Creature Generator! (Contour-to-Character Sketchbook Exercise)

I’ve written before about the three types of drawing I think people should be doing in their sketchbooks:

  • Drawing from life and/or photos (yeah, photos are OK in a pinch–get over it art teacher snobs!)
  • Goal-directed drawings–things like character designs and thumbnails for stories
  • Drawing from imagination/doodling

And, as also mentioned before, the third category–drawing from imagination–is the one that I have the most difficulty doing. I have, though, come up with some sketchbook exercises that help me get motivated in this area. This is one of them. I call it “countour-to-chracter.” Here’s how it works:

1) Grid off a sketchbook page. I usually do a nine-panel grid, but four or six work just fine too. Either use regular pencil or colored pencil. That way you can get rid of the grid if you want to later, either by erasing or by pulling out the color in Photoshop.

2) Draw a random contour in each panel–again, in either pencil or colored pencil. You can either do this just by randomly scribbling in each panel while not looking at your sketchbook, or by looking at some objects around you and doing a blind contour drawing of those in your grid. I did the latter here. Here’s what I was looking at (top to bottom, left to right): daughter’s toy oven, daughter’s toy kitchen set, a Where the Wild Things Are figure, daughter’s Lalaloopsy tree house set, candles, a cat tree, my dog, stuff on the shelf of the kitchen set, and a rocking chair.

Here’s the initial image with the contrast jacked up so you can see the contour drawings well:

3) Then, basically, you just try to tease out some kind of character, scene, or creature from each scribble. I didn’t use every single bit of every single mark, but I tried to stick pretty close to the scribble and force myself to create something from the chaos. I did one a night on and off for about two weeks–starting in pencil, then inked with a Pentel Brush Pen.

Here’s the sketchbook page, now inked:

4) At this point, you could just consider the exercise done, but sometimes I like to clean up and color the image, as I did here. Here’s the page scanned, cleaned up and run through Photoshop’s threshold command. I used Image–>Adjustments–>Hue/Saturation and then the Brightness slider to pull out all the reds and yellows, which eliminated the orange under-drawing.

5) Color: I’ve had this amazing Golden Age story, Mars Mason, by cartoonist Munson Paddock bookmarked for a while because I really loved its limited and super-saturated color palette. I used a few pages from it to sample my colors from. Here’s an example:

….and here’s my final colored page using those colors:

Animated GIF, y’all! Just for fun, I made an animated GIF of the whole process. Enjoy!


  1. Meredith says:

    Cool. And weird! I might try this.

  2. Ben says:

    @Meredith – Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also nice that you can just take one panel a night and so you can do it in little 20-30 minute increments.

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