Exercise: Character

Here are lots of ‘Characters’ from printed media…


The figures standing on piles of cash represent increasing health and fitness that is associated with increased personal wealth. They are drawn without details… an ear and a nose on most. Their clothing is like a baby-grow but they are shaded to give them volume.

The character on the chair is Jeremy Bentham. This is quite probably an illustration of the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham that sits dressed in his glass case at UCL. Does he look dead in this illustration? Not really, and that does perfectly convey the eeriness of the real-life cadaver.

The boy and his dog… he has a rucksack and binoculars and the dog wears a jaunty scarf.

There’s a perfectly normal looking man with a normal wine glass which he is filling from an infeasibly large wine bottle.

The girl with the girl-sized cupcake looks like she’s a china doll – rosy cheeks, beady eyes with eye-lashes and a small straight mouth – all of which could have been painted on.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But in gas masks… tilting at the chemical weapons windmill.



Two policemen arresting a fingerprint. They wear police hats with peaks covering their eyes which somehow makes them more imposing… they remind us of the drill sargent (“Sir, yes sir!”), purposeful gait, commanding hands and mouths set in determination. The perspective heightens the drama and their size-nines are probably size-twelve.

The scientist people are like upside-down exclamation marks to which arms and legs-sticks have been added. All of the expression of emotion comes from impressions given in silhouette – shaking fists, fainting motions, scratching the head…


This is a pamphlet about the electricity in your new home. I think it was issued when the house was sold in 1990. The name of the illustrator has been lost but they remind me of cartoon strips from newspapers.


Light Yellow Bulb Hold Test Tube Science Chemistry Cartoon Character

We kick off with a scientist fashioned from the application of his work… a light bulb which is the incarnation of a scientist. This is an example of anthropomorphism – something Disney has made a living from in terms of making animals more human-looking.

We can tell this light bulb is a scientist because he has a FLASK and GLASSES… lets call them props. The glasses are not enough on their own, but the flask would be. I’m going to categorise these kinds of props as [1] for those that denote the character on their own, [2] for those that reinforce other props but are not enough on their own to make a label. These may apply to other things like facial feature, exression, stance, environment as well as objects including clothing.


A woman in a WHITE COAT [1]. If she was a butcher a white coat wouldn’t be enough – there’d need to be blood stains and a meat cleaver but white coat says scientist first.

She is using APPARATUS [2] which in this case is a little un-lab-like, also food-based. The bell jar is not the usual go-to for science as it’s less recognised… usually it’s a test-tube [1] or a conical or round flask [1].

This illustration I think is drawn as a positive role model… the woman, might be a girl, is drawn smiling – happy with what she’s doing. We get the signal from contemporary media that a scintist is focussed, possible obsessed, with their work which only leaves us with the question – are they a happy or a grumpy scientist? do they enjoy their obsession or does it “use them up”? does it drive them relentlessly regardless of their pleasure in the experience?


A flask, which is alive… but not a scientist… just a piece of science. Since this is the very rocognisible CONICAL FLASK [1] this is definitely science. But nothing tells us that this character is doing science… he is running, and may be part of science, science doing work perhaps.


GOGGLES [2] and, just visible a WHITE COAT [1]. Goggles are associated more widely with other safety issues – pilots and motorbikes; engineering and construction industry. But with the white coat visible even the magenta hair cannot dissuade us that this (band member?) character is sciency.


WHITE COAT [1]. CONICAL FLASK [1], SPECS [2]. Oh, and Green hair, but that doesn’t count unless… well the word ‘mad’ often suggests ‘scientist’ so perhaps green hair that looks mad puts the word scientist on the tip of your lips… is that a [3]?

Also happy… always happy when he’s got a flask.

ugly science

Very kind and misunderstood hunchback lab technician wearing a WHITE COAT [1]. There may be so little to suggest that this character is a scientist that we’re relying on specific popular culture to suggest it… Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein (1974) to be precise… although he dressed in black, not white (!)… and the late Mel Smith’s role in Princess Bride in the pit of despair (also not in white!).

The facial expression here is both nonthreatening and unintelligent – the toothy grin suggests either child-like or senile characteristics; a lack of glasses is subtle in not promoting him to the thinking rank, and the eyes that are left are… something, I don’t know what… there is literally something about the eyes!


This seems to be a huge category with many illustrations turning up in commercial image libraries.


Weight lifter with BARBELL [1], a lot of upper body muscles, a LIFTING BELT [1].


Athlete stick

This guy is an ATHLETE because it says so. He’s running, but that doesn’t really mean anything specific so the word Athlete does the trick. This would be the extreme case.


I had to look this sport up – I didn’t know it existed – it’s Cycle Cross (or ‘CycleX’) and involves courses for bikes that are so ‘all terrain’ that proceeding on foot carrying the bike is required at some places. It has a long history derived from a cross country steeple chase (you ran towards the steeple of the church of the next village) where the route didn’t matter… just the time it took you to complete.


There doesn’t seem to be a single definitive feature but all together it spells sport. The drop handlebars on the bike make it more sport-orientated.



Another combination that would be lost individually, but where no one thing is definitive. The stance maybe the strongest effect – it’s commonly seen of competing runners that they push forward with their torso more than a casual runner. The hands being flat is also an athlete’s preference.

The muscles are only lightly implied by the highlights on arms and legs but it’s enough to emphasise the strength factor of the movement.

Brush ball

So this little fella is definitely a character. He has a jaunty smile and a spring in his step… and he’s a paint brush with yellow paint on his bristles… playing football. Definitely playing football because of the BUCKY-BALL [1] in two colours according to sides per face at his feet. So strong is the presence of the football that there is nothing else at all that indicates that this is a sporting character. He is, after all, a paint brush and I would otherwise expect him to be a decorating kind of character.

Whereas a bike was not enough, a football is everything.

Runner end

This is a photograph, not an illustration (you knew that) but I’ve included it because I knew when I looked at this that the sport denoted was running. I knew this despite the complete absence of running in the image. The runner is sitting on the ground. She might correctly be called a sitter rather than a runner. But the ground is a RUNNING TRACK [1], and she is wearing RUNNING SHOES [2], SHORTS [2], VEST[2] and looks exhausted after doing something… probably running.

What I’m seeing is that not every aspect of a character is necessary to be present in order to accurately and fully communicate the nature of the character.



Here is a much more conventional picture of althleticism – a man of the rings doing a piked-cross (if that’s what it’s called). We recognise the RINGS [1] as being specific to this sport and his peculiarly rigid position as being part of a routine. His muscles are well defined.


We know a lot and a little about this character. He’s a top athlete because of the OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL [1] – we know it’s an Olympic one because of the TORCH [2] or OLYMPIC TORCH [1]. We suspect he probably can’t walk and that this is a Paralympic event… but we have no idea which one. That leaves this character as the slightly generic ‘a Paralympic Athlete’, or more generally just ‘an athlete’.

strong man

Here’s that strange arm again. I remember this arm from the square scientist above, from the Flintsones who used to stand like this, even run like this… perhaps Top Cat too.

This weight lifter seems quite shy… bowed head modest demonstration of power.


This is very interesting to me because the woman running over the finish line wearing a gold Olympic medal suggests that she is an Olympic Gold athlete, as above. However, there’s this word – “WINNER” which demotes the meaning from Olympic Gold Medalist to just… winner… of something not specified.

In character terms this is very generic – there is no face at all. All of the expression is from the body language.


We need to get something out of the way…

Sherlock Holmes. In many situations the DEERSTALKER [1], PIPE [2] and MAGNIFYING GLASS [2] are synonymous with SH and only with SH… using them for another character tends to suggest SH rather than building a new character. The strength of this is amazing but not unique. A waxed moustache as become the symbol of Hercule Poirot and the tan-coloured macintosh points right at Columbo. Lollipop => Kojak. Trilby => Dick Tracy… although it starts to get tenuous.

In fact Detectives have been created in their thousands and they have much more rounded, subtle and 3D characteristics… take Rupert the Bear for example…

Rupert Bear

Probably created in colours that could be used in a two-colour press process Rupert is perhaps similar to Tin Tin (who I used as an example of a children’s book cover) and has adventures of a startlingly unusual variety… and has to solve problems and investigate further… a detective like Miss Marple in that respect. Created by Mary Tourtel, and, after Mary’s death, continued by Alfred Bestall.

I’m not sure how unusual it is or an illustration to pass to someone else after the creator’s death but it is an interesting testament to the degree to which Rupert has a life of his own that his character is able to carry on in that way.

clip-art-rupert-bear-375395His visual elements are quite brief, described by the striking combination of yellow check trousers and matching scarf worn with a plain red jumper and plain uncoloured shoes. Oh… and he’s a bear. The suggestion is perhaps that he’s a teddy-bear and I’m sure there must have been real-toy tie-ins. His face is drawn quite sparsely with only a pair of black dots for eyes (like a teddy bear), a smudgy spec or two to indicate the nose and a mouth with a hint of the animal upper-lip. He seems to have five fingers (rather than the often used three to make a cartoon uncluttered), including opposable thumbs – no hint of the ‘bear paw’ there. He is essentially a child with a bear head.

Another bear-detective


While we’re on bears I’m going to give a special mention to Paddington… because of the magnifying glass. He disguised himself as ‘Feathers Lock’ [A ruse on ‘FeatherLock’ perhaps – a company who make heir extensions] and went to investigate… with a MAGNIFYING GLASS [1]… episode #20 Paddington Turns Detective…

Isn’ t he lovely. His facial features never seem to move, even when he gives someone his hard stare.

Inspector Cleuseau

Created by PATRICK OWSLEY this version of the incompetent lawkeeper who is always on the case of the Pink Panther is quite distinctive…


He has a MAGNIFYING GLASS [1] (loupe) that is as big as he is… a GUN [2] (pistolet) (in France this is normal, d’accord) and a MAC [2] (manteau de pluie). His face is magnificent in its simplicity and total departure from regular anatomy; the nose always points to the problem, his whole head is ahead of his body – always rushing in. He seems to be shown in profile more than not (if at all?) which greatly enhances the identifyability of his face. His clothing is super-dynamic, cutting unusual angles, extra pointy and starched, but so few lines. The hugeness of his one visible eye reinforces that he is a detective… always looking for something (The Pink Panther,  naturellement).

Inspector Gadget


“Columbo and Nintendo all rolled into one” (IG Movie).

IG Kit Model Sheets - Characters - Gadget, Penny and BrainIG Kit Model Sheets - Characters, Size Guideinspecteur-gadget-serie-tv-d-a-1983-05-g

Classic Gadget – MAC [2], MAGNIFYING GLASS [1] (not shown… it’s a gadget… summoned by “Go Go Gadget Magnifying  Glass” of course). SIDEKICKS [2].

This character bears passing similarity to Inspector Cleuseau for his incompetence and raincoat, even the big nose, but is made more conventionally human-sized and -shaped. The tufts of hair that stick out behind his ears give him a scatty silhouette that predicts his scatty brain. The girl and the dog – his sidekicks – are Brain and Penny… they are both the brains of the operation.


These come in two flavours… on and off duty. Spiderman and Peter Parker; Superman and Clark Kent (special case… as Clark Kent is the acquired alter-ego: Superman was born the way he is); Hulk and Dr Bannister; Hong Kong Fuey and Penrod “Penry” Pooch (mild mannered janitor – perhaps another in the general mold of Cleuseau);

Many superheros started out in Marvel Comics or DC Comics or other independent graphic stories and have recently been reaped by the movie business… sometimes rather artlessly. Lets talk about their first print appearances.



Artwork by: Joe Shuster

In June 1938 Superman appeared for the first time with his underpants on the outside of his tights, a style that was imitated by subsequent Superheros. Lets call these TRUNKS [2]. He also sported a CAPE [1]. He wore solid red and blue with some yellow bits on his logo – a striking pallet.

Visually the cape is a masterstroke – it allows speed and direction of travel to be boldly indicated, including turning, and offers many compositional opportunities for filling space and adding dynamic lines to an image.

All Comic-book Superheros

Although worthy of long a detailed analysis in another context I don’t think I’ll enumerate all the DC, Mavel an other independent charactes here. Important points to mention about how they were drawn though are…

  1. Super proportions. As befits their status they were drawn a little taller, wider and more substantial than the NPCs with whom they mingled.
  2. Stan Lee and John Bescuma took compositional care with their frames making them work as super-dynamic illustration. The focus was pointed at by the rest of the composition and framed by it.
  3. The stance of a superhero (or villain) was exaggerated with sweeping lines and use of perspective depth to show power and movement
  4. Detailed close-ups of characters’ faces, a cinematic convention, are used to show emotion in the face which would then be drawn in much more detail than when the character was in action… a long shot.

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