If you found this article probably is because you have been struggling to try to draw a cartoon face. Or maybe you have some drawing knowledge, but you find some difficulty trying to draw facial expressions or conveying convincing emotions. In any case, in this step by step tutorial, we will try to answer if not all, many of the doubts you can have.
I will start this lecture giving you a basic introduction on how to draw a simple cartoon face. From there, we will move forward and I will teach you how to exaggerate and deform the proportions of the face. Our goal will be to achieve the most convincing facial expressions.
How to draw the basic cartoon face:
This is a quick exposition of the basics on how to draw a human head. The final objective of this tutorial is to give you the tools you need in order to achieve convincing facial expressions for your cartoon characters.
For this introduction, we will draw a child’s head. This head will serve us as a base for our future explorations on facial expressions.
Keep in mind, the cartoon faces have more exaggerated proportions compare a realistic head.
We will start drawing a sphere, which will represent the cranium and the face. Under the sphere, we will draw a pointy square. This square will be the jaw of our character. Once we have the head placed, we will draw the neck under from the base of the head.
We will draw a horizontal line across the sphere. This curve will cross the middle of the sphere, establishing were the eyebrows could be placed if we were drawing a realistic head. But, because our character is a kid and the drawing style is a cartoon, the eyes will become huge spheres. As a result of that eyebrows will be placed much higher. We are already starting to bent the natural laws of facial proportions.
Following this same line, we will draw the ears on the side of the sphere. Again, the ears will look like a simplistic and bigger version of the real ones. Then we will divide the whole head with another vertical line. Remember our head is in a 3/4 view, so both parts will have different sizes.
Following the vertical line, we will find the middle point between the eyebrows and the chin. This point will be where the nostrils of the nose will be placed. The middle point between the nostrils and the chin will be where the lower lip will be located. A little bit above the lower lip line, we will draw the line of the mouth. This line will be where the upper row of teeth will be placed. This is important because we will draw different expressions on the face of our character, but meanwhile both lips and the jaw will move, the upper row of teeth will not.
The eyes will be drawn as two curves for the upper eyelids. A circle with a dot inside, representing the iris and the pupil, will be drawn under each eyelid. Remember, in a realistic face, the sides of the mouth will align perfectly with the center of each eye. In this case, the mouth is just a little cut on the face and barely comes out under the sides of the nose.
Regarding the hair, we will simplify its shape as much as possible. We will group the hair into sets of beak-shaped tufts. Being our character a child, we will make the hair somewhat scrambled. For this purpose, we will arrange randomly the simplified tufts of hair. The only thing you have to consider is the direction towards which parts of the hair is oriented on each side.
For the drawing of the head, we used a neutral expression. Now is time to introduce emotions to our face.
Let´s start with the most common ones that will be understood regardless of the cultural background of our spectator. We will call them basic emotions because they are a quick response to a primary stimulus.
The eyes are open but not really looking at anything. The lips are pouting at sad thoughts.
You can really feel the emotional conflict inside our character. Check for instance his teary eyes. Our boy is trying to keep his emotions under control but he is failing and is about to explode.
The eyes are open all the way and the eyebrows become a couple of arches. The smile is a large curving line. The mouth can be open or not depending on the intensity of the emotion.
Surprise or astonishment:
Similar eyebrows compared to the happiness emotion. The mouth becomes a little circle trying to communicate the expression OHHH!!!. His pupils become smaller, our boy is looking at something that took him by surprise.
An interesting trick could be to elevate one eyebrow more than the other in order, so we can create some imbalance. This helps to break symmetry on the face and gives to our character a more natural and believable expression.
Drawing the eyelids down gives to our character a more contemptuous look. Little elevation of one side of the upper lip or showing the teeth will help to express better the annoyance in our character.
In this stage, I tried to represent a character who is pis off. The emotional intensity is not yet on top, the character is starting to get angry.
The key factor here is the dimple in the corner of the mouth, which helps convey a doubting wince. The pupils contracted to look at something or somewhere out of the scene. The eyebrows are bending outwards in a sign of helplessness. The face represents doubt and concern about something.
Increasing the intensity
Starting from this basic emotions, our drawings will evolve to newer expressions increasing the emotional intensity. Facial expressions will become more exaggerated. Is here where we will bend, to the extreme, the rules of facial proportion. It’s time to have some fun:
We have gone from our initial sadness expression, when our character was trying to keep his emotions under control, to a total exposure of emotions. Our character no longer contains his sadness and tears flow like rivers across his face.
Both eyebrows rise even more. The smile expands more to the sides of the face. In a real face, this opening of the mouth, or raising of eyebrows would be impossible. But in a cartoon face, we can allow impossibilities like the mouth expanding beyond the eyes.
The jaw drops as a sign of total surprise. The mouth opens completely. We keep the same eyes we used for the surprise expression. The pupils contracted and fixed on something surprising. The eyebrows are arched, even more, reaching impossible heights for a real human face.
By the way, if you wanna learn how to draw realistic human faces, I have a free step by step tutorial on that matter. If you are interested, you can check the tutorial here.
Our character is starting to lose his temper. The mouth will open to show the teeth, to the point of making his chin almost disappear completely. As we see again, this artistic license is something that we can only do when drawing in a cartoon style.
The eyebrows are bent inward. It is interesting to maintain an irregular position between the two. This asymmetry helps to better communicate the inner conflict of the character. His perplexity and his anger are quite evident looking at his face. The character can’t contain his anger anymore.
One step further would be to present our character by shouting at someone or something. Here the character unleashes his anger on an element alien to the scene. The mouth is open. The more we open it, the more extreme the reaction of the character will be.
Here the asymmetry between both eyebrows is reduced to the maximum.
Now the character is discharging is anger and eyebrows are inclined inward equally.
The panic in the character now is quite evident. He presents a frantic behavior, nervously looking to each side, looking for something or someone dangerous.
The eyebrows are drawn like a couple of inverted arches. This helps to emphasize the anguish of our character.
The mouth appears with teeth clenched as a sign of tension.
Combination of Facial Elements:
By now you will have noticed that many facial expressions have common elements with each other.
A clear example would be how the eyebrows look like expressions of weeping and terror.
Another would be the use of the same type of eyes of contracted pupils, both in the expression of anger as in surprise.
The number of combinations of different facial elements is numerous, resulting in a series of varied facial expressions. Some of them are more subtle and others more bizarre and exaggerated.
I invite you to explore all these multiple combinations. It is a fun exercise.
Physical State Emotions
Let’s move forward with another type of emotions. These ones will not origin on the perception or state of mind of our character. These emotions will be a reaction to a physical state. Examples of this type of emotions could be, being tired, dizzy, sick, etc…
Emotions from physical states have a concept very close to primary emotions, but, unlike these, can assume several and unpredictable forms.
We can enhance an emotion just adding a complementary element, such as expiration drops, for example:
Let’s see another example of a physical reaction which we do not have much control. This time our character is being exposed to a virus or pathogen agent, becoming sick. In a nutshell: completely lost control over your own reaction!
As the reaction of a sickness is something we can’t control very well, in the cartoon, it’s an advantage, since we can exaggerate the expression to get the desired result. In this case, we exaggerate the mouth, drawing it like a wavy line ( impossible in a realistic drawing )
Also, notice how the primary emotions are dominant. The sickness, even being unmanageable, is a variant of the tired emotion. The most interesting in relation to physical emotions is that, in real life, we get these expressions without being aware of how we get it, as we are being exposed to external and internal factors.
How to apply this knowledge to other types of characters
The objective of this section is to show how these principles, regarding facial expressions, can be applied to other morphologies.
Apart from this, I also want to show you how you can use different shapes to represent a human head. This is a fantastic resource typical of the cartoon style. This allows us to create all kinds of different characters, full of life and personality.
Here you have a small sample of the possible ways that can be used to create a human head.
Basically, it is a cylinder to which a neck has been added at its base. As with our child character, we have created the relevant vertical and horizontal divisions.
The face will appear, as can be seen, in the 3/4 view. In this head as in others, you will see that the horizontal line is placed at one third, more or less, of the total height of the head.
Here you can find a big rectangle, almost a square. The head will be presented fully frontal to the viewer. Again the horizontal line appears at one-third of the total height of the head.
The view of the head, is here, from an angle on top. Due to the nature of the view angle, the horizontal line will be placed in the middle of the head.
This shape presents an irregular form. Almost like a deformed rectangle or a pyramid with its top part flatten.
In opposition to the previous shape, the view angle is placed here on the bottom. This results, in an even higher placement of the horizontal line of the eyes.
On the image above you can see a collection of faces based on the shapes, we presented before.
As you can see we’ve been drawing on them some of the facial expressions we presented before. In some cases will be a combination of 2 different facial expressions.
Is the case of the face number 2. In this face, we mixed elements from the surprise expression with the angry facial expression.
Number 4 is interesting also because present us a with a concern expression. Something very close to the fear expression we saw before, but more subtle.
As a colophon to this article that I hope has helped you, I would like to give you a couple of tips that I think will be useful.
The first would be that if in the past you had problems when drawing a cartoon face, it is very likely because you did not understand well how to build a face. I would recommend that you study the texts of Andrew Loomis where he details, among other things, how to draw a real face. Once you have mastered the construction of a real face, you will be ready to draw cartoon faces, since you will know the natural laws of proportion and you will know how to alter them at your will.
The second advice and with this one I will finish this dissertation is to encourage you to keep practicing your facial expressions. A good resource is to use photo references. Always try to find photos where the model is showing a real and vivid emotion. With this I mean, the model on the photo, is not pretending an emotion ( let’s say the typical fake smile everybody is doing when they take a picture of themselves). He or she are really living this emotion when the picture was taken. Like we said before, the most genuine face expressions are the ones who come from a natural reaction.
As a side note, If you are interested in learning which art supplies and drawing tablets I use and recommend, feel free to visit the Recommended Gear & Courses section.
Hope this tutorial was useful to you. If you have any doubts or questions please leave it on the comment section below. I will try to answer them as soon as I can.
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