8 Genius Hacks for Drawing More Expressive Faces

Capturing expressions in your illustrated characters isn’t always easy. Drawing tricky emotions — like surprised-in-a-good-way or deep regret — for your characters might feel elusive at times. However, as these drawing hacks prove, small tricks can make a big difference in your finished piece of artwork.

Drawing Emotions on Cartoon Characters

These easy drawing hacks, tips and tricks will help you create expressive characters in no time.

Start with intention

Tip #1: Define what emotion you want to convey.

Action follows intention, right? Before you even start sketching, conjure an image in your mind of the emotion you want your character to convey.

For instance, if you’re creating a scene where a character has just stolen a cookie from a cookie jar, you might want to convey a complex mix of remorse, guilt and also satisfaction at having gotten the cookie. Not to sound all Yoda, but simply thinking about the emotion that you’d like to capture is the first step toward its realization.

Expression library

Tip #2: Create an expression reference library. 

This is a project that takes a little time but will reap you many rewards in terms of capturing expressions on your characters. Take the time to assemble an expression reference library.

You can either do online image searches or take photos of yourself or friends in various expressions. You can even create the image library with cartoon drawings. Personally, I find it helpful to assemble various expressions in printouts so I can refer to them physically, but if you prefer, it can be a virtual library. The more variations you have, the better! 

Tip #3: Mimic the face you’re drawing. 

This is possibly my favorite hack for nailing expressions on my characters: In real life, I make the face I want to draw, as I am drawing it. No, I don’t have a mirror nearby, but somehow making the expression as I draw allows me to channel the emotion, and it always comes across better in the drawing. This is a funny one, but give it a try — you might just find that it works! 

Expressions and movement

Drawing cartoon expressions via williedillo

Tip #4: Pair motion or body language with expression. 

Psst! Here’s a trick for helping your expressions ring true: Pair an expression with movement or body language.

For instance, an angry expression is one thing, but when the character’s arms are crossed, as in the image to the above left, it conveys a sense of frustration and you can practically hear the character thinking, “I’m not impressed.” A character with an expression of surprise is one thing, but when its arms are raised, as in the case of the rabbit pictured above, it conveys a sense of fear and surrender. 

Tip #5: REALLY exaggerate expressions. 

Particularly when drawing cartoon-style characters, really exaggerate each expression. If the character is surprised, make their eyes double the size. If they are yelling, make their mouth take up half of their face. While on the one hand it might feel “a bit much” to exaggerate like this, you might just be surprised at how natural-looking the finished drawings actually look. 

Tip #6: Color = the power of suggestion.

As an artist, you have the ability to use the power of suggestion to convey a message of emotion in your artwork. There are several ways you can do this, but one powerful method is to employ color. Using high contrast and lots of green can really amplify a scene where a character is feeling jealous; bleak grey and slate blues can help show your character’s sadness.  

Emotional doodads

Illustration via CakeSpy

Tip #7: Add emotional doodads.

“Emotional doodads” isn’t a highly technical term, but it’s an effective trick. For ages, cartoonists have been adding little icons or images to help bring across a feeling.

For instance, a little storm cloud or scribble above a character’s head helps convey frustration or confusion. An exclamation point helps convey surprise. It’s amazing what a little marking can do to help your characters express what they are feeling. 

Add context

Placing characters in context via Barjara

Tipe #8: Add context.

Characters looking surprised and amazed is one thing. When you follow their eyes and they’re gazing upon animals riding a big banana in the sky, it takes their expressions to a whole new level. Contextual clues can make such a big difference when it comes to expression.

For example, if you are featuring two characters who are in love, pairing them with a beautiful sunset helps set the mood and amplifies the expressions. Consider not just the expressions but the setting and context, and you will end up with a more full-bodied, engaging piece of art! 

Ready to let your characters express themselves?

Check out the Craftsy class Expressive Picture Book Characters. Alongside accomplished illustrator Lynne Chapman, you’ll learn tips and tricks for creating lively, emotive characters. With easy to follow “homework” assignments, this course is guaranteed to bring plenty of expression into your art.

  • (will not be published)

One Response to “8 Genius Hacks for Drawing More Expressive Faces”