When the exclamation "Oh how cute!" is heard from someone viewing an illustration by Sascha Preuß – aka Bubblefriends – he knows he’s created another winning piece. Sascha says that creating cute figures requires neither supernatural powers nor rare talents – it isn’t that difficult if you follow a core set of principles.
Here he reveals the rules of cuteness – plus how to stay the right side of the line between cutely hip and childishly schmaltzy. Step by step, Sascha will take you through the development of a character from the first sketch to the final colouring.
“Our small character is a can of bug spray who frightens every kind of insect with his little cloudy friend,” says Sascha. “Together they put the evil guys to flight. Cute but pitiless!”
Time to complete
Adobe Illustrator CS2 or later
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First, use paper and a pencil to try out some possible character designs and poses. At the beginning your sketches should be fast and fleet – then allow the characters to develop later. From my point of view, it is not necessarily required to have a story in mind before sketching.
Select one of your designs and develop your sketches, making them more accurate and precise.
What is cute? Cute has something of the ‘newborn’ about it – as without help, newborns cannot survive. Looking at a baby activates protective instincts, and it’s the awakening of those instincts that usually identifies something as cute.
Cute comes from the childlike arrangement of characteristics. The size of the head is important, as in comparison to other body parts it grows slowly. For optimum cuteness, we must exaggerate and draw a head that’s half the size of the whole body height.
Scan in your sketch (or use mine from the project files). Open Illustrator and select
File > New (or hit Cmd/Ctrl + N) to create a new document. Select an A4 portrait size and CMYK colour mode. Set Raster Effects to High (300 ppi).
Import your sketch using
File > Place. Go to the Layers panel and create a new layer. Lock the ‘sketch’ layer.
The Pen and Ellipse tools and the Pathfinder panel are your main tools. Over the next steps, we’ll be tracing the shapes using a stroke of 0.25pt with rounded caps and corners. We’re just doing the linework and blocking out the shaded areas that represent shadows first – colours will be added after all the shapes are completed.
The legs should be short and fat so that the figure appears to be clumsy and lazy. Passivity and an impression of helplessness further brings out our protective instinct and ups the ‘cute’ factor.
First, draw a leg with the Pen tool (P), then add an area for shading in a way that they overlap each other. Select the leg, copy it and paste a duplicate in front of the original (
Cmd/Ctrl + C, then Cmd/Ctrl + F). Break up the elements into separate areas by selecting them all then clicking on Divide in the Pathfinder panel.
Draw an ellipse circling the neck with the Pen tool. Then create the torso. Keep it simple, as too many details spoil the picture. Impressive muscles won’t fit in. The body should appear soft and round (baby fat is cute). Leave out the foremost arm – it will be added after the head is drawn.
For the costume details, draw a dark shape with a 4pt weight using the Pen tool. Add an outline stroke (
Object > Path > Outline Stroke). Remove its fill by changing its colour to [None], give it a 0.25pt black stroke, and delete the internal line. You should now have an empty element with just a line round it.
Draw a sloped rectangular shape and connect it to the other part of the costume details with your Pathfinder tools. Draw the other lines using the Pen tool. Ensure that everything fits to the volume of the body.
Draw the outline of the whole head with the Pen tool, then add overlapping kidney-shaped outlines to create the three parts of the forehead. Use the same Duplicate-then-Divide process as in Step 4 to break them into separate elements.
Repeat the procedure for the rest of the linework within the head.
For the four stripes on our hero’s forehead, first draw a 6pt curved line with rounded edges near the top of the central forehead element, then apply an Outline Stroke. Remove its fill, give it a 0.25pt black stroke, and delete the internal line.
Duplicate the shape, move it below and elongate it so that it has an appropriate size relative to the shape of the forehead. Repeat this procedure to create the other stripes.
An adult’s eyes sit almost in the middle of the head vertically, but a baby’s are very low down comparatively. Here, the eyes should be positioned almost at the bottom of the face and sit far apart.
Babies also have big eyes compared to an adult – so should our character.
Draw each eye and cheek with the Ellipse tool (
L). Duplicate and flip them with the Reflect tool ( O).
Draw eyebrows with the Ellipse and the Knife tools – just draw a whole circle then cut off the excess.
Now onto the mouth and nose. The nose should be small and look like a baby’s snub nose. If the mouth or the teeth are too big, the figure appears dangerous. Place the mouth and nose halfway between the eyes. Create them with the Ellipse tool, Pathfinder panel and the Knife tool using the same techniques as before.
Draw short, round and fat arms with the Pen tool (again because of the babylike proportions). Because of the enormous fingers relative to the hand and body, only create three fingers and a thumb in each hand. These should be blobby like a those of a chubby baby (as delicate skinny fingers like a newborn will look creepy).
Don’t add too many details. Draw the palm of the hand with the Pen tool, and the fingers with the ellipse tool. Repeat the same procedures as before to create the areas that will be shaded.
Now let’s make him a superhero who can squirt a toxic cloud. Draw the rearmost part of the cloud with the Pen tool, then the cloud’s head with the Ellipse tool. Unite them with the Pathfinder panel, copy them and then paste them in the back (
Cmd/Ctrl + C then Cmd/Ctrl + B). Give the left shape of the head an outline of 1pt. Use the Knife tool to cut out ‘stars’ as shown.
To find the best combination of colour, try out some variations. The cuteness of your character can be emphasised with colour.
While high contrast colours such as red and blue are powerful and used for adult superheroes like Superman, soft colours like pink, yellow and light blue are innocent and pure – and are perfect for cute figures. Because of their tonal value, pastel colours are also useful.
However, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be pink – especially if you’re aiming to appeal to a more mature audience. Also, too much white takes some energy out of the picture.
The main part of the illustration is magenta, as this creates no huge and uneasy contrasts. Ensure that you avoid high contrasts when colouring the other shapes. Now the elements fit to the other colours much the better.
It’s just a matter of tidying up and overall softening now – nothing in our artwork should have sharp edges. Give the main character’s face lifework a white 2pt stroke with a rounded cap and corners.
Soften the curl of the cloud with the Convert Anchor Point tool (
Shift + C). Apply a soft gradient to the main character’s head. Apply some shadows below the head and the front of the cape by copying, pasting behind and changing this new element’s colour to black. Give it a Multiply blending mode with an opacity of 60%, then apply a Gaussian Blur of 5 pixels ( Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur).
We need to integrate the figure into the background. The colour of the environment is bright in order to make the overall picture appear soft – but by using blue shades, the purple central character stands out.
Strong colour contrasts have been avoided in the background and secondary characters. To maintain our overall tone, ensure you also use childlike characteristics when creating the fleeing figures.