Ben & Julia

They can be cute, terrifying, unsettling or funny – just like real people, in fact. Character art is massively popular, and it’s not hard to see why: art based around a central figure is engaging, and no matter how freakish and far-out the characters are, on some level the viewer can identify with them. 

Leading illustrators such as Jon Burgerman, James Jarvis and Tado have moulded their whole careers around character creation, developing a distinctive look and applying this to popular limited-edition vinyl toys and other 3D products, as well as murals and other illustration projects.

David O'Reilly

Meanwhile, quirky, toylike but somehow very human characters are far from static, cropping up in all manner of ads, promos and other animated projects. Character design even has its own dedicated event: the Pictoplasma conference takes place each year, usually in Berlin, drawing character art fans from around the world to celebrate the best non-commercial characters out there.

For those who can’t make it to Berlin, there’s the third volume in Pictoplasma’s Characters in Motion series, which is packed with lush images and a DVD full of quirky, thought-provoking, unnerving and straight-up fun animations. 

Marc Craste

Pictoplasma describes the book as “exploring freshly hatched characters that live in our brave new mixed-up post-digital world.”

Lives less ordinary
A big part of Pictoplasma’s mission is to look beyond the simplistic storylines and characters of traditional cartoons to explore more far-out, unusual work. 

Saiman Chou

Pictoplasma’s organisers explain: “There is a theory that links the content of mainstream animation to three clearly defined target audiences: all Disney movies are basically about a six-year-old boy coming of age; manga and anime revolve around the subtle sexual awakening of a pubescent 12-year-old girl, and the familiar theme of teen angst is addressed by MTV-style cartoons. While there is some truth to this idea, more than anything it points to a painful lack of more sophisticated content.”

Pictoplasma’s pick of artists who are challenging these traditional forms is inspiring – and will have you itching to try your hand at some character design of your own.

Characters in Motion Vol. 3 is published by Pictoplasma in mid-April 2010. It costs €29.90 (about £26).

Kristof Luyckx