Think about the images that you love. Maybe it’s Baby Yoda with his soup bowl. The Andy Warhol Campbells can. Any sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. These images come from wildly different contexts, but they have something in common: they have appeal.
What is appeal? While you might not have a fully articulated answer to that question, you probably know it when you see it. Appealing images draw viewers in. And creating appeal is the key to drawing things people love.
Whether you like to sketch in your free time or would just like to understand better what artists do, appeal is a great place to start. In fact, the fundamentals of appeal are intuitive to understand, and you can apply them to anything you’d like to design or draw. To hear more from the experts, we spoke to Archer Dougherty and Casey Robin, two Laetro artists with a combined wealth of experience in animation, illustration, fine art, character design, and visual development. In this post you’ll learn from Casey and Archer a few basic principles to get you started on appeal and how to draw things people love.
Appeal: the key to drawing things people love
When an image has a certain kind of charisma or “screen presence” that draws the viewer in, we say it has appeal. An appealing image is compelling. It makes the viewer keep looking. But the appeal doesn’t necessarily mean the image is pretty. For example, villainous characters like Jafar or the Other Mother from Coraline are meant to be terrifying! But despite their frightening appearance, you want to keep looking — because both the characters have appeal. It’s hard to look away.
In fact, it’s hard to look away from these images because they appeal to humans on an instinctual level. They contain pleasing combinations of shape, color, and repetition that human beings have evolved to find attractive. “Appealing images have a harmony of shape, color, and form,” says Casey. “They show us patterns that we recognize, so we understand the visual cues we’re getting. But they also put a twist on those recognizable patterns. They’re balanced but dynamic.”
As far back as Ancient Egypt and beyond, artists and designers have studied the patterns and proportions — like the Golden Ratio — that humans naturally find appealing. Learning how to put them into practice requires technical knowledge that is out of the scope of this post. But if you don’t have time to take an art class, you can still practice on your own by taking notice of the images you are drawn to, and the shapes and colors that make them up. With time, you’ll develop an intuitive sense of what constitutes appeal.
Every character needs a context
Shapes and proportions are the technical basis of appeal, but bringing an appealing drawing to life also requires creative exploration and research. And these are things anyone can do, even without formal training!
Let’s think about how you would approach research for telling a visual story. When you’re drawing something for a narrative project, that generally means drawing at least one character. Characters are usually what audiences remember from a story, and it’s tempting to start by building the character and put them into their context afterward. But the Toy Story artists probably didn’t create Woody first and AirDrop him into Andy’s house when they were done. To create the richest, most appealing images and stories, you should create the character and their environment simultaneously. “The secret to holistic appeal is to create the character and their environment so that they’re actually inseparable,” says Archer. “And each would be lesser without the other.”
What’s the right environment for your character? “The character’s environment should reflect their psychological state,” says Archer. “Stories take the protagonist on a journey with an emotional arc, and their environment should reflect those changes.” Consider Carl, the beloved grumpy old man from Pixar’s Up. Carl’s house is the physical manifestation of his emotional state. Carl is stuck in the past, unable to move past the death of his beloved wife, and his fading, antiquated house reflects those emotions. Only as he embarks on his whimsical adventure with Russell does Carl’s environment change to bright, youthful colors as he rediscovers how to find joy in living life.
Beyond emotional exploration, cultural, historical, and demographic research about your audience are also important to constructing a rich environment for your characters. For example, if you’re drawing a piece set in a particular culture or time period (like Archer’s design exploration of Kipling’s Just So Stories, above), you’ll want to look into shapes, colors, textures, and materials common to that time and place.
Draw from nature
No matter how complex the final image, every drawing starts with basic shapes. “I always start with a circle,” says Casey. Carl from Up is based mostly on rectangles. Where should you look for these shapes? Nature.
Ultimately, all art comes from nature. The artist processes the world through their perspective and shares what they see with their audience. And that means that artists need to get out and see the world for themselves. “I always tell my students that nature is a better designer than you are,” says Casey. “When you draw from nature, you will learn color combinations you’ve never even thought of.”
Try taking a walk and really observing the world around you. What are the shapes and colors combinations? What catches your eye? Add these observations to your mental library, and use them in your drawings. At Laetro, we have a principle that ideas are creatures. Every idea may have its own life. Recently I’ve been drawing fairies for my audience on Instagram Live, and narrating my thought process as I draw,” says Casey. “I always start with the biggest object in the drawing, maybe the water lily that the fairy is resting on. I observe the water lily and its shape. Now I ask the fairy, Where are you? How are you made? I let the natural shape of the lily inform the design of my fairy.”
Start by drawing big chunks
When you begin drawing, start big and work your way smaller. “You wouldn’t begin sewing a wedding dress by embroidering the lace,” says Casey. Like sculpting something from a block of marble, you want to chip away first at the big shapes. “When I do plein air painting, there’s no time to work with line,” says Archer. “So I squint to get rid of detail and start sketching out big chunks of color and value [light and dark areas]. I make sure they look right next to each other before adding any detail.”
As you work on the bigger picture, you may have a sudden flash of insight for a small detail — a piece of clothing, a facial expression, or a texture. Mark it down so that you can use it later! As you hone your drawing, you can start to add splashes of personality and detail that will make your environment and characters rich and memorable. For example, if your character is cat-like in personality, you can reflect that in the proportions of her face.
When creating an image, it’s important to do the research, draw from nature, and start with big chunks and work in. But there are so many things to learn about drawing appealing images, and the principles outlined in this post are just a place to start.
And when in need of inspiration, Casey and Archer have a word of advice: don’t look to the Internet! Draw your foot, draw the trees, draw the people on the subway! “Nature tends to compose itself,” says Archer. And by learning from nature, your drawings will begin to compose themselves, too.