All illustrations start with a concept idea: usually a simple sketch on a notebook.

For this specific illustration I had just watched Book 2-Volume 4 of Avatar with my son. I already had Katara on my list of illustrations (from watching previous episodes) but even though Toph was one of my favourite characters in the cartoon it hadn't occured to me to add her to the list until then.

The sketch is basically to gauge how the character would look with the bubble treatment as some characters are harder to represent than others. In the case of Toph the sketch worked great on paper.

1st step: body

I always start with the same elements:

  • one big circle for the head
  • two ovals for the eyes
  • one circle for the body
  • two circles for the hands
  • two half circles for the feet
  • a solid background color that will set the tone of the illustration (here a beige reminiscent of the Earth nation in Avatar)

2nd step: basic head

With the basic frame of the body in place it is time to start adding some of the characters specific features. Most of the time it is easiest to start with the head.

In Toph's case the head is the most recognizable element anyway so this made perfect sense as a starting point. The wrists and ankles are also pretty specific but the clothes are standard for a martial art character and could not be used alone to identify the character.

I started by adding a large oval to represent the back of the hair. The hair in front is made of three different parts using curve primitives. At this stage I am only looking for a rough shape: you can see that the tips of the hair are not very clean (curved instead of pointy).

I also added Toph's familiar headband which will help a lot in making the character recognizable. Again the shape is rough but I'll adjust it later. The little fluffy ball on the side is actually very easy to make, and you can see the first step here which is laying down a few circle primitives on a large circle. This is a good example of first pass as the elements don't have the right color or outline but have a pretty accurate shape.

3rd step: rock

Props usually come later than step 3 in a project.

Here I knew I wanted a piece of rock on the image and because the rock was going to affect the pose of the character I decided to draw it early on. As you can see on the picture this was a good decision as the rock barely fitted in the space I had left and would force me to change the pose.

The look of the rock is very simple with a few quads and triangles for the overall shape and shades of brown to represent the light hitting the rock and making it more 3-dimensional. This looks a lot like early flat-shaded 3D graphics (Virtua Fighter, etc.)

4th step: new pose

With the rock available I modified the pose of the character to be a bit more dynamic.

I wanted to represent earthbending moves in the illustration as this is such an integral part of the character. The main problem with martial arts in bubble look is the lack of knees and elbows: I had the same issue with Jet-Li from the movie Fearless. A lot of the earthbending techniques are recognizable from the position of the arms, wrists or knees, sometimes in pretty subtle ways as illustrated in the awesome episode "The Blind Bandit".

You may have noticed that I did a second pass on the hair and fluffy ball thingy. While this may not seem necessary for the pose of the body, it actually helped quite a bit. The reason is that you may also notice that modifying the hair made me resize and move the eyes to fit snuggly between the different hair parts. Where a character is looking has a great impact on the overall dynamic of the model and getting it right early on is very important.

In the end I opted for Toph lifting the rock with her hands. The move still says "earthbending" to me even if it represents the brute force part of the style and not the smooth and fluid moves from that first episode. But, it worked without arms or legs .

5th step: more details

I now had enough recognizable elements that it started feeling awkward looking at a naked Toph: time to put some clothes on.

The first pass on cloth was pretty basic: a few rough lines to get the main elements in place. I voluntarily left the ankles and wrists for later as a) I wasn't sure if they were going to work and b) I needed the pose to be finalized to get the orientation of the pieces right (PaintShopPro XI doesn't support rotating more than one vector primitive at a time, as far as I can tell).

Note the angle of the kimono below the belt. This helps giving more movement to the character and makes it look as if Toph is pulling the rock from the earth. Compare to step 4 where the rock just seems to be floating in the air: it's subtle but it makes the rock feel slightly heavier.

6th step: joints

I was happy with the position of the legs but I needed a little more to try and hint at the location of the knees (slightly bended and rotated inward as shown in the video link above).

To do that I used the ankle pieces from Toph's outfit to indicate the location of the ankles on the half-circle that represent the feet. This also adds details and colors to the feet which would look very plain otherwise. These elements are actually pretty specific to Toph and should help establishing the character. As an added bonus, they bring some more green on the character that was lost along with the shoulders and legs of the characters. This is one of the challenges of the style that would make a character like Superman tricky to pull off (as the hips and feet would both be red and the character would be missing the blue from the legs in between)... I'll have to try one of these days .

The pose is getting close to final but I still need to balance the position of the hands between being too far from the body and looking weird or being at the right distance and hiding part of the outfit.

7th step: adjustments

At this point all the main elements are in place and it's just a matter of bringing them together.

I'm finalizing the pose with something that looks natural and still shows enough of the outfit to keep some of the more recognizable features. Moving the hand behind the rock also helps bringing the two elements together and making them feel like part of the same scene. It also add some depth to the illustration (hard to make something look 3D with flat vector primitives) which is re-inforced by the addition of the wrist on the hand in the front, helping to drive the point across that we see the front of one hand and the back of the other.

The hair and cloth are also refined and are close to final. Note that Lord Voldemort taught me the hard way not to try to make cloth too realistic. Basically the more you make any of the elements of a vector image realistic, the more the other elements will seem out of place. And since I want to keep things simple, I need to keep everything simple.

8th step: details

A couple more details that I missed in earlier steps such as the larger yellow rectangle on the headband or the collar of the kimono.

I made the eyes larger because when I picture the character of Toph I see those big pale blue eyes. The eyes are as much a part of Toph's character as earthbending or fluffy ball thingies, maybe even more so. It is because Toph is blind that she is the best earthbender on Earth. Aang also looks for her because she's the one master that "listens to the earth" (if you have no clue what I'm talking about go watch the cartoon, I guarantee it will be well worth your while).

I also tried something for the rock. I liked the look of it but it still didn't look enough like a rock: there was something missing. The trick was removing the while outlines on the surface of the rock. This helped the shades of brown blend together nicely and give a smooth pastel aspect to the stone.

9th step: shadows

We're getting to the very last steps of the illustration. We have the basic shapes and details in place, now we are adding shading to break some of the large solid surfaces.

Shading is actually quite easy to achieve. You just need to cover part of your basic shapes with smaller shapes without outline and with a slightly darker shade (darker for shadows, brighter for highlights). Because Toph doesn't have much metal on her, and because of the cell-shaded look of the cartoon I opted for shadows only and no highlights. Highlights works best for hard surfaces such as metal or plastic that will reflect light, shadows work best for softer surfaces such as skin or cloth.

The picture in the top left corner was to give me a model of how shadows would fall on the character. While it's not strictly necessary to have a model to refer to, you'd be amazed how many details you'd never notice without one. The shadow on the eyes was a very simple effect and it makes perfect sense (the hair is casting the eyes in shadow), and yet, I almost missed it. Another advantage of the reference material is that you can use it as palette using the drop color tool in PaintShopPro. As it stands I didn't use it here because I prefered my own colors (the image was a bit too dark for my taste).

10th step: outline

Almost done!

An easy finition step that must not be overlooked is the addition of thick outlines around the character. The thick outlines help frame the character against the background. The way I do outlines is very easy. I start by duplicating all the vector layers in the file. For each primitive in the duplicated layers, I then set the fill color to fully transparent, the outline color to black and the thickness of the outline to some large value. Note that clearing the fill color is not strictly necessary as the outlines are behind the other layers anyway, but it makes the file cleaner and also shows the layer has actual primite outlines in the layer browser (which makes finding my way through the layers easier).

For a 1024x1024 source image, I usually use 5 pt for inside lines, 3pt for small inside details and 10pt for the outline.

11th step: background

Last step, finding a proper background for the image and adding a few one-off touch-ups to the image.

In the past I was looking for images on Google to paste behind my characters but since I started posting my artwork on DeviantArt I figured I should not be using material off the internet without authorization. As a result I am now trying to create my own background. The earth logo and text are both vector art. This took a little while to finish but I am happy with the results, and I didn't rip somebody else's work for my own personal gain .

I also added a shadow to ground Toph and the rock into the picture, as well as some vibration lines and rock debris to emphasize Toph ripping the rock from the ground.

And the illustration is now done (click on the image or here to see the full size image). Time to completion ~4 hours.

Hope you enjoyed this little tutorial. If you did please let me know and I'll do more moving forward.