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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Fixing Common Drawing Mistakes, Part 2: Drawing Facial Expressions

Last week, I shared the first of my five-part series synthesizing my attempts to improve my illustration work. As I said in my previous post, I am absolutely not claiming expertise in this department. Just the desire to save fellow learners/improvers the same blood, sweat and tears that claimed my dignity at about the same time my 500th failed, balled-up sketch landed in the bin.

Five common drawing mistakes

Essentially, there are five main drawing mistakes that I have noticed myself and others making over and over again. Specifically:

  • Inconsistent characters (particularly between different poses or angles)
  • Nondescript facial expressions
  • Flat composition
  • Poses defying the laws of physics
  • Inconsistent style

In Part 1, I shared three key tools that I find helpful in drawing more consistent characters. So this week, in Part 2, I will move onto the next point on the list: facial expressions.

I had intended to cover a wider gamut of 'emotion and expression', including posture, body language and gesture, but I don't believe that anyone's patience would endure everything I have to say on those subjects crammed into a single post. So they will have to wait for another time. For now, lets stick to faces. As it were.

Nondescript facial expression: The problem

Obviously, the point of a facial expression is to express something. That's a bit of a given. Most picture books, in particular, absolutely depend on facial expression to tell their story. If this expression is absent, uninteresting, inaccurate, or untrue to the character or the story... the story will die.

It can be tempting to think of facial expression in terms of generic categories. 'Happy', 'sad', 'crying', 'laughing', and so on. However, to do this is to discount the huge variety of subtleties and variations within these broad emotions, and from my own experience, it often leads to the kind of deadening of expression that we are trying to avoid.

Instead, I have gradually attempted to introduce a new approach to my own drawing, which rests on four main mental 'tools':

Tool 1: Draw verbs and adjectives, not nouns

This is perhaps the key change that I have tried to make, and centres largely on identifying a precise expression instead of a generic category.

For example, my previous approach would begin with something like, 'Hm, I think I'll draw a little girl looking happy'... followed by a drawing of a little girl smiling. A slightly dull noun with a slightly dull adjective, and a drawing that may be quite cute, but doesn't really communicate anything.

However, I now attempt to approach from a different angle, and begin with something like, 'Hm, I think I'll draw a little girl who has just heard an ice cream van.' Now we have a huge range of possible verbs and adjectives to pull into the mix. What is her reaction to the ice cream van? Is she excited? Manically so? Drooling over the thought of an ice cream? Trying desperately to decide which to buy? Or has her world ended because her mother won't let her have one? 

We can now begin to pin down the precise emotion that we are trying to express, and we can produce an illustration that communicates.

To demonstrate the difference between these two approaches, take a look at two of my old Animal Alphabet illustrations:



Here, on the left, we have a badger doing, well... nothing really. Scrabbling on the floor a bit perhaps? Kind of cute, but not really telling us anything. Our cat, however, has clearly found himself in a bit of a pickle, and this much more identifiable expression of his thoughts makes him a much more engaging illustration.

Tool 2: Be an actor; use a mirror

Reference photos of facial expressions can be very useful - and indeed, there are several fantastic books bursting with them, my favourite of which is this one:


Available to purchase here

However, whether working with a reference or not, I have invariably found that the expression I'm drawing never really clicks unless I'm pulling it myself. Yes, that means I have to gurn. And that I have become accustomed to a few slightly concerned glances in Caffe Nero.

Ideally, keeping a mirror on hand is probably the way to go, but failing that I have even resorted to using the reflection on my blank computer screen or, occasionally, a window. Best check who is walking past on the other side though. Believe me. 

Tool 3: Distill, distill, distill

Another crucial change in approach for me, and it essentially boils down to this: Don't use ten lines when one will do. 

I have been very guilty of this in the past, largely through fear. Distilling lines down to the minimum requires much more accuracy in both linework and decision-making. If I'm only using one line and not ten, it had better be done right. Whilst this - for me, anyway - was rather scary, it serves to remove any ambiguity or indistinctness in facial expressions by pinning down what really matters, and using only those truly essential elements of each expression. 

It's so useful, in fact, that I consciously set myself a challenge to tell a story with expression only, using minimal lines, in an unchanging set of circles. I was allowed to use eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, but all other lines were forbidden. The results of that challenge organically evolved into my 'Pea Pod Family' series, including this one:

'A New Pea In The Pod' by Amanda Moussa

As you can see, nothing in each stage of the drawing changes except the eyes, eyebrows and mouth, but by distilling each feature down to its essential components, a story can still be communicated.

Tool 4: No feature is an island

Facial features are all inter-connected. As one squashes and stretches, it affects the others around it. The mouth, when smiling, pushes out the cheeks. The cheeks in turn push their way over the eyes. The nose rises slightly, as do the eyebrows... Indeed, a few minutes gurning into a mirror, as I suggest in my tip above, demonstrates just how mobile and interconnected our faces really are.

So... go and have a gurn. That is, it seems, the sum of my advice and the result of hours of research. 

Slightly depressing, that.


Like Part 1: Drawing Consistent Characters, this post is intended to cover only the basics of what I have learned. Further detail and focus will have to wait for subsequent posts, since I am writing blog posts and not a novel. Click here for the first part of this series, and stay tuned for Part 3: Drawing Compositions With Depth.

Happy drawing!

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