Costume Sketches 101

I remember a Costume prof telling me once that you didn’t have to be a great artist to be a great costume designer. You just needed to be able to represent the body and explain how you wanted the cloth to fall on it. Even so I still get a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to comparing my costume renderings to the rest of the design community’s. So here are some tips on how to do a solid costume rendering.

1) Always start with the body. No matter how good your ability to represent clothing, if your proportions or angles are off in the body, it just won’t look right.

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This first sketch does not have to take that long or be that detailed, it just needs to give you as the designer a solid foundation to go back to when layering the clothing on top. Also remember that unlike the fashion world which tends to design for one body type (at least for the runway) the world of stage design includes all body types. If you can get the body right at this point it will make your actors a lot less self conscious when they look over the costumes they will have to wear later.

The Character of Lucy Thompson from “The Laramie Project”- Design by Rain Davis

2) Start layering the clothing shape in pencil over your figure. This is the time to figure out where you want your shadows to fall, basic materials, add some expression to the face and add any props they will have (like a purse or hat) as part of the costume. However don’t feel like this needs to be too detailed, most likely you will be going over the sketch in at least pen if not watercolor.

I have been known to stop at this stage if I know I am going to be pulling from a limited costume closet (or sometimes from the actors wardrobes) and then the costume rendering becomes more about shape and texture. But ideally you will be adding color.

3) Start adding layers of color. You can use a number of different mediums and combine the mediums if you like. The ones that I tend to use more are Colored Pencils, Prismacolor Pencils, Water Color, Gouashe, and Prismacolor Pens.

Guiteau from Assassins design by Jennifer Madison

4) Once you have your basic colors in you can go back over the image with pen or watercolor and add shading. Below you can see the designer used a fine tip pen to add clean lines to her water color sketch.

Kate Barlow in “Holes” Costume Renderings by Jan McCauley

5) Lastly add anything that helps you to flesh out the design for the costume shop. If you have fabric you want to use, staple that to the side. Likewise you can add a research photo or notes if need be.

Mark Pirolo is the costume designer for "The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock"

Most importantly do not be intimidated! Play around with your materials and get to know them. Look at other designer’s sketches to get ideas about how to create the images. Below are a series of images to show you the range of costume renderings all done by professional designers. Enjoy!

Rendering by Jeff Cone
Jasmine from “Aladdin” costume design by Debbie Baer
Design by Laura Bauer for Manhattan Theater ClubImage provided by Florida Stage College Theater Department