Character Designer Beryl Allee on Why You Should Embrace Failure

Character designer Beryl Allee wants you to know there are no rules to being creative. We spoke to the designer about her creative process and what she loves about character design as she created her submission for the Pictoplasma Secret Sidekick Challenge.

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Character Designer Beryl Allee on Why You Should Embrace Failure
Can you speak to your process, and where you get your inspiration? What you do when you feel like an idea might not work, and how you handle these obstacles?

This is an interesting question. I get my inspiration from pretty arbitrary places, I think. I’m just turning my attention to what I already find interesting and trying to twist that around into something creative. I’m particularly interested in human tics and gestures, as well as the performance arts that explore them, like drama, dance, improv, and stand-up. I’ll watch a lot of speeches and debates as well. I bear in mind that any subject can be made interesting, so any creeping notion that I’ve picked the wrong thing to focus on is just my insecurity talking. I also have come to believe that ideas are not precious. I’ll come up with 40 of them, 37 of them are garbage, and three of them are onto something. I can only arrive at an idea that works after learning what doesn’t work, which is to say I’m suspicious of an attractive first idea.

A failure to fully explore and scrutinize one’s own bad ideas is a failure to recognize a good one.

 

Early ideas for Beryl’s Pictoplasma Secret Sidekick submission. All images’ source: Beryl Allee.
With character design, so much of it is about expressing the things that can’t be put into words. Can you speak to how you use character design as an outlet for self-expression?

I think visual art has a lot in common with poetry, in that it develops its own internally consistent rules and symbols as a way of densely packing information. Character design has this quality as well. Anything you draw will inevitably express your view of the world. The particular lines and shapes and colors I choose to use will spell out my attitude towards whatever I’m trying to depict. In fact, my drawings often reveal to me what I think and feel about things — every drawing is dripping with meaning.

You’re working on a submission right now for the Pictoplasma Secret Sidekick Challenge. By adding a character to an otherwise inconspicuous setting, we challenge ourselves to step outside of our own perspective and see things differently. Is that the case for you? Can you speak to that a bit?

For me, it’s almost the opposite: adding a character to an inconspicuous setting is to dive deeper into my own perspective rather than to step outside of it. I’m illustrating what I might see there, my associations, my intuitions, my curiosities. If anything, this kind of exercise shows me that I don’t know my own surroundings and, indeed, my own mind as well as I thought. What you draw will always surprise you. You won’t know quite what you will draw until you draw it, and you will be at a loss to explain why you didn’t decide to draw something else. Drawing is a way of teasing out what you think, and showing you that you don’t actually have unfettered access to your own associations.

An early version of Beryl’s final piece.
Beryl’s final submission to the Pictoplasma Secret Sidekick Challenge.
Can you walk us through your Pictoplasma submission? What is the concept behind it?

The photograph is of a heavily graffitied building above a marshy path in my town. As I was taking pictures, I gave myself a technical constraint: I wanted to make the drawing look like it was a part of the photo instead of just painted on top. The dark space beneath the building was perfect — it was begging to have something emerge from underneath. I knew I could also use shadows to make the drawing look more at home in the 3D space. I like to use animals as inspiration, and I landed on the idea of some mole-like creature crossed with a tortoise possibly using the building as its shell. I ended up just drawing a ton of those and comparing the shapes. I found it wasn’t hard to land on a design when I had a ton of doodles to choose bits from and then refine. My process had something like a Darwinian component to it. As I was rendering the final image, I started with flattening out the shape and experimenting with color. I was asking myself questions like, “The building is graffitied, should the creature be too?” “Is it mad about this?” “Is the eye color too menacing?” “Should it be reptilian?” “How would a creature like this rest its paws to support its body on a slope like this?”, etc.

So many people are intimidated by the idea of creating. Can you speak to how you learned that it’s OK to fail?

Making something mediocre is infinitely better than making nothing. I can’t emphasize that enough. I learned that art is a practice and a process — and by doing you will helplessly get better.

When working on my first film, I realized that the amount of time it takes to make an animation makes it hard not to hate your work. I would be briefly satisfied with a scene and then immediately disappointed as soon as I worked on the next one because I was putting so many hours in, I would get better than the scene I just finished. By the time I got to the last shot, it looked so much better than the first and there were so many things I wanted to go back and change. By the time it was finished though, I realized that my anxiety about how bad the first shots were compared to the last had dissolved. I watched it through a couple of times, but the flaws were much less glaring to me. I saw that the improvement of shots over the film is proof of my capacity to improve over time. I wasn’t trying to improve, but I did. I realized that my worry sprung from an insecurity that was trying to trick me into not making anything at all. Thinking of the festivals that accepted it the following year, I know not finishing would have been a mistake.

I remember being told by an art teacher in high school that a growing artist will improve their poor skills with their good taste. When your work disappoints you, your skills just have not caught up to your vision. You should not take this to mean that you have failed to make something. You know what kind of art you like, you know what your definition of good art looks like. The path to make that kind of work yourself is open to you if you keep working at it. Pay attention to your mistakes, they will tell you where to take your practice. My quality of work improved radically when I realized that drawing something that’s missing the mark is not failing. Failing to draw anything is failing.

See more inspiring character designs — and create your own — in the Pictoplasma Secret Sidekick Challenge.

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