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My custom cartoon portrait process

Custom cartoon portrait process

I’ve been doing a lot of custom cartoon portrait orders for cards and prints over the last few years. People just seem to love seeing themselves and others in cartoon form! Read on to find out how I go about creating my stick figure portraits step by step…

First steps

When I get an order for a cartoon portrait card or print the first thing I do is get in touch with the customer to ask them to send photos and find out if they have any preferences regarding outfits, etc. If the photos show anyone both with and without glasses or a beard then I’ll double check which version they want. (I did once get two photos of someone’s Dad for a personalised birthday card which both showed him with a beard, and I was only when I sent the first proof that she told me he no longer had a beard… in a tone that seemed surprised I didn’t know this…)

Once I have the photos and other information I need to get started I open up my sketchbook and get started.

Layout of each custom cartoon portrait

I begin by very roughly sketching stick figures on the page in the positions and poses I want them in. This is helpful for getting proportions right in even one person portraits but is especially important when I’m doing larger family portraits for making sure they’re balanced. Check out this example from a family cartoon portrait I worked on recently:

Custom cartoon portrait layout
This sketch shows roughly where each family member will be in relation to each other.

I sometimes send this to the customer to check they’re happy with the layout, but usually only if there are at least four people in a family portrait.

Filling in the detail

The next step is to start working on each person’s head, working from the photos. This is the most important bit to get right in order for the customer to recognise the real people from the cartoon versions.

Custom cartoon portrait heads sketch
Here I used pencil to draw the detail of each person’s head and try to capture their likeness

Once happy with that I’ll move on to the bodies and add in any props or pets. You can faintly see how I draw the bodies and clothes around the original stick figure sketches.

pencil sketch of family
This example shows the pencil sketch once finished

I try to make sure I’m completely happy with this step before I move on, as it’s much easier to draw with pencil than to edit digitally later on. When I’m content that I’ve captured each person’s likeness I’ll use my Tombow brush pens* to go over the pencil in black ink. If necessary I’ll use my Derwent Graphik line maker pens* for any very fine details before rubbing out the pencil marks.

Inked sketch
This shows the inked version in my sketchpad – ready to scan in

Digitising the sketch

The drawing is now ready to scan in. I use the ‘Text’ setting in black and white to get the sharpest outlines I can. I leave the image rasterised rather than converting it to a line drawing as otherwise some of the detail can be lost and it also looks less hand drawn.

Custom cartoon portrait scanned
Here’s what the digital image looked like once it was scanned in

At this point I leave my pens and pencils behind and do all the rest of the editing digitally. I sharpen up the contrast and remove any marks that have come through on the scan but shouldn’t be there. I also fix any slips or mistakes I may have made in the inking stage.

Time to add colour! All the colour is digitally added, to make it easier to make any colour changes if the customer asks for them. I send a first proof to the customer to get their feedback once I’m happy with the digital image and colours .

cartoon portrait sketch first proof
Here’s the first proof I sent to the customer with colour added

Final edits

A lot of the time the customer accepts the first proof. However it also often happens that they ask for colour changes or realise that the photo they sent showed an older hairstyle, facial hair or glasses.

In the example above I’d been given instructions for outfits of two of the family members but omitted to check what the others should wear and did my own thing. This was foolish of me… In this case the customer felt that the two figures in orange and blue were too casual looking in relation to the rest. As a result I needed to digitally redraw these two outfits. (She also asked for a few colour changes but these are very easily done.) I’m now trying to ask more questions and get as much detail as possible before starting. This is much easier than having to edit digitally later, and I’m hopefully getting better at remembering to do this!

The finished product – how this custom cartoon portrait turned out

Once I’d made these edits and send a second proof the customer was very happy with her family portrait. I’ll always keep going until the customer is completely satisfied with what I’ve created! Here’s the finished product:

The final cartoon family portrait as sent to the customer

She also asked me to sign the portrait as she said I should get credit for my artwork, which I thought was really lovely of her! I’ve also done quite a few other cartoon portraits for her, so despite my mistake she remained a very loyal customer 🙂

So that’s my process! I love doing custom cartoon portraits. They result in me having a lot more interaction with my customers than I do with ready to ship orders that are just printed and posted off. Some really terrific customers come back again and again and I’m always so pleased to hear from them when they ask for another custom cartoon portrait for a new occasion.

Take a look at the range in my shop to see examples of all the different custom cartoon portrait cards and prints that I offer.

* These are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them and buy I will get a tiny commission on that product – it doesn’t cost you anything though! And I only add affiliate links to products I actually like and use (of course).