7 Tricks for Drawing Expressive Characters

When it comes to portraying emotions in your drawing, cartoon faces are the easiest way to do it, right? Wrong. Just because the lines are simpler doesn’t mean you’re stuck with boring smiles and frowns.

In fact, you can learn how to draw cartoon faces capture a wide array of emotions in their expressions.

Capturing emotions on cartoon faces

Capturing emotions on cartoon faces in your drawing with these tips!

Photos and art via CakeSpy

Portraying emotions on cartoon faces can be tricky, because you are trying to convey a lot of information while drawing just a few simple lines. Tricky, but absolutely accessible to all levels and all styles of cartooning. This collection of tips will help you refine the art of capturing emotions on your cartoon characters’ faces and help your art come to life. 

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Different emotions

1. Identify the specific emotion you’d like to portray

Before you can draw any expression on a character’s face, you’ve got to figure out what emotion you’re ultimately going for. On the one hand, this is obvious: happy, sad, angry, et cetera. But within these categories are more subtle expressions of emotions. For instance, there are different ways to show sadness. Is a winsome sad face looking out a window upon a rainy day, wishing for the sun to shine? Or is your character deeply sad, with tears streaming down his or her face? By identifying the specific emotion you’re going for in your drawing, you’ll get a better, more believable result. 

2. Look at reference images 

Refer to other images to create specific emotions. You can do this by doing an image search (i.e., “surprised face”), asking a friend to make a face or taking a selfie or look in the mirror while making expressing the emotion yourself. If having someone make the face for you or doing it yourself, go for a very exaggerated, almost caricature version of the emotion. That way, you can clearly see how the eyes, lips and and facial expression all come together to form an emotion. 

Screen shot of emojis

3. Take inspiration from emojis

When you look at a photograph of a face showing a particular emotion, you may notice that there are a lot of small details and facial subtleties that go into making an expression. When drawing an emotion on a cartoon face, you often leave out any unnecessary detail, instead distilling the emotion to its simplest form. In this way, you can take a cue from the emojis that you might use when sending text messages: These simple faces are great examples of emotions and facial expressions in very simple forms. 

4. Use color

Color can help to convey any emotion in your cartoon drawing. For instance, a sick character could have a green skin tone; this, paired with a nauseated expression, will have a greater effect than an expression alone. Likewise, a red tint to an angry character, or pink cheeks for an embarrassed character, can add to the effect. 

Context sets the scene for an emotion

5. Add context

Don’t rely on the expression alone to portray emotion. Take advantage of the rest of the drawing to create context! For instance, sad eyes looking at an object can show desire or longing. A happy expression on a character’s face when presented with a beautiful cake can help tell the story of why your character feels joy. A frightened face on a character who appears to be running for dear life from zombies definitely helps tell the story of that expression. Faces don’t have to do the job alone either: Let body language play its part, too!

Pay attention to the eyes and mouth

6. Pay extra attention to the eyes and mouth 

In most drawings, the viewer’s eye will go right to the eyes and the mouth of your character, so put particular focus on the placement of these expressions. In particular, be sure that the eyes and the mouth are working together to form the expression. They can be working in harmony; for instance, with downcast eyes and a sad mouth paired to portray deep sadness. Or, there can be an element of contrast — for instance, shifty, side-glancing eyes and a smile can imply mischief. 

Eyebrows add to expressions

7. Don’t forget the eyebrows!

Eyebrows can add a lot to the emotion you’re trying to show in your character. For instance, downward-slanting eyebrows can emphasize anger or sadness; upward turned eyebrows can emphasize hope or worry. Horizontal brows can show bemusement or indifference. The lack of eyebrows can even be effective in some situations, showing a neutral expression. In the image above, each each of the facial expressions are identical except for the eyebrows; this really shows how transformative brows can be when portraying an emotion!

Learn to Draw Expressive Characters!

draw picture book characteres

Use easy, effective techniques to draw believable human and animal characters with page-turning personality.Enroll Now »

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