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How To Draw Facial Expressions

How to Draw Facial Expressions


At its core, a good story is all about emotional connection. People can empathize most with characters’ emotions rather than their individual problems. Everyone remembers times when there were happy or depressed or unmotivated, so it’s easy to tap into those feelings when storytelling. The emotional spectrum is vast and memorable.

So now, as storytellers, how do we tap into this power of connection with the audience? You guessed it: facial expressions.

For every emotion that we can have, there is a correlating facial expression. We have grown accustomed to seeing these facial expressions when we communicate and each expression can even be broken down into the individual muscles in the face.

Disclaimer: In this tutorial, we will build upon the previous tutorials that have focused on how to draw the facial features. I highly suggest that you start with those tutorials before this one.

With this tutorial we will examine all the muscles in the face. Then, we will use that information to dissect the core expressions. From there, we will combine these expressions to create more nuanced versions. And lastly, I’ll walk you through how to go about drawing a dynamic facial expression.

Let’s begin!

Face Muscles

Take a look at this diagram of a woman’s face. One half shows all of the facial muscles in a simplified form. These muscles are all any of us need to make the hundreds of expressions that we use everyday.

I am going to break them down one by one and explain how they move the skin to create an expression.

A - This is the forehead muscle. With this muscle we are able to lift our brow up, like we do when we look surprised.

B - This is the brow muscle. This muscle allows us to push our brow down, which usually means a frown.

C - The eyelid muscle. This one allows us to lift our eyelids. This will get our eyes wide open, possibly when we’re scared.

D - This muscles surrounds the eyes. It allows us to squint our eyes.

E - These three branching muscles collectively make up what we use to pull up our cheeks. It’s known as the sneering muscle.

F - This is the tried and true muscle that allows us to smile.

G - This muscle surrounds the lips. It will react to all of the muscles connected to it.

H - This one I like to call the “cheesy smile”. It stretches out the mouth to the sides.

I - This is the muscle that allows our mouth to frown.

J - These muscles are the ones that allow us to speak.

K - These muscles push the chin together creating a pouting look.

The Big Six

The 6 Main Facial Expressions

Pulling from the almighty resource, Making Comics by Scott McCloud, we can break down all of our emotions into six categories: Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. I call them the Big Six.

Emotions are complex behaviors that should not be oversimplified, but to understand them, we need to break them down even further. So let’s isolate these emotional cornerstones into their anatomical foundations.

Here I will list the muscles used for one of the Big Six

Anatomy of the Face as It Expresses

Anger: When you are angry your brow will furrow (dark blue), eyes squint (green), cheeks sneer (teal), mouth widens to show teeth (red) and corners of your mouth will frown (purple).

If you look at the remaining emotions you will start to see a trend. When broken down these expressions are really quite simplistic on paper. You will see in the next section why expressions can get challenging to understand but at the Big Six level it’s really quite digestible.

As an exercise, try making these expressions on your own in front of a mirror. It will only look a little weird but it will help you to remember the anatomy associated with each emotion.


Combining Different Facial Feature Expressions

There is a reason the Big Six is really helpful. It’s because they are the building blocks of our entire emotional spectrum. Again, sourcing from Making Comics, we can mix and match our different base emotions to make entirely new ones.

The key here is to think of each Big Six emotion as a part of a math equation. I know most artists are not into math but this thought of facial expressions being a mere combination of simple forms is useful.

Each of the Big Six is really just the starting point. For every one of them, there will be a gauge of how intense or subtle the emotion is.

For example, with Anger, you could be just slightly ticked off or to the other extreme, irate. The more intense, the more the muscles stretch from their neutral state. And, with your brow, if you are really angry your eyebrows will go from level to very pointed and furrowed.

Combining Different Facial Expressions When Drawing

These are examples of some combinations. I literally copied and pasted the different features from each of the Big Six to demonstrate how easily this can be done. Think logically about what makes up certain feelings and you can come up with a great system for drawing expressions.

Let’s talk through these examples.

Suspicious - is the act of showing distrust. Distrust is a kind of FEAR. Then because of the threat of potential harm we add in a lowered brow from ANGER to show the defensive stance in the face.

Caught Red-Handed - Is the moment when you get spooked. Since there is a potential for trouble we can assume FEAR. Because the fear came suddenly we add SURPRISE.

Cruel - When you think about it, cruelty is just the act of getting JOY out of pain and ANGER.

Holding back the Tears - This example shows off another way to mix things up. A great way to get a subtler look to your emotion is to only add the modifier to half the face. Here we add sadness but only to one side of the face. It gives the appearance of internalized sadness.

I highly suggest that you get Making Comics by Scott McCloud and start breaking down many of the most common expressions.

How To Practice

We’ve covered the basic knowledge behind how we make facial expressions. Now, it’s time to get good at drawing them. And the only way that happens is through art mileage.

Just like in all the other tutorials, let me guide you through the process. Hope you are excited.

Practice Drawing Facial Expressions

The overview of the process goes like this:

-Find a subject to study from

-Sketch and study

-Refine the drawing

Let’s try working on the older man on the bottom image.

(Source: Bodies in Motion)

Step 1: Get Reference

Again, as always, working with photo reference is super helpful. Remember, the better the reference, the better your work can potentially be. In this case, I am using a great and highly recommended resource: Scott Eaton’s Bodies in Motion.

It is free to use a limited selection of the library of expressions, poses, and other helpful tools (with watermark overlays). However, I recommend subscribing for at least a month to get access to the high-resolution images for the whole library of expressions.

Once you find a photo that you like (I prefer 3/4 views), it’s time to work.

Step 2: Sketch and Study

Sketch the Foundations of the Head

Here is where we start to loosely sketch out the forms.

Start with a basic skull shape that is similar to the subject in the photo. Try to visualize the skull underneath the skin.

Now, sketch in the features using a good head construction method. Remember to push and pull features of the face that are being distorted. I find that if draw the face in the neutral position first and then adjust those features to where they are moved in the expression, the drawing is more accurate in the end.

Another couple of notes are that you should try to exaggerate the expression and think of the face as a 3D mask. The former because it will usually come out more appealing and if it doesn’t, you can always pull back the intensity.

And the latter because when you visualize a mask you tend to imagine the other sides of its surface.

Sketch and Study Facial Expressions

This is also the stage where you should map out or at least take a moment to think about the underlying muscles. Find which are being used for this particular expression and draw accordingly. An easy way to do find out which muscles are actually in play is to act it out physically.

Great! The hard work is done.

Art Study of Facial Expressions

Step 3: Refine the Drawing

Some may call this the inking stage but for me it’s just the time when you use refined lines and line weights to more dynamically show off the expression. I can’t help it; I’m a Penciler at heart.

Refine the Face Drawing with Clean Line Art

Do your best and take your time. Most importantly, don’t just trace! Just like Frank Miller has said in some interview... to some effect “your mind should be working harder than your hand”.

I may have gotten that slightly off but you get the point: Don’t go brain dead and mindlessly trace.

Ink The Face Drawing

Finished! Now let’s reflect on our work.

Facial Expression Art Study

Look at your drawing side-by-side like I have mine. Does the expression match? Does it have an organic life to it? What did you get right and where could your lines be better, more expressive or more accurate?

These questions are ones that you should always be asking yourself after you’ve done a new drawing. The key to your greatness and mastery lies in the mistakes of your most recent attempts.

For example, I am not fully happy with how the far eye came out in this expression. The key to getting it right next time is to first recognize where I was off the mark this time.


Before I end this quick look into the vast ocean that is learning how to draw facial expressions, I want to lend another couple pieces of advice. First, if you have read this tutorial in full and did the exercise, you deserve congratulations!

This subject is somewhat daunting, and I know it’s one that’s easily avoided. Second, remember that art is a craft. Doing one or two tutorials will help but it’s up to you to practice as much as you can to get good at the craft. Just draw more.

Thank you 3000 for reading this tutorial. Please leave comments and join the HTDC Community for any feedback on getting your expressions even better. I can be found online on Instagram @catapanoart. I also have an indie comic book that is in the works and the first few pages can be previewed here:

Keep drawing.

-Joe Catapano

Tutorial by Joe Catapano

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