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Tips from Animator and Illustrator Matt Watts (Part 2 of 2)

Tags: Storyboard Pro Animation Harmony Customer Story Storytelling

Matt shares the techniques and tools he uses for his work as a commercial artist and animator. For more about Matt, see Part 1.


Matt, thank you for agreeing to share some of your tips on creating art and animation.

I've taught people how to use Harmony, and seen apprehension in their eyes as they see how robust the tool set is. Then, after a little bit of training, I see the light of excitement burning in their eyes as they realize how much they can do and how easily it can be done. My message to everyone is that it's worth spending the time to learn this stuff. With Toon Boom software, it's incredible that a single person can be their own mini animation studio!


What tablet and computer do use for animating these days?

I've tried a few setups, here's a few things that worked --and did not work-- for me. I use a Windows 10 PC with 16 gigs of RAM. I use two monitors (I tried three for a while, but it felt too cluttered and distracting). My main monitor is a 22" and I have a Wacom Intuos4 Large Pen tablet. I recently tried to upgrade to a 23" monitor, but the play between the tablet area and larger screen size really bothered me, so I went back to the slightly smaller monitor. The closer the active dimensions of a Wacom tablet are to the size of the monitor, the more natural it feels to use for drawing. If you've got a tiny tablet where a 1/2" stroke equals a distance of 2" on the screen, it's difficult to draw. Painting and color fills are fine with that amount of size offset, but not sketching and inking.

Here's a hardware experiment of mine that didn't work out that may help others. I bought a 13" Wacom Cintiq Companion Hybrid but the small screen gave me a crowded feeling due to the combination of tiny software menus and little program panels. I tried using that thing for nearly a year, but always found myself going back to my Intuos to get work done. I eventually sold the tablet for about half the price of what I bought it for. A nice thing about Wacom is that they give you a 30-day window to try out their product and ship it back to them if you're not satisfied with it.


Matt Watts artworkWhat are some of the techniques you use to design a character?

First of all, I really need to know the story behind the character and what type of presence it needs to impose. This will inform a lot of the shapes, costumes and poses I use. Next, to avoid a TON of frustration and stress, I invest time assembling a lot of great reference material. I've wasted hours and hours drawing without references and rarely find myself being happy with the end result. I typically use the miracle of Google to do my research, but if I can draw or take photos from life, that is even better.

When designing anything, it's important to start with a broad concept that communicates clearly. Details come later after developing a solid foundation. I enjoy designing characters with strong, simplified, graphic shapes --- playing a lot with straight lines and curves. I find that if I start detailing something up with too many blades of hair or too many clothing wrinkles, it can cause visually distracting noise and can even kill the design. I have to remind myself that I AM AN ARTIST!!! I get to choose what to include and what to leave out, making intentional design decisions. Robotic copying can suck the life out of it! When I have time, I find that sketching a few completely different-looking versions of the character is helpful. Doing this lets me think about the story behind the character and what design elements can help communicate it most effectively. Every once in awhile I find myself going back to the simplicity of an initial sketch, but more often the 3rd and 4th versions are better.

Finally, a design technique that's a lot of fun is to make simple black and white silhouettes and then add detail later. A couple of great books on character design are Action! Cartooning by Ben Caldwell and Creating Characters with Personality by Tom Bancroft. An online resource with character design interviews that I enjoy is . Some of my favorite character designers are Brett Bean, Jin Kim, Stephen Silver, Christophe Lautrette, Sandro Cleuzo, Kevin Keele, Adam Munoa, and Claudia Raya.

Matt Watts artwork


What is your approach to drawing backgrounds?

When I design a background, I start with a tiny canvas size which forces me to work quickly and at a small scale. Next, I throw in some rough darks and lights with a large brush to get the composition working properly, directing the viewer's gaze to the right spots. Sometimes I do this in black and white, but most of the time I'll find some colors in a photo or illustration that convey the feeling I'm going after.

I paint with rough, broad color strokes initially and then go into details once the composition is solid. Simplifying what you observe to help guide the viewer is what's really important. In the first Kung Fu Panda movie, I read that their artists had painted some incredibly beautiful backgrounds. In the end, they had to blur out or tone down the paintings because they would have drawn too much attention away from the center of focus on the characters. Two favorite books that have helped me with this are Color and Light by James Gurney and Framed Ink by Marcos Mateu-Mestre. Chris Oatley is THE MAN when it comes to teaching how to paint digitally with color and light

An essential factor for translating nature into art is adding a degree of chaos. God created nature to be perfectly random, varied and beautiful. Look at trees, rust, rotting wood, rocks, clouds, and clothing folds. A cloud shouldn't have its' bumps all the same size -- that's boring. Once I went to the doctor and he showed me an x-ray of my shin bone. I stared in awe at how beautifully it was structured. It wasn't completely straight, it has elegant curves and width variations which I couldn't have designed any better.

Art is much more interesting when it appears to have some spontaneity. Don't iron out all the wrinkles. Let it have a few squiggles in the lines or specks in the paint.


What is a good way to practice one's drawing skills?

I want to emphasize the importance of practicing figure drawing and life drawing.

Every day, before I start animating or illustrating for my living, I spend 10 to 15 minutes warming up by drawing from online random pose generators.

The one I use most often shows 3D computer-generated muscular anatomy To draw convincing characters and poses, you need to know the anatomy going on underneath the costume.

Artwork by Matt Watts


How can someone develop a discerning eye for animation?

I find that my work is much stronger if I film myself doing an action first and then watch it for reference. This way I can see how I shift my weight or when to add tiny bumps in the motion that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Watching video on YouTube at 25% speed is good for understanding explosions and other things I'm clueless about (like dancing and playing sports). Sometimes I will directly copy this reference in quick sketchy studies as I familiarize myself with the subject. When I was younger, I used to feel that the epitome of being a great artist was being able to copy something to be photo real; now I feel that the key is to artistically interpret and convey something clearly and powerfully. I like this quote:

The observation of nature is part of an artist's life, it enlarges his form and knowledge, keeps him fresh and from working only by formula, and feeds inspiration.Henry Moore


What features in Harmony are some of your favorites?

I love inking with Harmony. I prefer to draw my lines so they overshoot, intersecting other lines. Then I get out the Cutter tool to quickly crop the overshot ends off, providing a graphic inking style.

Unlike other software, Harmony can keep keyframe information separate from drawing swaps. That is a HUGE reason I love Harmony. I heavily rely on Paste Special Offset Keyframes command to add previous animations I've saved in my library.

I like to use the Function View window to adjust keyframe eases by pulling on the curve handles. And Harmony's curve deformers are really cool for cocked eyebrows and spine tilts.

For frame by frame animation, I use Harmony to vectorize my scanned pencil sketches and then I draw extra in-betweens using simple brushes with slightly transparent color swatches. I really like using the Shift and Trace feature while I am doing the in-betweens.

Bitmap layers are great for custom effects animations like smoke and fire.

Harmony 14


Thank you for your time and insight Matt.

My pleasure! Nearly every piece of art I do is to either make me smile or to make someone else smile. That's how I arrived at the tagline on my website, "Cartoons to brighten your day".