Cartoon Figures: Part 1

Simple Cartoon Figure Drawing

Simple is probably the wrong word. Veteran students might recall the times I’ve shown the work of artists and described their work as deceptively simple. When I say that what I’m getting at is that an artist’s work may seem superficially simple but  there is often a great deal of complexity hidden underneath the image. In order to achieve a simple look and do it really well requires a great deal of skill, technique, and thoughtfulness on the part of the artist.

Anyhow, we’ll discuss those aspects of simplicity more in class. For now, let’s move on:

Rubber Hose & Noodles

There are many artists working today that have been inspired by the rubber hose style of animation pioneered by artists like Bill Nolan and Ub Iwerks and used extensively in the 1920s and early 1930s. This style of animation developed in the 1920s to make life easier for artists as they got used to this new art form. Not having to worry about animating knees and elbows consistently was a great time saver; being able to stretch arms or legs was often used to avoid having to animate a more complex set of poses. The nature of this type of drawing required a great deal less precision.


However, rubber-hose style animation had the side benefit of being fun and loose. Animation in this style could have a bouncy rhythm that was incredibly compelling and is probably one of the reasons it is still in use in many forms today.

We’re going to start our cartoon figure drawings by utilizing the rubber hose/noodle style for the same reasons that artists did way back then:

  • It will be easier to get a handle on creating characters if we don’t have to worry about knees and elbows. A drawing in this style can be a bit wonky and stretched out and still work.
  • This style of drawing has the benefit of being loose and fluid. It’s a fun style of drawing.

Note: Many of you are already accomplished at drawing characters in a more detailed and/or realistic style. For you, this will be an exercise in stepping out of your comfort zone and taking some time exploring a different way of drawing. Like I said at the top of this post: the superficial simplicity of this style can be deceptive. I myself usually don’t work in this exact way and it takes some adjustment for me. Give it a try and see what you think.

Hands: I don’t really address hands that much here. If you want to see some hand reference in a variety of styles, take a look at this post:

Exercise 1: Standing Poses

Materials: Newsprint Pages (1+) , Pencil

Complete: 1+ Pages of Figures

Let’s start with some standing poses. We’ll be working with pencil on newsprint so keep your pens put away. We’ll be working loose and sketchy so you’ll also want to leave your erasers in your backpack.


Video Overview: The video goes fast, so don’t forget that you can pause it whenever you want.

Step 1: Start with basic shapes. Apply light pencil pressure. Stay very loose and rough. Consider using asymmetrical poses. Take advantage of the rubber-hose style and give them noodle like arms and legs. Make at least one male and one female figure.


Step 2: Start to lay in basic details, still drawing with moderately light pencil pressure. Continue to stay loose.


Step 3: Begin to refine your drawing, darken details that you are happy with. This is the stage where you can take more care and consideration with each stroke.


Step 4: Lay in some shading and/or hatching and cross-hatching.


Draw as many standing figures as we have time for. Don’t stop, keep drawing!

Exercise 2: Active Poses

Materials: Newsprint Pages (2+) , Pencil

Complete: 1 Page of Thumbnails, 1+ Pages of Figures

Let’s try some more active and dynamic poses. We’ll also be drawing characters slightly smaller (about four characters to a page) so details will be less… detailed.

Video Overview:

Step 1: Start with a large number of small thumbnail blanks on a piece of newsprint.

Step 2: Once you’ve created those thumbnails, choose your favorite four poses and draw them light, loose, and larger on another piece of newsprint:


Step 3: You know the drill: Start lightly laying in details and slowly begin to darken and refine your line work.


Step 4: Shading! Hatching! Cross-hatching! Build up this work from light to dark.


Exercise 3: More Poses, Smaller Figures

Materials: Newsprint Pages (1+) , Pencil

Complete: 1+ Pages of Figures

Let’s fit more figures on a newsprint page: draw at least 8 figures. Turn the paper any which way that you want.

Step 1: Draw all eight figures as blanks first! You can generate thumbnail blanks on a separate page if you want. Keep pencil pressure light. While drawing theses blanks, think about what the figures might be doing. Think about how the figures relate to each other. I’ll often draw a pose having no idea what they’re doing at first, while, at other times, I’ll have a clear idea of what I want a figure to be doing as I draw them.


Step 2: After you have the blanks, take a second pass at the figures and finish them off. Give each one a distinct costume and try some variety with the details. The costume can begin to give a clue of where a character is, what they’re doing, or what their personality is like.


Step 3: Do as many of these pages as you can in the time we have. Keep drawing!

That’s it for part 1 of  Cartoon Figures. Tune in next time when we do some other stuff.

Cartoon Figures

  • Part 1: That’s this part.
  • Part 2: I haven’t made part 2 yet.
  • Part 3: Why would part 3 exist if I haven’t even made part 2 yet?