Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life

Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life

by Tom Bancroft

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Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life by Tom Bancroft

You've researched your character extensively, tailored her to your audience, sketched hundreds of versions, and now you lean back content as you gaze at your final character model sheet. But now what? Whether you want to use her in an animated film, television show, video game, web comic, or children's book, you're going to have to make her perform. How a character looks and is costumed starts to tell her story, but her body language reveals even more. Character Mentor shows you how to pose your character, create emotion through facial expressions, and stage your character to create drama. Author Tom Bancroft addresses each topic with clear, concise prose, and then shows you what he really means through commenting on and redrawing artwork from a variety of student "apprentices." His assignments allow you to join in and bring your drawing to the next level with concrete techniques, as well as more theoretical analysis. Character Mentor is an apprenticeship in a book.

Professional artists from a variety of media offer their experience through additional commentary. These include Marcus Hamilton (Dennis the Menace), Terry Dodson (X-Men), Bobby Rubio (Pixar), Sean "Cheeks" Galloway (Spiderman animated), and more. With a foreword by comicbook artist Adam Hughes, who has produced work for DC, Marvel Comics, Lucasfilm, Warner Bros. Pictures, and other companies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780240820712
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 05/08/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 178
Sales rank: 815,864
Product dimensions: 8.48(w) x 10.66(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Tom Bancroft is a 30 year veteran of the animation industry. In his artistic career he has specialized in children's character designs, animation, video game development, and comic books. Formerly, he worked at Walt Disney Feature Animation for twelve years, animating on new Disney classics, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Brother Bear, and more. He is the author of the popular character design book Creating Characters with Personality: For Film, TV, Animation, Video Games, and Graphic Novels.

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Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life
By Tom Bancroft

Focal Press

Copyright © 2012 Tom Bancroft
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-82088-0

Chapter One


As I mentioned in the preface, this book starts with the conceit that you have a character or characters already designed—so now what do you do with them? You may want to use them in a comic book, a video game, an animated film, a TV show, or a children's book. How you use them is important, but what you are trying to communicate with them is what is most important. Drawing style does not matter concerning the instruction in this book. How you approach showcasing your characters is what matters.

If I had to write a "mission statement" for this book it would be this: Character Mentor is a book that communicates to artists of all styles and within all industries the importance of using posing, expressions, and staging to bring your characters to life. I believe that there is a "missing link" in our development as artists from our early beginnings of enjoying to draw to becoming a professional, working artist. My hope is that this book can be used as a tool to help bridge that gap.

Let's start with some general posing and expression basics and tips. These are some good ground rules and drawing pointers that we will be putting to use in later chapters. Unlike other sections of this book, these notes do not necessarily rely on a character's specific personality. They are lessons that can be applied to all characters.


If your character's arms, legs, or even the grin of its mouth is identical in position with its partner, we call this "twinning." Not that I have anything against twins (in fact, I am a twin, and I have twin girls), but "twinning" in your character's pose does not create a strong pose. Try to avoid this effect whenever possible. It makes for a dull, average pose and is generally considered a weak design. Offset your pose whenever possible.

A good example of twinning can be seen in the traditional "Ta-Da!" pose (see Figure A). Even in a flat, straight-on angle like this, a slight tilt to the head, bringing one of the arms up some, and placing the character's weight more on one leg than the other will break up the symmetry in the pose (Figure B). Same emotion in the pose, more interesting design.

A subtler example of twinning is seen in an "I don't know" shrug pose. In this example, twinning is acceptable because it does communicate this very recognizable pose (Figure A). But, a slight tilt to the head and minor arm/hand adjustments can make the pose a bit more interesting while still communicating the idea (Figure B).


A common practice of beginning artists is to leave perspective out of their characters' poses. It complicates the drawing, thus making it harder to create. Adding some depth to your pose will improve the pose immensely. Keep practicing your perspective in your character drawings and backgrounds; it will pay off! If your character is standing on the ground, rough in a ground plane that has some perspective to it rather than having a flat line for your character to stand on.

Adding some perspective/depth will:

* Help you avoid twinning in your character's stance. Even if your character has some symmetry to its pose, adding depth to its stance will automatically take away the twinning problem because of the differences in the sizes of the shapes. In Figure B, the foreground eye, ear, arm, and leg are bigger than the left side of the drawing which helps the drawing appear less symmetrical.

* Make your poses more dynamic. Note that the more dynamic angle in Figure B immediately gives more drama to the scene of the little girl reaching for the glass.

* Make poses more clear and give them a better silhouette. A good way to check your character's silhouette value is to shade it in on the back of your paper. Figure A, if shaded in would be very unclear what the boy was pointing at- or even that he was pointing at all! The pose in Figure B, clears that guesswork up!

* Help strengthen expressions and emotions. The slump in the shoulders and the head hanging down can be seen clearer in the quarter-front view on the right than the dead-on front view on the left.

Remember that you have created your characters so they can be broken down into simple, basic shapes. This step will allow you to draw your character from different angles and perspectives. Think of the basic shapes of the head, eyes, lips, and nose of the face. Place them in the perspective within the circular shape of the head, remembering that shapes flatten as they turn away from the center (Figure A). This simplified drawing is the key to correctly replicating your characters from different angles. Once you have roughed out those basic shapes, you can then start adding details and refining the shapes of your character (Figure B).


We have all done it before: you have worked hard creating your character, putting him or her into a good pose, giving the character just the right expression, and then you quickly sketch in his or her clothing so that you can be done with your masterpiece. Be careful, as there are many ways you can hurt a good drawing by thoughtlessly throwing clothes on over it. Keep in mind that your character has depth and dimension. As you draw in the clothing on top of your character, consider how the cuffs will curve around the arms or legs – are they convex or concave circles? Are the wrinkles in the shirt or pants moving around the shape of the body or through it? The figure below shows the same pose drawn in two different ways: version A has perspective problems to the clothing; version B works with the perspective of the body. You've been warned: watch out for these depth killers!


A common mistake when posing characters is to have the arms, legs, and head do all the communication of the pose while the midsection (pelvis to torso) is straight as a board. A straight midsection or core can make your poses feel stiff. Also, you can miss out on a stronger way to communicate the emotions of the pose.


The imaginary line that can be drawn through your character's pose from feet to head (or through the arms, depending on the pose) is called the "line of action." In a dynamic pose, like a character punching another character (Figure A), the line of action is strong and clear if the poses are pushed. Straight, boring poses don't have a dynamic line of action, as seen in this "fight scene" in Figure B.

Additionally, there is a natural "flow" within the anatomy of your character when you have a strong line of action. It will also give your characters a sense of power and dynamics.


To go along with the idea of a line of action in your character's poses, remember to draw elements within your pose at angles to create a more dynamic pose. A shape that is at a 45-degree angle, for example (Figure A) is more visually dynamic than a shape that is at a 90-degree angle (Figure B).

It's too easy to draw a straight up and down pose for your character. Try and push yourself to add angles into the drawing whenever possible. You will see this in superhero comic books in particular. Here are some stick figure–style poses with some of the straights taken out and replaced with some angles. More dynamic?


This might be a good place to stop for a moment and go through a pose-based illustration from start to finish to see how I would approach it. I always learn from seeing other artists' processes, and I think you might get something out of this that you can apply throughout this book.

I gave myself a simple assignment to create a spot illustration of a woman jumping out of the way of something – possibly reacting to someone throwing a firecracker at her. My goal is to create a pose that expresses a powerful leap but also has a strong sense of fear to her facial expression.

Here are the steps I took:

1. I create a quick sketch that is mostly just a line of action with simple shapes on top of it to show her basic anatomy. I'm going for a feeling here – almost like the pose is an exclamation mark. I use a red, erasable pencil to sketch this out. There is no real reason for the color red, but I do like using a color for my sketch so that I can clearly see the changes/final line when I add the black graphite in step 6.

2. I like where the sketch is going, so I stay with it. I add some more details, still using just basic shapes: ovals for the eyes and nose, a shape for the mouth. And I indicate the drag of her long hair, which also accents the movement.

3. I continue to add details. Refining her clothes (and the sense of drag on them). I start figuring out her expression more, too.

4. Because the sketch is far enough along to see some problems creeping into the drawing, I do what I do to most of my drawings – I flip it over. Looking at a drawing backward (via a light box) always helps me see the problems of a drawing. I create a new sketch on the back of the paper, fixing problems I see, like the lower foot placement, the tilt of the chest, opening the hand on one of the arms, and even redrawing the tilt of her head.

5. Flipping the drawing back the original way, I redraw the drawing, transferring the corrections I made on the back. They are minor tweaks, but they helped.

6. Using a kneaded eraser, I "knock back" the red underdrawing (which simply means I lighten the line by hitting it lightly with the eraser). Then I start creating my final, tighter line drawing with a graphite pencil. I want the final line to still feel loose, so I keep it slightly sketchy.

7. After I've drawn everything in the tighter black line – adding little details like hair strands and highlights in the eyes – I scan the drawing into the computer. This step enables me to go into the Channels box and select the Red channel, which takes out all the red line underdrawing, leaving only the tight black line. I then tweak the levels and contrast a bit until I have a final, tight black line. Ready for color!

8. In Adobe Photoshop, I start adding color. On a separate level, I cut out a shape for the background color and fill it with a gradient. I start with the background color simply because I already know that I want it to be a reddish-orange to give a sense of danger. Establishing the main color first is usually a good idea so that you can make sure everything else goes with it.

9. I add a white level (in the shape of the figure) in between the line and background color levels. This step gives me an opaque surface to work off of so the girl's colors aren't affected by the background colors.

10. At this point, I start blocking in flat color for her. Not all of them are completely flat; in a few places I use a gradient, like for her hair and blouse. There are a million different ways to color this piece, but I wanted a simple, "animated" coloring style for this that I thought would suit the linework style.

11. The last step is to add another layer that has some highlights and darker shadows that are applied graphically. Also, I make a last-minute decision to move her left arm down a bit so that the two arms weren't twinning so much. I should have caught this earlier (around steps 4–7) because changing it in the color stage is more work. With that change made, the drawing is done!


The most important element to creating a successful pose of your character is clarity. "Clarity" refers to the ability to be able to clearly understand the intent behind the pose – or the ability to "read" the pose. I have learned through the years that the first thing to do to create a good, useful, clear pose for whatever situation I need it for (comic strips, comic books, animation, illustration, or storyboards) is to take a moment and think. If I think about what I need the pose to communicate, that will eliminate many different poses and give me a feel for what I need to prioritze. Is the character pointing at something? Is my character sad and crying? Does the character want to show something to someone? Remember that there is always a reason for a pose, and if there is not, then do not draw it. It will be emotionless and without direction.


Excerpted from CHARACTER MENTOR by Tom Bancroft Copyright © 2012 by Tom Bancroft. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Now What: Drawing basics for Posing and Expressions (Assignment #1: Character design: Elroy and Kirby); Chapter 2: The Face: Breaking down the elements of expression (Assignment #2: Drawing "Emma" with different expressions ); Chapter 3: Posing your character: what are you trying to communicate? (Assignment #3: Drawing "Tommy" in three, distinct poses); Chapter 4: Acting: Characters acting and reacting the way you want them to (Assignment #4: Thumbnail sketch a series of poses of "Tommy" to best describe a specific action); Chapter 5: Staging your scene: Using the elements of your scene to create a composition (Assignment #5: Illustrate the same scene from two different points-of-view); Chapter 6: Leading the eye: Prioritizing by design (Assignment #6: Illustrating a specific scene, using the designs provided); Chapter 7: Putting it in action: creating an illustration from start to finish

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Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book, as well as Tom Bancroft's first book, is amazing- if you want to take your skills to the next level, then buy this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book supplies lessons and tips about using your character to its highest potential via posing, expressions, composition, and more. Each chapter is filled with illustrated examples (and there is rarely a wall of text to read). These lessons are easy to follow and come from a former Disney animator who knows what he's talking about. It's an easy-to-digest book and is incredibly useful for amateur and professional cartoonists alike; I highly recommend it!