Cartooning: Drawing Faces and Expressions | Ira Marcks | Skillshare

Playback Speed

  • 0.5x
  • 1x (Normal)
  • 1.25x
  • 1.5x
  • 2x

Cartooning: Drawing Faces and Expressions

teacher avatar Ira Marcks, Graphic Novelist

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.



    • 3.

      Face Basics


    • 4.

      Face Variations


    • 5.

      The Forehead


    • 6.

      Turning the Head


    • 7.

      Face Details


    • 8.

      Finding Inspiration


    • 9.



    • 10.

      Wrap Up


  • --
  • Beginner level
  • Intermediate level
  • Advanced level
  • All levels

Community Generated

The level is determined by a majority opinion of students who have reviewed this class. The teacher's recommendation is shown until at least 5 student responses are collected.





About This Class

Welcome to the first class in my series on cartooning and comic art!

~ In this class I share the basic techniques to designing a cartoon face and explore the visual language of facial expressions by studying the 'looks' of a wide variety of popular cartoon characters. All students are encouraged to share their own drawings and experiments inspired by the material covered in this class.

~ Students of all levels are welcome and no special skills or tools are required. Looking for more cartooning classes?

Check out my first Skillshare class: Draw a Diary Comic

Meet Your Teacher

Teacher Profile Image

Ira Marcks

Graphic Novelist

Top Teacher

Ira Marcks is an award-winning and New York Times recommended cartoonist. His love of strange fiction and scientific research has led to an unlikely list of collaborators including the Hugo Award-winning magazine Weird Tales, European Research Council, and a White House Fellowship Scientist. His online courses have inspired 100,000 students.

See full profile

Level: All Levels

Class Ratings

Expectations Met?
  • 0%
  • Yes
  • 0%
  • Somewhat
  • 0%
  • Not really
  • 0%

Why Join Skillshare?

Take award-winning Skillshare Original Classes

Each class has short lessons, hands-on projects

Your membership supports Skillshare teachers

Learn From Anywhere

Take classes on the go with the Skillshare app. Stream or download to watch on the plane, the subway, or wherever you learn best.


1. Introduction: Welcome to Cartooning 101, a guide to the illustrative language of cartoon and comic art. I'm Ira Marcks. In this class, I'll guide you through the tried and true techniques behind creating an expressive cartoon face. We'll start with basic techniques on how to design a proper cartoon head and learn how to rotate it. Next, we'll look at details and adding personality through a few simple design elements. The second half of the class is focused on creating powerful facial expressions and reviewing some of the ways professional cartoonists put them to use. Cartooning is a skill that can benefit any artist or designer. I use the language of cartooning in my work all the time. From comics to gag strips, to editorial illustration, and even graphic design. Look around at the artist you admire and you'll be surprised at how many of them use cartooning techniques in their work. At the end of the lesson, you'll have a working knowledge of cartoon faces and expressions. See you in class. 2. Tools: Okay, let's get our tools ready. All you need for this lesson are a piece of paper, a pencil, and a sharpie marker. If you want to get a little fancy, you can switch your normal graphite pencil for a non photo blue pencil, which is a traditional cartooning tool used by a lot of different types of illustrators. Instead of leaving a grayish, smudgy graphite mark, it leaves a very soft, non smudgy blue line. There is a lot of different brands. Some have softer leads so if you don't like the really light line of the harder lead, you can find ones that have a softer, darker blue line. I prefer it when sketching an illustration because it keeps the paper neat and clean and when I scan my drawings, it's really easy to remove the blue line in Photoshop. For the sake of the lesson, I am not going to use pencil and paper myself, instead I'll be drawing with really basic tools on my drawing tablet. I'll be even using the non photo blue brush and a sharpie style brush. I'll be keeping my tools just as simple as the ones you have. Okay, let's get down to business. 3. Face Basics: This is a video of Picasso creating a face. A face is the single most powerful thing you can draw to connect with another human-being. Here's our new friend, Eddie the face. Let's start out by learning how to draw Eddie. First, Eddie is a circle. You'll notice right off that my line work is super loose. A lot of young artists will take seconds, maybe a minute to draw a circle. The best thing you can do for yourself is loosen up with your hand when you're drawing. You'll notice there's not one circle there, but a whole bunch of loops. When I go to ink, I will simply select the line I like best and that will be the shape I follow. The cross here, through the middle of the circle, breaks down the face. This will help us align our eyes and nose and mouth later. A character Eddie is not just a circle, you want to put an extra line on the bottom to represent the jaw. This can be any shape. We'll talk about that a little later. But for Eddie the face, we're going to put a simple loop around the bottom of the circle. Next, we place the ears, which go on opposite sides of that horizontal line and the cross here. Eyes sit right on top of that same line and nose hangs down from the line. In this case, Eddie's nose is just a long oval. I always use a shape for a mouth even when it's closed instead of just align, because you never know when you want a little bit of form and the mouth. It's just a habit I've developed. I'm going to throw a couple lines in here for the hair. Keep the form of the hair simple. We want to keep the focus on the facial details. Hair should not look like it's just painted on the head. It should sit on top of the head almost like a hat or a helmet. Couple dots for the eyes. Ears, for the sake of this lesson, we will keep simple. They're just s and a backwards s. There's the basic layout of Eddie the face. Now start to ink the lines I want. Just for fun, I'm going to color in then in. We'll talk about coloring in more detail in another lesson. There's Eddie the face. 4. Face Variations: Let's grab a fresh sheet of paper and try a new face. We begin with the circle with the cross here, but this time we're going to change the jaw line. I'm going to sketch three basic geometric forms down the side of my page. Each geometric shape carries with it some emotive response. Triangles can feel sharp, almost threatening, squares feel heavy, circles feel softer and friendlier. I'm going to start with a circle. Let's see how this redefines the look of our character. Now I'm going to try the triangle and the rectangle. You'll notice I'm changing some of the details of the face as I move through these different sketches. Whatever feels like it suits the proportions of the new jaw. This is a great way to experiment and practice, getting comfortable drawing a cartoon head. 5. The Forehead: A great technique to use when you're designing a cartoon head is to add the forehead line. Which is a little curve that brings some more form to the basic geometry of the head. It represents the little indentation right on the sides of the eye. It's most prominent when a character's making a three-quarter turn. You'll see it right on one side of the face just like that. It's a good way to add some more distinction to a character, even when it's used in a subtle way like this. 6. Turning the Head: Now, that we understand the basic rules of designing ahead, let's try to move it around. Picture the circle of the head as a globe and the cross hair as a line of latitude and a line of longitude. When you want to face your character in a different direction, you need to curve these lines and point the intersection of the crosshair and the direction you want your character to face. Here's an example of a character looking down and to the left. A lot of cartoonists will say that the direction of the nose defines the direction that character is facing even more so than the eyes. Keep that in mind. Wherever the nose points, that's where the rest of the face is pointing. Here's another example of a character looking up into the right. Let's try a profile view. You can use the four headline in this situation as well. Just for kicks, let's draw a character looking back and to the left, the forehead line becomes very useful here. Otherwise the face has no definition. We don't see the eyes, but we see a bit of the nose and the hear is almost centered. 7. Face Details: Style comes from practice. So I recommend grabbing another sheet of paper and sketching a whole bunch of cartoon heads, trying out different shapes for the jaw line as you go, and see what sort of personalities are revealed. Humans are very good at reading facial expressions. So it doesn't take much to change the personality of a character. Watch what happens when I switch these characters eyes. Suddenly, they're totally different people. Now, let's try the nose. Once we're happy with the basic form of the head, we can add other details like hair. In the real-world, hairstyles are rooted in fashion and culture that can apply to your characters as well, the shape of the head, the shape of the hair can say a lot about a character's personality. 8. Finding Inspiration: If you're stuck for an idea, a great way to find inspiration in your designs is to look at celebrity photos. Here's a picture of Sid Vicious, a lead singer of the English punk band the Sex Pistols from the 1970s. His face is very distinct and goes a long way to representing a certain type of snobby ponkey personality. His head, to me, is tipped slightly up as if he's looking down on everyone. His eyes are squinty and he's got around little red nose, his eyebrows are very heavy and distinct. His hair is all pumped out and he's got along crane-like neck. When I start to ink, I keep my lines loose and expressive. The important lines will start to reveal themselves the longer you study the photograph, like the snarl of the lip and the explosion of the hair. The more you practice this, the more you'll be aware of the subtleties of facial expressions and there's your '70s punk rocker. This game is fun, let's try another one. Here's a photo of Janelle Monae, a singer, songwriter, actress, model, all around super talent. To me, her face reads as glamorous with just a sly knowingness. Her face is curved up in a away and her features are soft. We'll give her a more distinct jaw line, bringing in that forehead line and curving the chin and I'm going to use her hair to frame her face. The more variety you bring to your influences, the more distinct your style can be. 9. Expressions: Expressions are the visual and unspoken language of a character's personality. A cartoonist needs a solid illustrative vocabulary to show off their characters distinct personalities. We're going to take a look at 12 popular expressions. I've drawn an example of Eddie the face making the expression, and I've pulled two more from popular television shows and animated films. Hopefully, you're familiar with some of them, and it'll give you an idea of how professional cartoonists put expressions to use. A happy face invites a sense of trust with its alert eyes and friendly eyebrows. A happy character gives off a trusting vibe. Many main characters have a smiling, resting face because it makes them more likable. Dipper and Mabel, the 12-year-old protagonists from the show Gravity Falls are drawn happy as a symbol of their good nature and youthful enthusiasm. The lead characters in Ren & Stimpy show a different kind of happy. Their expressions are exaggerated to the point where they seem a little harder to trust. Ren, the one on the left, has uneven eyes and his eyebrows look like they're being physically pulled back across his head. His friend Stimpy's smile is curled up so much, it's turning back on itself, and it's hard not to be distracted by the tongue popping out of the corner of his mouth. Both are examples of happy characters. Content is a wide expression with broad, soft curving lines. Think of it like rainbows all over a character's face. Notice the upper lip is shortened to move the mouth higher on the face. A content expression can express a sense of fulfillment. This is pops from the regular show. He seems totally fulfilled, chomping away on that gross hamburger. He's a pretty content guy. Lisa Simpson from the show The Simpsons has a sense of contentment that's a little more complex because it's connected to her instrument, the saxophone. Her expression of contentment comes from her self expression. It's often the case that a feeling of contentment can be mistaken for happiness. But contentment has the potential to be a more profound implication about the character's personality. Anticipation is all about the pupils. In your drawing, you want to open them way up as if they're looking for something beyond the horizon. Cartoonists use anticipation when a character needs to show off their personal expectations or a feeling of hope. SpongeBob SquarePants is not a smart character, but his big eyes, exaggerated cheeks, and grin imply that he can sense a better future for himself. The faces of the Teen Titans are showing anticipation. But the way the artist has reduced the details of their facial features implies that in this world of superheroes, these characters are a little more immature. Realization to me is a speechless expression. The character's eyes are big, taking on everything they see, and the mouth is small, often placed low on the face. An expression of realization comes about at that moment when reality finally sets in. A character's limited point of view of the world around them can be brought to light through a moment of realization. The Road Runner chasing Coyote never feels the pull of gravity until he takes a beep to realize its affect on his actions. In this scene from a Charlie Brown Christmas special, Charlie Brown himself is realizing the needles on the tiny Christmas tree are not as strong as they seem. The subtle metaphorical realizations of a character are often would give us an empathetic feeling towards their misadventures. Upturned eyebrows sitting on top of the eyes and a half-knowing smile work perfect for embarrassment. If you're using color, blushed cheeks can help. You can see embarrassment on a character's face when they're feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed with the situation. Pearl from Steven Universe is a hero with low self-esteem who can get embarrassed when she's feeling inferior to the powerful beings she hangs out with. Aladdin is another out of place hero whose expression of embarrassment sometimes works to his advantage and shows off the character's boyish charm. Tears are not necessary to show sadness, but make sure to scrunch up the features right around the character's nose, lower the upper lids as if they're heavy, well the eyes with tears if you want, or simply lift the lower eyelid. The mouth of the character should turn down, of course, but also look like it's holding something back. A sad expression shows overwhelming disappointment and also a feeling of helplessness. For some characters, it can be an embarrassing feeling too. Eeyore doesn't cry much, but he has the saddest eyes around. He also loves to talk about his sadness, thus, the open droopy mouth. Sadness is a powerful expression. Even a character like Batman, whose iconically confident can be reduced by sadness with a simple turning of the little pointy eyes, so flip those triangles upside down. Don't be sad, Batman, you're still super rich. Shock stretches a character's face upward as well as downward. The key to shock is the turndown mouth. A look of shock shows that a character has been caught off guard by a sudden and disturbing occurrence. Lilo and her alien friend, Stitch, both have looks of shock on their face. Stitch, the little blue alien guy is a more overly dramatic character, and his mouth stretches even further down than his friend Lilo's. Katara from Avatar, The Last Airbender is drawn in a slightly more realistic way than Lilo and Stitch, so the artist uses light to exaggerate her expression even further. Fear is like shock times 10. You want to widen the mouth until it's a gaping, dark hole taking up the bottom third of the character's face, then stretch the eyes, and you can even add emotive lines around these facial features if it suits your style. We understand fear more than any other emotion. Shaggy and Scooby are the biggest Scaredy cats in the cartoon universe, but their expressions are so silly we can't really relate to their fear. In The Lion King, Simba shows real fear. His expression is so powerful, we don't even need to see the scary thing he's looking at to understand how afraid he is. Confidence is a focused expression. The eyebrows are lowered and often the mouth is turned up as if the character is thinking, you have no idea how awesome I am. A confident character presumes they're the best at what they do. Maui is a demigod from Disney's Moana, so he can't help but radiate confidence and assume he is superior to the mere mortals he's meeting. Rainbow Dash from My Little Pony also has godlike power plus a competitive streak that makes her confidence look almost sinister. Greed is a sinful expression where both the eyebrows and corners of the mouth are pulled back to their full extent. A greedy character has an excessive desire for something. Ursula knows she has the upper hand over The Little Mermaid, and she isn't afraid to put her greed on full display. Scrooge McDuck, on the other hand, know his greedy expression must be hidden if he's going to get what he wants. Anger is often shown as a bottled up emotion, and like sadness, it reads best when all the features of the face are squeezing themselves towards the center. That means to bring in the front corners of the eyebrows and the pupils of the eyes. Here's Anger from Pixar's Inside Out. This expression is all about heavy eyebrows, which is probably why the character design has no real forehead. He's all brow. Here's Raven, a half demon hero from Teen Titans. You'll notice her hairline and even the way her hood frames her face implies that even when she's not feeling particularly angry, the expression is still there on her face. Furious is an emotion that burns out fast, and since it comes and goes so quickly, it's a great expression to push to its limits. The obvious feature of a furious expression is the mad dog style mouth. Showing teeth always helps with making the character feel more primal and violent. The other key to furious is that dark, sunken eyes. If you can take your eyes off Captain Hook's flowing black mane of hair, you'll notice the dark circles under his eyes. I save my favorite character for last, one of the coolest villains of all time, Cruella de Vil. This is her at her most furious. Notice how all the lines on her face lead toward that scrunched up nose at the very center. I love this drawing. Of course, there are so many more expressions we could dig into, but this is enough to get you started. Little pro tip, mix and match emotions to create more unique characteristics. For example, here's Fionna from Adventure Time showing a mix of anger and sadness. 10. Wrap Up: That's my class on faces and expressions. These basic techniques are things that have helped me in my work a lot over the years, and I really hope some of them can become useful to you too. But of course, the lesson is only the beginning. I would love for you to share your drawings, anything inspired by this class in the class projects section, that can go along way to helping me design new courses, and you never know when you might inspire another student with the work you create. I'll see you next time in cartooning 101.