Lesson plans

Teaching Comics to teens week 2 day 4: Basic Character Design

This is part of a series of posts by Derek Mainhart—an entire year‘s curriculum for a comics class at the secondary level: middle school and high school. Follow us via rss, Facebook, or Twitter (buttons above to the right) to be informed when new posts go up. To search for all the posts by Derek, including all in this series, click here

At this point your students’ minds should be buzzing with ideas. Now that they’re approaching the final version of their Gag Cartoon, it’s time for some more drawing lessons. Nothing terribly complex, but these simple concepts can make all the difference in the work of a neophyte cartoonist, both in visual appeal and readability.

Objective: Basic character design

Do Now: Try to draw a simple cartoon character

As always, circulate the room during the Do Now. Gauge the various skill levels of your students and use this as a guide in terms of how far to push this lesson (or indeed if you should skip it altogether and proceed to the next one—though in my experience, even slightly more advanced students like to see these simple approaches codified.)


  • Brief discussion based on the Do Now
  • Teacher will demo, step-by-step, simple character design. Students will follow along.

Emphasize the utility of what you’re about to show them. At the same time remind them that this is only one approach. After today, they are free to use it or ignore it.

As with most representational drawing, we start with simple shapes, in this case an oval:

Followed by a trapezoid:

Then some half-circles:


And then these, um, things:

At this point, ask, “Who is this?” You will likely get the name of one of The Powerpuff Girls. Emphasize that is, in fact, all of them, because they all use the same formula. It just depends on what details you add.

(oh like Bubbles isn’t your favorite…)

I begin with this because it’s easy and gives everyone a chance at success. Next, a slightly more complicated character. Start with a circle:

Underneath that we’ll add a  neck:

Then, again, a trapezoid. Add a half-circle on either side for sleeves:

Next the arms. Now’s a good time to introduce the concepts of cylinders into the demo. When discussing the rendering of appendages (arms, legs, prehensile cybernetic tails, etc.) it is useful to think of them in terms of cylinders. It may not be readily apparent in this particular drawing, but it will be helpful later on. May as well get your students accustomed to it now.


Some fingers. (Don’t get too caught up in hands right now. Keep it simple. Students tend to find them incredibly frustrating.)

A rectangle, then two more cylinders:

Finally two half-ovals.

Who might this be? Some might say Charlie Brown:

The more attentive student may say it could be any of the Peanuts characters, depending on the details:

You may suggest that this basic formula extends beyond Peanuts. For example:

Now let’s add a wrinkle. What happens if we squash (term from the previous drawing lesson) this figure?

What if we stretch (also from previous lesson) the formula?

What if we do a little of both?

Without adding any details, which of these figures is younger? How can you tell? What makes the other one look older? What details could you add to emphasize this?

Exercise: Students will use the techniques learned today to create two unique characters.

Here are some student examples (Thanks Ashley, Joel and Paul!):

There will be a couple more drawing lessons before the students begin the final version of their Gag Cartoon. But tomorrow’s Friday, and that means: More Cartooning History!


Derek Mainhart is an art teacher at Deer Park High School and at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He has taught widely at many institutions such as Molloy College, Boricua College and Hofstra, among others. He teaches cartooning workshops in the greater New York area. In addition, he was the first Vice President of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in Manhattan, and was instrumental in the formation of its annual MoCCA Art Festival. He has organized and participated in numerous gallery exhibits in and around NYC. His self-published works include The Iraqi Tinies and W. He is married to web-cartoonist and fellow art teacher Ali Solomon. They live with their daughter in Forest Hills (not far from the house where Peter Parker grew up.) 

Read Derek’s comic book reviews at: http://imagesandnerds.wordpress.com/ 


2 Comments to Teaching Comics to teens week 2 day 4: Basic Character Design

  • by Robbi

    On January 29, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    I draw all the time, but this is incredibly useful. Would that I had learned this in my teens! Thanks so much!

  • by Derek Mainhart

    On February 12, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Thanks for the kind words Robbi!

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