What events or experiences shaped them into who they are today? The answers to these questions can provide a rich background for your character and inform their actions and reactions within the story.

Next, consider your character's personality traits. Are they brave or timid? Optimistic or pessimistic? These traits can also come from their backstory. Maybe a traumatic event made them cautious, or a supportive family made them confident. By linking personality traits to the backstory, you can make your character feel more well-rounded and believable.

Finally, think about how the backstory can influence the visual design of your character. For instance, a character who grew up in a cold climate might wear heavy clothes, while a character with a passion for music could carry an instrument. These visual clues can hint at the backstory and make your character more intriguing.

Creating a backstory requires a bit of imagination, but it can significantly enrich your character design. So, the next time you create a cartoon character, spend some time crafting their story. Who knows, you might end up with a character as memorable as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny!

Experiment with Colors

Colors can bring your cartoon character to life and make them pop off the screen. But how can you use colors to improve your character design in cartoons? Let's dive into some practical tips.

First off, think about the personality of your character. Are they a fiery and passionate individual? Then, you might want to use bold and warm colors like red or orange. Or are they calm and collected? In that case, cool colors like blue or green could be a better fit. Always remember, colors can convey emotions and personality traits, so choose them wisely.

Next, consider the setting of your story. If your character is in a sunny beach setting, bright and vibrant colors could be a great choice. On the other hand, if the story is set in a dark and gloomy city, more muted and darker tones can set the right mood.

Also, don't forget about color contrasts. By using contrasting colors, you can make your character stand out from the background and draw the viewer's attention. It's a simple yet effective way to make your character more noticeable.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment and break the rules. Who says a cat can't be purple or a human can't have green hair? In the world of cartoons, you have the freedom to be as creative as you want. So go ahead, play around with colors and see what works best for your character.

In conclusion, colors are a powerful tool in character design. With the right colors, you can create a character that is not only visually appealing but also full of personality and emotion. So, next time you're working on a cartoon character, don't forget to experiment with colors. You might be surprised by the results!

Animate Your Character

Animating your character is the ultimate test of your character design skills. It's where you'll find out if your character can truly come to life. But how do you animate your character to improve your character design in cartoons? Let's explore this further.

Firstly, understand the basic principles of animation. This includes concepts like timing, squash and stretch, anticipation, and follow-through. These principles will give your character a sense of weight and realism, making them more believable to the audience.

Next, focus on the character's movements. Are they agile and quick, or are they slow and clumsy? Their movements should match their personality. For example, a shy character might have hesitant, awkward movements, while a confident character might move with more fluidity and grace.

Also, pay attention to your character's facial expressions. Even the smallest change in the character's eyebrows or mouth can express a wide range of emotions. Make sure your character's expressions align with their feelings and reactions to the events in the story.

Finally, remember to keep your animations consistent. If your character has a unique way of moving or expressing themselves, maintain that throughout the animation. Consistency helps to establish your character's identity and makes them more memorable to the audience.

In conclusion, animating your character is a vital part of character design. It brings your character to life and allows them to interact with their environment and other characters. So, take the time to master the art of animation. It's a challenging but rewarding process that can greatly improve your character design in cartoons.

If you're looking to further enhance your cartoon character design skills, we highly recommend checking out Rory Duke Stewart's workshop, 'Drawing Compelling Expressions in Character Design.' This workshop will help you master the art of drawing dynamic and engaging expressions that will bring your characters to life. Don't miss this opportunity to learn from a talented artist and take your character design to the next level!