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How to Draw Interesting Facial Expressions

When it comes to illustrating characters, some artists struggle with drawing facial expressions. It’s one thing to draw a sad expression or a happy expression or even an excited expression – it’s a whole other ballpark if you’re trying to draw emotions like anguish, elation, or impatience. In this blog, I’ll teach you how to draw more specific, interesting, and fluid facial expressions with some general tips to keep in mind!

Not a fan of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short video on how to draw expressions by yours truly!

Looking for something specific? Jump ahead to:

How to Draw Different Parts of the Face

A guide to drawing facial features to show expressions

In order to draw any expression, we need to understand how each part of the face works and how it will affect the expression as a whole. The main thing to keep in mind is that every part of the face will be involved in a facial expression! Expressions are delicate, meaning that slight changes to any part of the face can make the expression completely different. So, keeping all of these parts in mind are incredibly important to a well-drawn expression.

How to Draw Expressive Eyebrows

Different eyebrow drawings to show emotions and expressions

The eyebrows are one of the most delicate parts when drawing emotions because they’re the most expressive. Eyebrows can move up, down, individually, and even involuntarily! The slightest movement with your eyebrows can change a face’s entire mood, so pay close attention to the shape and angle of the brows!

How to Draw Expressive Eyes

How to draw expressive eyes: happy eyes, surprised eyes, angry eyes

Eyes are also a very delicate part of the process, but unlike eyebrows, we have other things to worry about within the eye as well, such as:

  • What is the line of sight? Double check to make sure the irises are actually looking in the correct direction!

  • How big/small are your pupils/irises? This can change an expression immensely! Even taking away or adding pupils can do a lot to an expression.

  • What position are your eyelids in? Are the eyes wide open? Squinted? Are they half-lidded? Is one eye squinted and the other wide open? Lots to think about!

  • What about the area around the eyes? Does this person have crow’s feet on the corners of their eyes? Do they have eye bags? Adding wrinkles around the eye can enhance whatever expression you’re giving someone, even if they’re younger in age!

Keep in mind that eyes are paired best with eyebrows – if your eyes are in a specific position, then your eyebrows will be too!

How to Draw Expressive Noses

How to draw nose with different expressions: laughter and anger

Noses do not determine an expression as much as other parts of the face, but they’re mostly used to enhance expressions! Noses will control facial wrinkles, such as on the bridge of the nose or your laugh lines and under-eye lines. They also add very minor details to an expression, like flared or closed nostrils. These may seem like small and innocuous things, but every little thing counts when it comes to drawing expressions!

How to Draw Expressive Mouths

A guide to drawing expressive mouths that show different emotions

Mouths are considered a very “basic” part of an expression, since they’re the most upfront and obvious part of any emotion. This makes them slightly less delicate than say eyes or eyebrows, but still far more delicate than noses. I’m certain we all know that a downturned mouth is a sadder expression and an upturned one is a happier expression, but don’t be afraid to push it!

There are lots of parts to a mouth that some artists forget, but adding them in can make your expressions far more, well, expressive! You can add teeth back in or the gums around the teeth, get the tongue involved, show laugh lines, or even push the mouth past the limits of the face. These are all very stylistic choices, but just adding one of them can elevate how you draw expressions!

How to Draw Specific Expressions

Drawings of faces with different expressions

Now that we know how different parts of the face can change an expression, we can understand how to draw more specific and honed expressions. Remember that these are all just tips – you can change everything to fit something that’s a little more specific!

How to Draw a Happy Expression

Drawings of happy expressions from different angles

Eyebrows - Higher on the face! Arch them upwards to show an element of surprise. However, they may be furrowed if they’re laughing.

Eyes - Wider, or closed! If you want a happier expression that holds more surprise or awe, the eyes are going to be wide open for the occasion. If you want to show someone laughing, their eyes might be closed, or they may be squinting as a result of the mouth pushing the cheek fat upwards.

Nose - You can leave this as is, or slightly wrinkled if the mouth is wide open.

Mouth - Upturned! How wide or closed the mouth is is up to you. Remember that if the mouth is open wider, the teeth will show and they’ll have facial wrinkles!

How to Draw a Sad Expression

Drawings of sad expressions from different angles

Eyebrows - Eyebrows for sadder expressions can really be anywhere on the face, you just have to make sure they’re angled so that the inner tips are higher than the outer tips! You could have them higher on the face for a more hopeless, shocked sadness, or you could have them more furrowed for a melancholic or frustrated kind of sadness.

Eyes - Having wider eyes can make your character seem more shocked, but keep in mind that when someone cries, it’s not a comfortable feeling, so more likely than not, they’ll have their eyes a little more scrunched or half-lidded. If they’re not crying and it’s a calmer sadness, then they may have them half-lidded from exhaustion.

Nose - The nose might be wrinkled, especially if this person is sniffling, or if they’re just generally sad. You’ll notice that the face will feel more closed off. Keep in mind that the nose’s position is created based on what’s around it, so if the facial expression is more scrunched in, then the nose will be wrinkled!

Mouth - Downturned! Similar to a happy expression, how wide it is is up to you, but depending on the positioning and size there may be more frown lines.

How to Draw an Angry Expression

Drawings of angry expressions from different angles

Eyebrows - Like sad expressions, the eyebrows can really be anywhere on the face, but this time, you need to make sure the angle shows the inner eyebrows lower than the outer eyebrows! Explosive anger will have a more “open” look to it, whereas a more frustrated or exhausted anger will be more “closed.”

Eyes - Having your eyes wider can make your character seem far angrier! Especially if you’re going for a more explosive expression, drawing them wide open can really make your character feel enraged.

Nose - The nose will most likely be scrunched up. Especially if their mouth and eyes are wide open, the nose will be crinkled between the two! Even if it isn’t, bet on the bridge of the nose having some wrinkles because of the positioning of the eyebrows.

Mouth - Anger can be drawn with upturned or downturned mouths, but know that anger will always feel more tense than the last two emotions. If their mouth is open, you should try to show teeth, whether they be gritted or just peaking through! Adding the gums back in there will also help your expression feel more angered, and never forget your facial wrinkles!

Don't be Afraid to Get Ugly!

No matter what expression you’re drawing, the number one thing to keep in mind is to be fluid, and don’t be afraid to get ugly. Many artists sacrifice a good expression to keep their characters pretty, which holds them back! Anger and sadness aren’t pretty emotions, so your characters shouldn’t look like they’re in a model photoshoot anyway. Even happiness can get pretty goofy from time to time. Get weird! Get expressive! Never try to hold back an emotion just because you’re used to drawing the character in a specific way. So go out there, use references, and get expressive with your art!

Want to Learn More?

If you’d like to learn to develop your own art style, you can get personalized feedback and lessons in our art mentorship classes, which are built to help you create and polish your portfolio. But if you’re not too sure where to start, check out our Virtual Cartooning and Anime Program to see if that's where you'll find your artistic voice.

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