Why So Serious: Tips for Drawing Expressive Faces

We’ve explored how to draw a head and how to draw facial features. That’s all great information, but what if you want to draw somebody a bit more emotional and animated? So much of what we are thinking and how we are feeling is communicated just through our facial expressions. Here are some valuable tips for drawing expressive faces.

When you think about drawing an expressive face, it helps to think about the six universal or primary emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger and surprise.


Look carefully: there are two major players in each expression: the eyes (including the eyebrows) and the mouth.

While the bridge of someone’s nose might crinkle or their ears get red, the orientation of the eyes and mouth tell us by far the most about how someone is feeling. And they don’t always work in tandem. Sometimes only the eyes will be expressive. In fact, it’s very rare that any other part of the face will show anything without the eyes showing it too. If the eyes aren’t a part of the expression, it usually looks quite strange. The face below has the same mouth as the sad face above, but the eyes are normal. Without the eyes contributing to the expression, the face doesn’t seem genuine.



Mixing and matching different eyes to different mouths from these primary emotions gives you a secondary set of emotions. For instance, adding the eyes from “happiness” to the mouth from “anger” gives you “mean” or “cruel,” as in someone taking joy in another’s misery.

Notice again that the eyes are revealing the true emotional state of the person, while the mouth in this case is essentially “lying” or misleading the viewer. This is important to remember when trying to depict any expression or emotion. The eyes and eyebrows do the heavy lifting in a given expression.

The best way to gain an understanding of how the eyes will appear in different emotional states is to practice sketching just the eyes and mouths from different expressions in a mirror. As you draw, write down the emotion you are trying to achieve. Cut the eyes and mouths out separately from each different expression and mix and match them. Try to think of a way to describe the emotion you are seeing and write it down for each new pairing. See how many different combinations you can name.

drawing emotion

While you can show a wide variety of expressions by mixing and matching the eyes and mouths from the six primary emotions and also varying their intensity, they can only take you so far. The angle at which we are the viewing the face is the other major factor in drawing an expressive face. Think of this as the face’s “body language.” Look at the face below. While there aren’t many overt signs in the expression, the upward tilt of the head and the sideways look tell us that this person has some disdain or contempt for the viewer.

draw turning face

This face on the other hand, with its downward-directed face, upward glance and pursed smile suggests someone shy or coy.

drawing shy face
People are very attuned to the nuances of human facial expressions. As subtle as these expressions are, slight changes in the position of the face mean a lot to us. When you combine elements of the six primary emotions with other variables like facial position and body language you can achieve the widest variety of expressive faces. Play around with these variations in the mirror and see what you can come up with.

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What expression will you try drawing next?

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