Character design using Procreate

Writing and illustrating books for young children is really too much fun. With modern tools I am able to reflect my thoughts and ideas pretty much anywhere and have them at an advanced stage before returning to my desk at home.

As a digital artist I look to ease of use as a key factor when deciding which hardware/software combination to use. Savage Interactive’s Procreate is my first choice for sketching. It’s an iPad app and the perfect mobile digital artist’s companion.

I routinely take myself out of the “work space” and sit amongst people. Cafes, bars, restaurants, parks… that sort of thing. I take the iPad and sketch out my thoughts and ideas. More often than not some of the everyday characters that I encounter lend an interesting idiosyncrasy to a developing character. It might be a way of talking or a style of walking. It may be their clothes or the way they eat! Anything. Real life is pretty unbeatable inspiration when it comes to fleshing out a new character.

So when I’m thinking up new stories and characters being able to rough out my ideas “on the fly” is pretty valuable.
I wanted to share my thoughts on the process that I use in creating character designs on the fly.

A new story that is coming along very nicely involves a cuddly monster. I’ll make use of the concept sketches that I created for him to illustrate my process.

Create the Procreate document

Tap the + at the top right corner of the screen.
I always use the preset document size of 2048 x 2048. In the past it had a limited number of 7 layers but since the last update we’ve seen this rise to 20. More than enough.


By default you get a layer to work with as soon as the document is created.
When you want to create more layers you tap the +. Providing you’ve not reached your limit a new layer will appear above the “current” layer.
To reorder your layers tap and hold the layer you want to move. It will “lift” and you can then move it in to the new position. Very useful.

Selecting a pencil

I always kick things off with a simple unmodified HB pencil from the Brushes palette. I like this “brush” as it works very well at the resolution I’ve chosen for my document. It offers a really nice amount of texture and line variation which I find perfect for roughing out my ideas.

Colour selection

I also choose a simple blue colour shade to draw with initially. Although the entire piece will be nothing more than a “rough” I always start with a base layer that is simply a scribble of the character. Above that I will add some detail with a darker pencil.
I use a fairly dull tone. This is really a personal preference. You could use bright pink if that’s what floats your boat!

Brush size and opacity

The HB pencil is a fairly narrow brush when applied to such a large document resolution so setting it’s size to maximum is no problem. The top slider down the right margin in Procreate controls brush width.
Beneath that is the opacity layer. Again I choose maximum for this. I like the tone of a full pencil. A personal preference.

Sketching a basic character frame

When I first dream up a character I have a number of things in mind – scale, re-drawability, character, detail and the ability to have him in any pose.
Scale is pretty vital. If I’d created a 60ft monster then it would hog the entire page and every other human character would be drawn with minute detail. I created this monster to be 3 x a 10 year old child in height. With those proportions I still get to draw with some detail for every character on the page.
I’ve always loved the classic Disney style approach to constructing characters. Artists such as Preston Blair and Don Bluth have adopted this approach and have their style of working in print for us all to benefit from. Both are also of course former Disney employees.

Identifying direction
I start by drawing a very feint line for the direction of the character. In the case of this monster you may not be able to see it but there is a slim arced line bending from the floor in his feet up through his torso and out through the centre of his eye.
The angle of the action is “leaning” forward. It’s also slightly stooped.

Constructing the body shape
I use circles to define the basic shape of the character. A circle for the head and a proportionate circle for the torso / belly. A further couple of circles highlight the position of the hands. Finally I cement the feet with a couple of ellipse.

For more information on the construction of a cartoon body look to the work of the Disney artist Fred Moore. There are examples of Moore’s work everywhere but I particularly like this one:

From there I essentially flesh out the character shape paying particular attention to the facial expression.
I use deliberately big eyes since this affords a huge amount of expression and emotion.
For now I’m not concerned with textures or fine details.

Onion skinning #1

With the lower frame sketched out I concentrate on the more detailed layer above. First I drop the opacity of the lower frame. With the layer selected I tap the magic wand and select Opacity. I can then drag my finger across the screen from right to left to reduce the layer’s opacity.

Onion skinning #2

With the base layer set to around 30% I can still see enough of it to act as a guide for the “detail” layer. A process often refered to as onion skinning in animation circles.

The top layer

I continue to use an HB pencil for the upper most layer and set its colour to a mid grey. Approximately 80,80,80 in RGB terms. Using this pencil I continue to draw with a good deal of fluidity. I try to avoid overly curvy images but for chubby characters it’s obviously not so easy.
The concept of curves vs straights isn’t new. Check out any of Don Bluth’s animation tutorials for more information on this. It’s a key principle of crafting effective and visually interesting characters and something that I have long tried to adhere to.

Adding some detail

Without affecting the width of the pencil brush I add some finer details. In this case slightly more whispy hair and some small spots on the non-furry parts of the monster. To achieve this I’m simply pressing a lot lighter on to the iPad’s screen with the stylus. (Wacom’s Intuos Creative Stylus)

Completed drawing

So ultimately I end up with a pencil drawing of my character. I remove the base layer and have something that I can either leave alone or work with to add further interest.

Duplicating a layer

A pretty cheap method for intensifying the lines of the drawing is to duplicate the layer. In the layer stack simply swipe right to left across the layer to reveal a few options. Tapping Duplicate will copy the layer and paste it above the current layer.

Adding weight

I quite like this approach. It doesn’t so much double the line thickness more it just adds weight. This won’t work with every brush but it certainly works well with the pencils.

Adding colour

Cartoons need colour. To apply the colour I’m once again adopting the onion skin approach. I create a new layer that sits beneath the original lined layer that I just completed. 

Colour selection

Procreate’s colour selection is simple yet powerful. Tapping the colour wheel icon brings up the spectrum. I try not to use full bright colours too much so most of my tones occupy the upper central area of the circle.
The palette functionality in Procreate is superb. Simply select your colour from the wheel and tap a vacant slot in the palette below to store it. You can store multiple palettes. Access them by swiping your finger from right to left across the colour circle. Then swipe the other way to bring the colour selection wheel back.
I always predefine my base colours first and then modify as I go for such things as shade and highlights. Perhaps it’s my background in palettised game sprite creation that does this to me but I’m very fond of the approach.

Shading and highlighting

Selecting relative colours in Procreate is simple. I usually block out a large area with a flat colour using something like the Gesinski Ink brush. (Available from the Pens tab on the Brush palette)
I use a fairly broad brush width to achieve this. I also don’t much care about going over the pencil lines. Far better for me to confidently paint in to the shape and worry about cleaning up afterwards.
If you hold your finger or stylus down for a second (you can configure this in the settings) you will automatically replace the current colour with the colour immediately beneath your finger / stylus in the painting. From there you can edit the colour using the colour selector. I slide in to the light for highlights and further in to the darkness for shade. I also avoid using “black” and “white”. Far better for the light and dark shades to be obviously of the same colour at this stage. Depending on the look that I’m after I may use a slightly more “impressionist” approach with warm and cool shades. But not right now.


When applying light and shade I’m generally fairly liberal with the shade but quite selective with the light.
It depends very much on the character, obviously! For the hairy monster I follow the lines of his fur with each stroke and offer some highlights where his body is at its chubbiest.

Cleaning up and the final image

Where the paint has quite obviously overlapped the pencil lines and looks messy I take the eraser brush and zoom in. Zooming in is a simple case of pinching your fingers in and out on the screen. Zooming down to the pixel is perfectly possible and a really powerful feature of Procreate.
I like to set the eraser brush width to be quite narrow and I generally use it in Studio Pen mode. (You can tap the eraser icon and select any brush to have as your eraser)
Working my way around the image I erase untidy edges and occasionally deliberately cut in quite a bit. That is, I wipe some of the colour from inside the lines. It gives quite an interesting effect.
So there you go.
I hope you find this approach pretty useful. All in all I can create this type of drawing in around half an hour. Perfect for sitting in a cafe drinking coffee and eating a sandwich whilst on a lunch break!
You can find me on the Procreate forum.