Sketch Characters Like A Police Artist

TaynaRealSee that pretty face there? Know who it is? Almost looks like your brother-in-law’s sister, right? Or maybe it’s that girl you knew in college. You know, the one who had the ferret and thought water pistols should be illegal?

The thing is, she seems familiar, but you can’t quite put your finger on where, or why. And that’s the power of this kind of sketch. It suggests all sorts of associations and details, but never quite settles down on being one, specific, recognizable person. Kind of like a police sketch.

Have you ever followed the news and spent time looking at the police artist’s conception of what eye-witnesses said the perpetrator looked like? And then, a few days later, when you got to see the custody photos of the actual guy they arrested, could you make the connection? I mean, whoa! I see the resemblance. This guy could be that guy’s cousin or something, but they’re they same person? Really? Wanna know why that’s a good thing for a writer? Come on in and find out…

Well, what if I told you that when you’re looking for creative inspiration – looking for a face to focus your thinking about your heroine, or about your villain, or whoever – what you really want is one of these approximation photos. Not an actual, like, people photo, but an approximate photo. A police sketch.

smilieIn 1993, Scott McCloud wrote a fascinating graphic novel, called Understanding Comics, about the psychology and mechanics of how cartoon imagery works, and by extension, why we’re so enthralled by them. In it, McCloud talks about the accessibility of hand drawn images. Perhaps the most famous, and simplest cartoon is the simple smiley face. That guy over there –>.

The thing that makes smiley so universal is his simplicity. For that matter, it could be a her, too. The ultimate human deconstruction: a head, two eyes and a mouth. Reduced to this simplest form, smiley could be anybody. And so, instead, he is everybody.

So that’s the secret to the appeal of cartoons. With their simplistic, generalized features and dearth of identifiable markings, cartoon faces represent the everyman or everywoman. And this allows us to relate to them readily. The takeaway message in all that, for me, is that when it comes to identification, less is more.

wifeNow, what has that got to do with writing, exactly? Good question. Before I stumbled on McCloud’s book, when I wanted to find visual inspiration for a character I was writing, I did what most authors do. I would cruise Google images, looking for a photo that I thought best conveyed the characteristics I was after. Middle aged mom. Check. Neutral expression. Check. Haunted look around the eyes from too many toddlers and not enough sleep. Check and check. The problem I had, when writing from those photos, though, was that I was constantly editing myself. Shirley crept down the stairs and clutched desperately at the carving knife as she moved through the dining room. Glance at the photo. No. This Shirley doesn’t really look like a knife-grabber. Does she? She looks more like a phone-the-cops-and-hide-under-the-bed kind of woman to me.

And that was my problem. I found that I was getting too many cues from my photo aids. They were climbing out of the box of visual avatar I had stuck them into, and were trying to possess the character, like some minor demon. But I never really connected the dots on what was happening there. All I knew was that I was getting frustrated with my characters, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Until I read Scott’s book.

ShirleyThe very next day, I chucked all my photo references, and went off in search of a better solution. And I found it, in a web site that I think was called Face Maker, or something like that. The original site at the original URL has long since gone the way of the $10 dinner for four, but its step-son seems to be alive and well and living as an app called Flash Face. Based on the tools for rapid face assembly used by some police departments instead of the artist/cop made famous in B-grade Hollywood films, Flash Face allows you to quickly build up a sketch of what a character looks like. Thin face or fat? Beady little eyes that are too small for his skull, or big googly eyes that stand out from his face like Guy Smiley on crack? As you move through the feature tabs, you can pick and choose from hundreds of facial features, and then position them, and size them, exactly how you want them.

There’s a free version, with enough features for most peoples’ needs, plus several paid versions that include more expansive sets of facial features, but regardless of which one you use, the result is a face that looks exactly like what you wanted, but nothing like what you set out to achieve. The process of making all those individual feature choices slowly pushes you one way or another, and before you know it, you have a face that may not be what you thought you wanted, but you slowly begin to realize is better in some way. More concrete than the abstract, vague imaginings you started out with.

But better than that, these sketches are not photo-real. They’re based on real photos, but they’ve had the details washed out. They’ve been generalized. They’re all still real eyes and real noses and such, but the effect, when you put them all together on the same face, is one step removed from photo-real. One step closer to cartoonified. It’s a small step, but an important one. When you whip up a sketch-look for that Shirley character, go back to your typewriter, and put yourself back on that staircase, suddenly this Shirley is happy to pick up the knife. She’ll even go back and hide under the bed, too, if that’s what you want. She’s putty in your hands. Operative word there being your hands.

So if you find yourself second-guessing your character photos, or if you just want a way to get quick and dirty sketches without having to search through billions of web photos, give Flash Face a try. I love it.

And for those who don’t recognize her, the face at the very top of the article is the avatar I’ve always used for Tayna, the spunky heroine of Strange Places.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.