CalArts sketchbook tips for getting into the Character Animation program

If you're interested in applying to the Character Animation program at CalArts, following these CalArts sketchbook tips will help you create a strong portfolio and stand out to admissions committees.

NOTE: I'll be updating this post a lot as I feel I can go into a lot of detail for this.

Since graduating from the CalArts Character Animation program in 2009, I've helped review hundreds of portfolios of applicants at National Portfolio Day events around the United States.

After looking at countless portfolios, the sketchbook is probably the most baffling requirement to applicants.


CalArts doesn't give too many specifics of what they want to see.

Your sketchbook is your way of showing off your drawing ability

Generally, the sketchbook is a way for admissions and faculty to gauge how much observational drawing is a part of an applicants day to day life.

I like to tell applicants is a way to show off your observational drawing ability.

Your sketchbook is like a flourish.

For example, have you ever seen a magician or card shark in the movies do some insane shuffle or cut where all the cards seem to float around their hands?

Or roll a coin through their knuckles as if the coin has a mind of its own?

This is what your sketchbook is.

Your sketchbook is your flourish.

Your showing off moment.

It's a way to prove to CalArts that you have the ability to take on the insane amount of animation and creative work needed to make your own, original animated films.

Day one at CalArts, you're expected to know how to draw.

How to draw anatomy, humans gestures, animals, scenes and environments.

Apart from the figure drawing part of your portfolio, your sketchbook is the second most important part of your portfolio.

What are the requirements for getting into the Character Animation program at CalArts?

  • A strong portfolio is the most important factor for getting into the Character Animation program at CalArts.
  • Your portfolio should include a range of work that demonstrates your skills in drawing, design, and storytelling.
  • The admissions committee will also be looking for evidence of your passion for animation and your potential to grow as an artist.

Specifically, you need to show life drawings and a sketchbook to get into the Character Animation program at CalArts.

In this post, I'm only going to talk about the sketchbook requirement.

While the life drawings have the most weight in the admission decision, the sketchbook does also have a lot of influence.

Essentially, showing a filled up sketchbook is to show CalArts that drawing is a daily habit for you.

Your sketchbook is about observational drawing (mostly)

Showing off your ability to draw ANYTHING and EVERYTHING effortlessly is your primary goal of your sketchbook.

It should be 90% observational drawings of people in your day to day life, animals, and scenes from your day.

The other 10% is about your imagination: characters, story, sequential, comics, etc.

It doesn't matter what you draw with or if it's even in color.

I've seen sketchbooks entirely done in black ballpoint pen get accepted.

I've also seen sketchbooks completely drawing in colorful markers with not one speck of black in them get accepted.

It's about the drawing, not the medium.

If you don't know what to draw, it definitely helps sometimes to do any of these sketchbook challenge ideas to build some drawing momentum.

Why a sketchbook?

Unlike other animation programs, CalArts requires its new students to demonstrate a well-developed drawing ability.

Often, most students accepted into the program already have some college under their belt.

Your sketchbook should be a collection of your best work, and it should show evidence of your ability to develop ideas, observational drawing, animal drawing, drawing humans, documenting environments, while also giving a hint to your ability to draw interesting characters and stories.