Guest post: Paulo Patrício on character design

Paulo Patrício is a dynamo. Jessica and I met him in Portugal in the late 90s and ever since he has impressed us with his enthusiasm and can-do spirit (in addition to being an excellent illustrator and cartoonist). Among his many projects are the website Quotes On Comics and his mini-sketchbook series, Le Sketch (which currently has an online issue featuring yours truly). Here he shares an activity he has used to get students to approach character design with a fresh perspective.

When it comes to short workshops, lectures and courses, it’s easy to get into real clever concepts, show wonderful examples, along with some thought-provoking remarks, and give a couple of fun exercises. But to be honest: when you pack up your stuff, turn off the lights and go have a drink, sometimes you feel like you just delivered nothing. At least nothing valuable or rewarding in a lasting way. Until recently, I often felt this way, particularly when it came to character design.

Since comics are pretty much a character-driven medium, most books on making comics are focused on “the art of mastering” facial expressions and body language. Of course those visual aspects are deeply connected with what and how a character communicates and what he really is. But if a character looks and acts exactly the same as all the others—superheroes wearing spandex, alternative types exuding negativity—then something is gravely wrong. Wrong and boring. As someone else put it: “we need to do violence to the cliché, create havoc with the tried, the tired and tested”. With this art-of-mastering-ready-to-be-served books we don’t do that, we are just refining technique and style. Which is fine, but if you stick with comics for long, you will have plenty of time to work on that.

I needed something that, in a short span of time, could bridge a lot of concepts, such as: type, archetype, stereotype, characterization, representation, disposition, etc. Not only to illustrate those concepts, but provoke debate. Trigger thinking.

Here’s what I came up with. To start with a warm up, I show some characters from different artistic latitudes (iconic, obscure, eastern, western) stripped of all but the most basic features (no costume, no hair, no props) and without any points of reference at all (no name, author, book, etc.). Looking at them one by one, we interpret and take as much information possible from only how they look thus “stripped down”. Then we compare that to whom they actually are and what they do (revealing name, book, role, etc.). So basically,  I start with “just by looking, what can you say about this character?” and end with “does that match entirely with his role?”. To finish, I slip in this last character. Some participants may recognize him, but most times they actually don’t. I ask those who do to keep it themselves. Before jumping to the next paragraph, take a minute and look at it yourself.



As you might have guessed, this is Astérix ( René Goscinny/Albert Uderzo), portrayed here undressed and clean-shaven. After participants talk about what they think of it, I show the “real” character.

Next we discuss what kind of character we thought we had before and what we have now that he has been identified, and we talk about what changed about our perception in between.

We are now ready to move on to the exercise using Astérix’s undressed silhouette. Note: before each step, we have a brief group chat about the concepts involved in it.

1. The group suggests 2 stereotypes (for example, “Hipster” and “Pirates”) and 2 archetypes (“Hero” and “Mother”).
2. Each participant chooses one, and considering variations (“Old Pirate”), writes down a quick profile and context for their own character.
3. Now they draw their own character using Astérix’s silhouette as a basis.
4. When ready, they hang all characters up by groups (“Pirates” all together, then “Hipsters”, and so on).
5. Participants talk to the group about the profile behind the character they came up with and other participants ask questions about it.

Immediately, participants realize that probably all characters that belong to a specific group – lets say “Pirates” – look pretty much the same. Even if there are different types of them, they all fall in a sort of category (“Old Pirate”, “Jack Sparrow(s)”, etc.). A pattern emerges. In a snap, participants understand the importance of not falling into (visual) stereotypes, and the strong relationship that exists between profile and characterization, etc. More important than that, they get the notion that others are able “read” a character by looking at it. And if the characterization is too obvious, everything they have to say pretty much ends up on the surface. Another thing they realize: if what they wrote about their character is strong, and if  how he actually looks derives a bit from their writing, they achieve something far more interesting than if they only approached character design just using drawing style or technique. With this, even if quick and light exercise, they achieve a more “palpable” result, something they can actually “mold” and use to avoid clichés. Or in other words, do violence to the cliché.

You can also add “plug-ins” after the exercise and expand it. A couple of suggestions: 1) using the character, create a style sheet, play around with shapes and so on; 2) draw speech balloons, add sentences (“Stop, you bastard!”), cut them and place on their character, after that, move the speech balloon to other participant’s characters and see what happens.


Paulo Patrício is an illustrator and designer living in Porto, Portugal. During 2002-2003, he was a guest teacher in scriptwriting in the Comics and Illustration Post-Graduate Program at IADE – Visual Arts, Design and Marketing University in Lisbon, Portugal. Since then, Paulo regularly holds workshops and lectures on comics for private and public institutions throughout his country, such as Casa da Animação (Porto) and Velha-a-Branca, Estaleiro Cultural (Braga). He also holds small-group lectures and private master classes to art students on specific topics related to comics and illustration.

[photos by Maria Ferrand]


2 Comments to Guest post: Paulo Patrício on character design

  • by Jarod

    On March 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    This is a great exercise and it also emphasizes a great ambivalence in comics: the reliance on the stereotype (as a recognizable, pictorial icon that conveys/makes meaning) and the need to make something new and exciting. Thanks for sharing!

  • by Matt

    On March 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Two points of reference for the academic minded might by Scott McCloud’s remarks about icons/caricatures/stereotypes in Understanding… but esp. Making Comics. And also Rodolphe Töppfer’s Essai de Physiognomonie (, which I read too long ago (in a U press translation from the 70s?) to summarize but which had some interesting ideas about combining disparate features for comic/satirical effect, for example: smiling eyes combined with a weeping mouth.

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