Cat Fu: A Character Design Study

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Designing characters can be tough, especially when you’re creating your own and don’t have a brief to follow. However, there are some general tips that can help in the design process. Thinking about contrast, shapes, and the story behind your character should all be carefully thought out to add depth and strength in the overall final design. Having a strong background in anatomy is also a plus, even if the character is more stylized. In this post, I will discuss the importance of anatomy, the pre-design phase where we research and study, and the design process of the character Cat Fu.

Importance of anatomy

Before creating your character, it is a good idea to have a decent grasp on human anatomy. Even for the most stylized characters, professional artists have a strong background in anatomy. This way, when they design the character they are able to exaggerate certain proportions in a way that makes sense and pushes the overall design that is still functional on a certain level.

Below is a human anatomical reference of proportion. There are different ways to represent certain figures depending on the story behind your character. Andrew Loomis, an American Illustrator, has many books on figure drawing and illustration and his well known for his Loomis Method. Some books and tutorials are available online for free and are highly suggested. These general tips can help bring more depth into your character and add to your overall design to strengthen a story. Although these are general guidelines, they don’t always have to be followed. They can be pushed and pulled for further exaggeration and style, but it’s always a good idea to get a grasp of the fundamentals first.

Going for a more heroic character, we can see the larger, more broad figure near the end that would support the role. Compared to a fashion type character, with a length of 8 1/2 heads versus the 9 for the heroic.

Inspiration and reference

Today, we are surrounded by movies, cartoons, professional artists, music, nature, and all sorts of different things that inspire us. Even if you’re the type to sit home most of the time, a lot of inspiration can be found on the internet through different sites. A personal favourite of mine to look is Pinterest.

The images in this board have been pinned by concept artist and instructor Anthony Jones. He has a collection of amazing references and resources grouped together on Pinterest for artists or enthusiasts to follow.
Looking at great art for inspiration can be a fun process when thinking of new ideas or admiring the many different styles and ways others have created worlds and characters.

However, inspiration only goes so far. You have to make your own art, keeping in mind to come up with your own ideas. Referencing different product design and way things are made is another excellent method to look for reference and study functionality. An important aspect of designing and problem solving is functionality. Will a character’s armor allow him or her to move properly within their particular environment? How heavy or light should the armor be based on their movement needs? These are questions every character artist asks themselves while designing.

Approaching studies

Studying from reference is a great way to add to your visual library and improve on your design sense. There is no right way to study, as every individual is different, but switching your methods of studying can be a good way to change things up. Many start off by copying the image directly, and this is definitely a valid way of studying as long as you have a goal in mind: Am I studying the lighting in this picture? How do the colours react and complement or contrast with each other? What is the shape and flow of the different objects in the picture? Below are some examples of how studies can be approached.

Find different images that fit the subject you want to study and write notes on what you are studying within that picture.
Studies are a good way to get the information planted into your head and also to reference back to see what specific things you were trying to figure out.
Doing a quick study will prevent you from messing up complicated blocking details.

Cat Fu: the design brief

As a character artist, you are often given design briefs of the possible characters within a game. Your job is to create versions and designs of these characters based on their story and function within the environment. For this tutorial, we will be looking at the design brief for the character “Cat Fu”. Below is the description that will inform our design: “Cat Fu is a black bob-tailed cat. He is slick, cool, and full of funk. He has a strong African American voice, reminiscent of Shack — deep and ‘sexy’ sounding. He is a Kung Fu master, trained by Bruce Lee’s cat. (Did Bruce Lee have a cat?) He wears nothing but a red collar with a gold tag. The tag has the initials CF on it. Slender, but muscular, like Bruce Lee, Cat Fu moves with speed and grace, and is a heck of a dancer. He loves both funk and disco music.”

Based on the description of the character above, we can begin to gather references for key design elements mentioned in the brief. This way, we can design the cat character as to fit the background story and functionality of the character within the game environment. Below are some references gathered around the internet that we can study and pull elements from when designing Cat Fu.

Creating a reference board

Creating a reference board can be extremely helpful during the design phase. Having a board with all your images nearby with different key elements can speed up the thought process when drawing. Below is a reference board with key elements from the design brief. This was created using ProRef, a free and simple software found online that organizes your reference images.

It can be a good idea to create some studies of your references to really understand the visual language of a cat and the dynamic movements and poses of Bruce Lee and incorporate them into your design.

Designing using SketchBook’s tools

There are many different tools out there that you can design and draft in. In this particular tutorial we will be using SketchBook and many of its handy tools to help in the drafting process of Cat Fu. A tool is only as good as the artist using it, but there are a differences in software that can help an artist in different ways through the drawing process. SketchBook has several key tools that can be useful when drawing characters and character sheets. As a character artist, we are often required to draw multiple views of a character (usually front, side and back) for the 3D modeler so they can take your sketches and create them in 3D for the game.


Rough sketch using symmetry

We can use SketchBook’s symmetry tool to create our front view of the character. Since Cat Fu will be symmetrical from the front, we can take advantage of this tool and therefore would only have to design half of the character while also getting a representation of how it looks mirrored. This significantly speeds up the process and keeps things organized. A beginning step would be to use this tool and roughly mark out the proportions of the character.



Refining the sketch

To design characters in 2D for the modelers to create in 3D, we must make every line clear and show proper overall forms. From our rough outline, we can create a new layer in SketchBook and use the ellipse and ruler tools to create a more clear and simple line art over our rough sketch we did earlier. A key tool in SketchBook that can help with clean line art is the **Steady Stroke** tool. It takes the stroke of your line and averages it out to create a clean curve.

Three tools you definitely want to get to know: the Ruler, the Ellipse tool, and Steady Stroke, which helps you draw very appealing lines.
Using the tools above, we can create cleaner line art for our Cat Fu character over our previous rough sketch.

Creating the side view

Now that the front view line art is complete, we can move on to the side view of Cat Fu. To make this process precise, we can use the ruler tool (showed earlier above) to draw key landmarks across the canvas — where the ear begins and ends, where the eyes begin and end on the face etc. Thinking within 3D space, I replicated the design from the side, thinking where the anatomy and key elements would be. Often, the arm of the character is “hidden” in order to see the full side of a character. Using the same process as before, I start with a rough proportion sketch and use SketchBook’s tools to create more refined line art.

The red lines represent key landmarks on the character. Using the Ruler tool, or, by simple holding **Shift** while the brush is on the canvas, we can draw straight lines across.
The red lines represent key landmarks on the character. Using the Ruler tool, or, by simple holding **Shift** while the brush is on the canvas, we can draw straight lines across.

Adding colors and finalizing the design

The next step would be to add colors to Cat Fu. This gives the character team an idea of what possible colors the characters may have during the texturing phase after it has been 3D modeled. For this particular character, a layer was created, then filled in with a solid color, and then locked so that we cannot paint outside the layer. This way, there is a good base that can be painted on top without going outside the lines. Below is some information about how colors work in SketchBook.


  • Copic Colors: The Copic Library is very unique. You have access to the Copic color line digitally. Using these with the Copic brushes, you can emulate traditional effects. There is also the option of using the colors from the Library to create your own Custom Sets near the bottom which behave in the same fashion as swatches.
  • Color Editor: SketchBook does a great job of combining sliders, the color wheel, and swatches into one window which you can keep open at all times in your layout. The sliders in the Color Editor can be switched between RGB and HSL. Dragging the color near the top of the Color Editor window to this area adds it to your swatches.
  • Color Puck: SketchBook has a “portable” color tab that is smaller than the main color editor. This allows us to save UI space and can be dragged around for ease of use. There is a small puck which shows the color when not active. Upon clicking, you can bring up the color wheel and further bring up a value range when the icon is active on the top right.
Cat Fu filled with solid colors. Next would be to add some depth and shadow.
Duplicate the sold color layer two times. Change the brightness on each layer so that you have a “dark” and “bright” layer. This way you can erase away the light and darks to create lighting on the character.

Use the solid color fill and brightness method to create lighting and color for the character in the front and side views:

Final adjustments and adding a rough shadow near the bottom to give it a final touch and ground the character.