Viv Schwarz character design and comic workshop

Viviane Schwarz playing with shapes. 
By Anne-Marie Perks

Viviane started the session talking about coming to graphic novels from picture books. In her last book, co-written with Alexis Deacon for Walker Books, A Place to Call Home, Viv used panels and speech bubbles.

As soon as Walker got a graphic novel department, Viv proposed her graphic novel, Sleepwalkers, a wonderful imaginative story in which children can leave a letter under their pillows asking for help in stopping their nightmares.

An unlikely crew with a Yoda type character, Viv's description, a sheep, and a bear and rabbit work together in helping children work out how to stop their own nightmares. As an added bonus, we got to look through a pile of press proofs for Sleepwalkers during the workshop. We also looked through a variety of graphic novel formats and styles represented in the books Viv brought with her such as Neil Gaiman's, Anya's Ghost, Fish and Chocolate by Kate Brown, Rumble Strip by Woodrow Phoenix and Spiral Bound by Aaron Renier.

Character design made by playing with random shapes.
The hands on part of the workshop started with choosing random shapes cut out of coloured construction paper and lots of 'eyes'. Playing around with these shapes in various positions and playing with eye shape and placement quickly made up lots of fun characters around the table. To do this for yourself, cut out random shapes of all kinds starting with the usual triangle, circle, square, bean, rectangle, thick, thin, curvy and so on in different colours. Make eyes as you go along and play! Viv talked about how she would document promising character shapes using a camera for future sketching into more developed characters.

Getting to know your character - walking the line.
 In getting to know your character, Viv gave us a couple of exercises to put our new character through their paces. This one I am calling, walking the line, but Viv called it creating a terrain for your character to travel across. She pointed out that a common mistake students and beginning illustrators make is spending lots of time drawing the face and facial expression and not understanding the character's body or gestures at all. The next two images shows how hard we were working!

Everyone working hard creating characters.
More playing with shapes while Viv gives encouragement.
Another getting to know your character exercise,
put your character into random shapes.
 In the exercise shown above, you place your character in random shapes drawn on a large piece of paper forcing your character into a variety of positions and gestures.

Viv's character design from random shapes.
Another great character in the making from random cut out shapes.
Viv putting together a character.
The last part of the workshop was spent on quick exercises where we took our 'default' characters and placed them with our new characters in four frame sequences. These quick sequences were timed with the first set at 10 minutes a frame and the second set 3 minutes a frame! The first set of four frames began with the character we brought to the workshop doing 'something' in the first frame, then bringing in the new character in the second frame. The next two frames resolved in some way the interaction between the two characters. The second set of four frames began in frame 3 with a climatic moment between the old and new characters. Then we resolved the event in the fourth frame and then drew what happened before frame 3 in frame 2, then how it began in frame 1, emphasising the fact that you can start in the middle.

To wrap up, here are a few of the great suggestions that I managed to write down.

Start by giving yourself limitations; limiting colour and giving yourself a panel grid.

Use Celtex or Scrivener for preparing your script.

Be obvious!

Don't keep going back, work through it and be persistent. That way you get the story out without suffering too much and trying to make something 'awesome' right away.

It's important to get to know your characters first, you need your characters to drive the story.

Write lists of characteristic qualities and history for your characters then do lots of drawings showing how your characters 'express' those qualities through gesture and body language.

Keep a book on personality types that you can feed into your ideas.

Explore themes and ideas in your comfort zone first, then later, jump into areas less comfortable.

And lastly, at least what I wrote down, explore improv theatre! Recommended by Viv; Improv for Storytellers by Keith Johnstone. It's already on my wish list!

Our next Illustrator Masterclass is 10 December with Bridget Strevens-Marzo; The Style Question, exploring voice and style. There are still places available. 


  1. Thanks for writing this up - it's inspiring for us writers as well!

  2. Could it be that the Walking the Line image needs rotating to the right, IE: Landscape rather than portrait orientation?
    The characters seem to be working to sit with the line then.

    Fascinating exercises to try out... thanks for sharing for those who couldn't attend.

  3. Thanks so much for writing this up. It was a thoroughly entertaining and inspiring workshop. I still have pics of the little characters I made on my phone :)

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Anne-Marie. I think I'll try some of these exercises - look really useful

  5. Yes - a great write up Anne-Marie. Thanks to you for this and to Vivian for a really great creative workshop!

  6. a great event it seems, and a wonderful write-up Anne-Marie, very inspiring!


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