The Essence of Emotion: How to Draw Facial Expressions

Showing emotions through portraits and illustrations is one of the most important goals of an artist. Drawing and capturing the essence of a person and what they are feeling in that moment is a very powerful and wonderful skill to have. The Muster - watercolor

The Muster by Bluprint member steve3129377

In today’s post I’ll give you some pointers and tips to help you draw facial expressions. #AboutFace

#AboutFace by Bluprint member ayoungstu2245670


Let’s get the most important thing clear and out of the way. The best advice I could ever give on the matter — or any matter that pertains to drawing — is this one small yet powerful word: observation. Yes! It always boils down to observation.

Forget about what you think you see, and focus on really seeing what is in front of you. And don’t just practice great observation while you are drawing and then throw it out the window throughout the rest of your day. Even when you are not drawing, make it a habit to observe details closely as if you were drawing what’s in front of you. Think of the lines and shading you would use to draw what you are looking at.

Start looking at people’s faces and noticing how their features contort depending on what they are feeling. I like to look at people’s faces and expressions when I’m in line at the grocery store or wherever else the day takes me. Make mental notes of the way somebody’s eyes droop when they are tired or how they squint a little when they offer a genuine smile. Things tilt, squash, stretch and twist on the face every time we show emotion, so notice these movements and study the way the features interact as a whole to bring meaning to the expression.

Self portrait

#AboutFace self-portrait by Bluprint member Linden Hopwood

Sketch from life

Sit somewhere crowded, with sketchbook and pencil in hand, and draw quick sketch studies of the people you see and their expressions. Try to figure out what they are feeling through how their face contorts and draw this.

This method is better than having someone in particular sit for you because you can find genuine and candid facial expressions. Regardless, it is also very useful to have someone pose for you and make different expressions on demand. If there’s no model around, a mirror will be your best friend!

Spring is in the Hair

Spring is in the Hair by Bluprint member susanwalshharper

Sketch from photographs

There are great websites that offer photographs of gestures and poses for artists to conduct their own drawing sessions and practice on their own time from home. A great resource is Figure and Gesture Drawing’s expression practice. You can select the type of expression, gender and length of the session.


Tilly #AboutFace by Bluprint member Kriszlen Art


No matter which method and setting you prefer, the important thing is that you practice. Keep your sketchbook close by and whip it out and practice sketching the facial expressions you find around you whenever you get even five minutes. If you wish to gain deeper knowledge and guidance about this topic take Bluprint’s Drawing Facial Features class.

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