Emma Graham's watercolours are full of exuberant animal characters. In the first of a two-part feature, she shows how she uses research and design to build convincing figures.

Who or what is your character? Is he/she human, animal, robot, mythical or alien?
Physical characteristics – fat, thin, tall, small, upright, stooped?
Personality – shy, brave, strong, cheeky, happy, sad, lonely, friendly?

Using these questions, I think about shape and proportion to build my character.
For example, if he is clumsy, will he have big feet and hands?
If he is clever, will he have a big head?

I experiment with face and body shape. I always start with the face, sketching from all angles. Sometimes I make a mini Plasticine model to really get to know my character; this can then be manipulated into poses and expressions, particularly good for non-human characters. This has been especially useful on my most recent project for hands. One of my main characters is a rat (Pav-a-RAT-i) and rats have just four digits, so it took some working out how to make four fingers look natural and expressive; that is where the modelling came in very useful.

I also experiment with different body shapes, until the face and body suit each other.


Once the character is ‘built’, it’s time to add expression, use the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, the angle of the head, and also the positioning and posture of the body.

Surprise would be wide eyes, eyebrows raised, and maybe arms in the air. I often find myself pulling the faces and poses of my characters to understand them fully! (Glad the neighbours can’t see!)


How will the character interact with others? This, again, is about posture and expression. It's also about the setting. Think about where your character is – indoors, outside, with friends, with strangers?

But my main advice is to observe and draw. Go to the park or the railway station, and observe people and how they move and interact. Go to the zoo and sketch; yes, the animals move about, but with time you will work faster and understand their movements. This has been useful to me; having drawn my lion character for a SCBWI masterclass, on visiting the zoo for a day drawing, I realised that his paws needed to be way bigger.


Emma Graham was a Hook finalist at the 2016 SCBWI BI conference and The Stratford Literary Festival picture book competition. Her first illustrated book, Symphony Hollow, written by Jessica Reino and published by Spork, is released in November 2017.
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