Gale Galligan: The Principles of Cute

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Gale Galligan How to Draw Cute

Cuteness! What is it? Why is it? I’m going to discuss some basic tenets of cuteness, break down examples of cute things to discover what about them makes them cute, and help us figure out how to bring those qualities into our own work in this tutorial of How To Draw Cute.

What Is Cute, Anyway?

Of course, cuteness is subjective. One person’s bunny is another’s blobfish and all that. That said, let’s look at some things people generally agree to be cute:

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What attributes do these cuties share?

  • They’re simple.
  • They’re squishy.
  • They’re nonthreatening.

One of the easiest ways to add cuteness to something is to boil it down to its essence, to simplify. Below is Kumamon, the bear-y popular representative of Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan. He manages to summon an ursine spirit while maintaining the bare minimum of physical characteristics we expect to see in a real bear (left).

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If you break down Kumamon’s design, you’ll see that it’s mostly composed of simple, round shapes. The points of visual interest are arranged on its expressive face, making it easier for Kumamon to draw your attention and empathy.

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Now that we’ve explored the benefits of simplicity a little, let’s see if we can make it work for us. Here, we have your classic velociraptor (as portrayed in Jurassic Park, featherless and more closely resembling a deinonychus I know but it’s so good for this exercise).

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It’s lithe and menacing, with big ol’ pokey bits everywhere. How can we simplify this creature to make it a little cuter? Let’s start by finding some basic shapes.

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Once I’ve got my basic shapes, I sketch in marks to show volume. This will help the character look more 3D later, when I’m adding details like folds or patterns.

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After sketching everything out, I block in some simple shadows to give it a bit more depth.

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I’ve tried to represent the velociraptor with simpler shapes and stripped away some unnecessary details, while still keeping it recognizable. Can we take this even further?

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Third time’s the charm. We’ve arrived at a Pictionary-friendly velociraptor: a creature with just enough lines to communicate its dino-ness. You don’t think it’ll do much more than nibble you, but don’t tell it that. It’s still got feelings.

Now, if you polled your buds, they’d probably tell you the third velociraptor was the cutest. Why?

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It’s simpler! Your human brain parses simple shapes more quickly, which means you can recognize this dino as nonthreatening right away (whew). It’s also more childlike, which tells you that you can step away from seriousness a little and into a more whimsical space, ideal for recognizing and embracing cuteness.

That said, complicated can definitely be cute. Card Captor Sakura wears the fanciest costumes of all time, and she manages to stay super-cute. But Sakura and her costumes are also following the other Principles of Cute. She’s got that exaggerated baby face, for one, and her outfits include accents like simplified wings, rounded stars, and squishy circle things. 

Principle of Cute: Squishify

If you compare a lot of different characters, you might notice that villains are often designed to be pointier. Sharp things hurt! Pointy shapes are a quick way of warning the brain, “Hey, maybe watch out for this.” 

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Principle of Cute: Babify

You probably noticed that two out of three of my first cute examples were babies. Research shows that we tend to find younglings cute. They’ve been carefully crafted to demand our affection and protection, since they’re, you know, helpless without us. Let’s take advantage of this biological inclination for our own nefarious purposes. Observe: a human baby.

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This baby is about 4 heads tall, meaning that its head represents one quarter of its height, a much larger fraction than that of your average adult, who tends to clock in around 7-8 heads. Meanwhile, its fingers and toes are comparatively stubby (squishy!). This means that, like Kumamon, all of our attention can be directed right toward the baby’s main mode of communication: the face.

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Compared to the average human adult (here represented by Adorable Human Randall Park), this baby has bigger eyes that are set lower on the face. It’s got a bigger forehead but a smaller chin. The baby’s face is also rounder. It’ll become more oval-like as it elongates over time. For now, let’s enjoy these chubby baby cheeks. 

How can we use this information to help our dino friend?

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It’s alive! I did end up flattening out the base of the head a bit, because I liked how that gave me a nice smooth line through the neck.

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Principle of Cute: Proportions

We’ve talked about simplifying your subjects to make them more whimsical and easier to recognize; squishifying them to make them appear less threatening; and adjusting their proportions to give them a more childlike appearance. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but they are good guidelines to get you started on just about anything. Let’s try it out with one more example: my beloved pet bunny.

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I just wanna boop his little nose.

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How to Draw Cute: Try It Yourself

Pick a real-life object or animal — your pet, a favorite tree, or even your mailbox. Sit down with your subject and do some studies, looking for the features that define it. Then, draw a page of cute variations. Look for simple shapes you can bring out and have fun playing around with proportion and feature placement. You might be surprised by what you come up with.


***If you are looking for a tutorial on How to Draw animals more realistically check out Monika Zagroblena’s How To Draw Series. We suggest starting with How to Draw Dogs.