Getting Emotional: Tips for Drawing Emotions in the Face

The eyes may be windows to the soul, but the rest of the face is pretty good at expressing a person’s inner emotions, too.

Simple facial pemutations

With tens of thousands of years of evolution and dozens of tiny muscles below the skin, our faces are a rich, nonverbal source of communication. Facial recognition occurs in the amygdala, one of the most primal portions of our brains. We can detect an enormous range of emotions in a person’s face, with sensitivity to subtle nuance related to movements of each of those tiny facial muscles.

Our brains are innately adept at cataloging all the different facial features to distinguish one person from others. This is why capturing a likeness when drawing a person’s portrait can be so difficult. Likewise, drawing a complex or subtle emotion can be almost as challenging.

Use these tips to learn how to draw emotions that really express a feeling.

1. Keep a mirror handy.

Using a mirror for drawing reference A drawing of a face in a mirror

When drawing emotions, one of the first places to find a good model is your own face. Like many animators and cartoonists, I keep a small mirror on my desk, so I can mug at myself whenever I need to draw something more complicated than a simple grin or frown.

The main benefit of drawing from your own face is not only that you can see how the emotion alters your face — you can feel it too. Acting out the image, expression and posture gives you a deeper, visceral sense of what your character is experiencing. When you can empathize with your character, you are far more likely to diligently draw them in their true physical and emotional state.

2. Draw emotions from a photo reference

Reference photo of a punch in the face Drawing of a punch to the face

We can study our faces even without a mirror, too. With cameras all around us these days, on our phones and laptops and elsewhere, we can take a photo to study or use as direct reference. In fact, someone saw fit to collect some of these kinds of photos in a blog, and the results can be pretty funny out of context.

3. Draw multiple permutations

When you are working with a more abstracted face, like when you are cartooning or animating, the facial features are simpler. While this may mean that we lose subtlety from the micro-wrinkles and facial contours that are often edited out, we are actually left with a clearer, more readable expression. Tiny variations in the shape of an eyebrow can make a huge difference in how we read a character’s mood.

Simple facial permutations

In this context, drawing emotional permutations can give you both practice and reference for your storytelling and the emotional expression in your drawings. Above is a simple permutation, just comparing eyebrows and mouth shapes.

Eyebrow permutations

And here is an eyebrow study where I’m experimenting to see what each shape “says.”

More elaborate facial permutations

But you can take it much further, experimenting with the direction of the eyes, tilt of the head and more.

The Grimace Project is another resource that can help you mix complex emotions with slider bars. The app is based on work by Scott McCloud, who has studied comics and cartooning for years and whose book Understanding Comics revolutionized the medium for many contemporary artists.

4. Express emotion through posture and gesture

Of course, the face is not the only way we express our inner feelings. The way we stand or walk or move our hands can alter and amplify what our faces are showing. I’ve touched on it before, in this blog post.

Maybe the only idea left is to draw a friend or model, or to gather reference images from an Internet search. What other ways can you think of to help you draw facial expressions?

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