How to create character sketches

This session looks at the work of Shaun Tan and the futuristic character illustrations he creates. The inspiration for Shaun Tan’s characters come from the experiences he had when he emigrated as a child from China to Australia with his Malaysian and Finish parents. His experiences of seeing new machines, people, and ways of communicating and socialising has informed much of his work to tell stories of diaspora.

To create your own characters a great website is YouIDraw. It has a range of great mark making tools that are easy and effective to use for illustrative sketches. Watch this video demonstration of how to use YouIDraw.

To create your own Shaun Tan style digital sketch

– Look at all of the Shaun Tan images below.
– Think about which ones look fun to do
– How it is composed (how the image fills the space)
– What layers there are – background, shadow, main body, details
– What monochrome or sepia shades you can see

Are the Machines or Creatures?

Shaun Tan creates weird and wonderful characters. Many of them look like machines with elements of animals/ humans.
They often have functional parts to their bodies that are used to help others.
They also have their own ‘personalities’ and often interact with other characters.

– What parts of machines can you see?
– What features of animals or humans can you see?

What colour palettes are used?

Shaun Tan uses a limited selection of colours.
These are often monochrome or sepia palettes.

– What shades of monochrome and sepia can you see in the next set of images?




How to layer up your digital sketches

When you have chosen an image work from the background to the foreground to create your image.

For example create
1. Grey on the wall – this has marks ontop of a sepia wall to contrast with the floor
2. The marks on the floor
3. The main shape of the space man
4. The battery pack elements and tube
5. Add it’s shadows – on the floor and on the suit
6. Details on the spaceman’s outfit
7. The main shape of the character he interviews
8. The shadows of that character
9. Details of the smoke puffs up the floor/ wall

Here are some examples of the Shaun Tan inspired digital sketches that Teagan, Gaspard, Derwent and Finn created during Summer Camp


For more information about Shaun Tan go to