Many of you probably have great things to say, stories to tell, or even knowledge to share. You’ve been wanting to tell your stories and share your ideas, but you’d like to share them more visually. You may be thinking of creating your own illustrated stories (text with added pictures), or comics (pictures with added text), or even animated cartoons. Excellent!
But then you get stuck. You want your “visual essays” to look great, but you can’t draw great looking characters and background. Do you simply give up and shelf you great ideas and stories?
No! Go ahead, create, and share your awesome stuff! Remember that you started because of your cool ideas or stories, not because you have great art to share.
For your inspiration, I’ve compiled a few examples of successful authors and creators who use their own simple art styles to tell their great stories.
Most of you reading this are probably not going along the typical career paths for the Visual Arts. You’re not a formally trained artist, illustrator, photographer, animator. You’re either not there yet (too young, still considering your options), or have moved past that decision point and are now in a totally different field like teaching, homemaking, finance, IT, or engineering, just to name a few. Whatever your wonderful background may be, if you’d like to share your great stories or ideas with visual elements, I hope these examples will give you the inspiration and motivation to get started and to get to the finish line. Focus on what you have to say, and say it!
Stick Figures In Comics And Illustrated Blogs
Stick figures are downright easy to draw, even without a cool Wacom digital drawing tablet. Just use any free drawing software tools and click-and-drag away with your mouse. If you use bitmap based software tools (e.g. Microsoft Paint, or Pencil2D), the click-and-drag technique will look more natural but awful. Naturally awful. But that’s what you should expect.
For instance, check out Allie Brosh’s work using Microsoft Paint in Hyperbole-And-A-Half to see for yourself what kind of amazing stories you can tell with crude stick figure characters for your art. If you can’t even draw stick people characters like Allie does, have a look at how she draws much simpler characters in her Spaghatta Nadle mini-series (my favorites). What’s more amazing than the drawings? Well, how about a great readership and book deals? As of today, her Facebook fan page has accumulated more than 550,000 likes. PC World included the blog on its list of “funniest sites on the web” in 2011. The Hyperbole and a Half book was released in October 2013, with a second book currently in the works. The great storytelling coupled with the sucky pictures just make for splendid hilarious contents that many people keep coming back for more (although unfortunately, her last blog post was published in October 2013).
Now you should be thinking, “I could do that” and you’d be exactly right. You and I could draw common stick figure characters, too! Here’s my first contribution (inspired by personal experience):
Alternatively, you could draw your stick figures by hand on real paper with real pencils and pens. You can then electronically scan the drawings into your visual essay. Yet another technique is to draw your stick figures using vector drawings. That way, you’ll get to create nicer looking circles, rectangles, and lines.
Randall Munroe’s XKCD is another good example of a successful web-comic that uses traditional stick figure characters. The comic ideas are more on the nerdy side, which nicely caters for a very targeted audience. Launched in September 2005, the web-comic is still going strong today in early 2015. The book, xkcd: volume 0, was released in 2009 with all proceeds donated to literacy and education in the developing world. Randall used to work for NASA as a roboticist, but is now a full-time web-comic artist. Imagine that.
Then there is Buttersafe (launched 2007) by college buddies Raynato Castro and Alex Culang, who claimed in a conference (NYCC 2012) that their web-comic “makes no sense, it’s so stupid, but people read it.” Many of their comics use stick figure type characters similar to my drawing below (I did it using PowerPoint!). You can view an example of their stick-figure based web-comic episode titled “Focus” that I think is very funny. To date, the web-comic has garnered more than 600 in-bound links, and is getting more than 90,000 daily page views.
As you can see, the character is drawn with a rectangle shaped body instead of a simple stick shaped body. The face has added expressions from the addition of the mouth, eyes, and eyebrows.
Many web-comic authors use this style of stick figure drawing. Among the web-comics that I follow that use these types of stick figures is Cyanide And Happiness (started running in January 2005, even earlier than Buttersafe) by Rob DenBleyker, Dave McElfatrick, Matt Melvin, and Kris Wilson. Today, the web-comic enjoys more than 480,000 daily page views from more than 260,000 daily visitors. Excellent fan base!
Animated Stick Figures
The Cyanide And Happiness creators went on to create animated shorts with their YouTube channel Explosm Entertainment in September 2009, keeping the basic stick figure character style. As of this writing, their YouTube channel has acquired 3.9 million subscribers and 580 million views. All using simple stick figure characters. Their key ingredients include funny contents, a little action or violence, and perhaps something unexpected or even controversial.
For a rather unique example, watch Alan Becker’s awesome Animator vs. Animation episodes on his YouTube channel. Obviously, a lot of planning and development went into each episode. For example, Alan worked on episode IV for 11 months, logging 738 hours. The stick figures are animated by hand using frame-by-frame technique in Adobe Flash. The other elements such as the operating system and software interactions (mostly destruction) are all animated as well. The result is truly a amazing and unique animation that is fun to watch. The episodes kept getting better, with more sophisticated techniques and storylines being introduced with each new movie. In line with the effort and quality, the viewership improved with each episode. As of this writing, the first episode of Animator vs. Animation (uploaded on YouTube on May 14, 2007) has gained 3.8 million views on YouTube. The latest movie (its fourth installation) was uploaded on October 2, 2014 and has gained 10.5 million views.
Finally, I’d just like to point out the tons of stick figure FIGHT animations by so many different creators. As you may imagine, most of these are purely fighting scenes with lots of violence, blood, and gore that seem to be popular with very specific audience demographics. These movies usually don’t come with any substantial plots. Just fights.
3 Examples of Software Tools for Creating Stick Figure Animation
Adobe Flash is definitely one of the leading tools for creating these movies using hand-drawn frame-by-frame animation technique. Pivot Animator (FREE for commercial use) is another popular software tool for creating stick figure animation, although it’s currently only available for Windows computers. Obviously, you can use these tools to create amazing stick figure animations to tell your stories, or create educational videos, beyond stick figure action movies.
You definitely CAN get started with your 2D animation hobby for FREE using Pivot Animator and simple stick figure characters. If you’re really new to animation, you’ll get to learn the very basic concepts of animation and computer animation tools with this tool. It’s a good and fun way to start before you learn about more advanced stuff (like the 12 Principles of Animation).
Personally, my 2D animation tool of choice was Toon Boom Studio. It allowed me to get started with simple stick figure animation. Now, most of my animation “experiments” have been with cut-out or puppet style characters. Here’s an example video of how I create a simple character (inspired by Dumb Ways To Die) that I can use as still images in web-comics and posters, or as animated characters in my cartoons.
I basically started with creating little fun things like stick figures.
I’ve shown you what’s possible for true beginners to start learning and creating with simple character styles, i.e., stick figures. Practically anyone can become hobbyists in 2D animation, and for FREE, too! Some of you out there have always loved to learn animation, but don’t have any idea how to start.
You may be the everyday person who wishes you can create your own animations. Well, now you know ONE easy way you can get started. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t start learning animation (or creating comics) for whatever reason, even artistic. You are FREE to LEARN, FREE to CREATE!
Of course, nothing should prevent you from creating sophisticated and beautiful looking characters, either! You can add sophistication to your characters, and get more unique designs. If you’re a traditional media artist or an expert illustrator trying to bring life to your characters through animation, you probably don’t have to start with stick figures (unless you insist, perhaps for learning the software of your choice).
Break down the learning into small steps, and you’ll be creating in no time. Create little fun things at first, and then create amazing beautiful things. The key is to persevere!