The Making of a Character

With Charley Harper as my inspiration, I developed the following approach to picture making. This process developed one step at a time. Like many other areas of life, I focused on the work immediately in front of me and discarded any thoughts about “what comes next?” I trust that if I care for the task at hand, that the next step, the next task will reveal itself when the time is right. So Step one…

I am working on a book that contains a chimpanzee character. I have never touched a chimpanzee. I have seen photos of chimps but my best characters come from really experiencing the basis person or animal. I believe there is nothing better than being in the presence of your model. That way you can study it, really study it. Luckily my family had planned a trip to the zoo, which of course, had many monkeys, apes and chimpanzees. I stayed glued to the windows of the Primate House. I tried to etch into my brain their gestures, expressions and behaviors. Seeing how the fur straggles from the skin, versus fur that lies down and massages the skin is the type of detail I look for when studying reference material. I am convinced that I would not notice that detail as easily in a photograph.

Step two… Sketching

My first attempts at drawing the chimpanzee are NOT about drawing the character yet. I am still studying chimps in their natural environment. I need to learn what makes a chimp a chimp and not a gorilla or a monkey. What are the shapes that uniquely define the silhouette of a chimp? What are the definitive proportions that are unique to this species? What contour line expresses the essence of chimp?  The sketches attempt to catch the illusion of real chimpanzees. Only by drawing am I able to think through what can be discarded and what must stay. Only by drawing am I able to understand what makes a chimp a chimp.

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Step three…Sketching in clay

Time to study anatomy. All my sketches and reference material are two-dimensional and flat. My character must live in the illusion of a three-dimensional world. I never presume to know how every element within my picture might look. I need to see it and study it. For the chimp, since he/she is a new character I question what the ears would look like at various point-of-views. I question what the eyebrows look like under different lighting. I question how the jaw might adjust for different emotions and expressions. If it is impossible for me to answer my own questions, I sculpt. I use plain white Sculpey and push and pull, add and remove clay to develop my own version of a chimp. As I work in clay, I am really sketching in 3-D.  I am able to see the answers to my questions. My fingertips seem to gather information about the chimp in a way my eyes cannot. All the previous research into shapes and anatomy give my fingers the foundation for simplification. So while the clay chimp comes to life, he/she develops not as a realistic copy, but instead closer to a true essence of character.

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Step four…coming soon.


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