Monday, January 4, 2016

The eyebrows are the window to the soul. Quick tips for giving your characters emotion and expression.

I have warm fuzzy memories of when my babies first started looking into my eyes. We are hard-wired to connect to one another, to understand one another, by reading facial expressions. If we want children to connect to the illustrations in our stories, it's imperative that we create characters that clearly convey specific emotions. So here's a list of some tips to help give your characters that emotion and expression.

Keep an eye on the eyes.
The first place your eyes usually go to when looking at an illustration is... well, the eyes. So we really have to get them right. Avoid creating a character with dead eyes, or where your character's eyes stare straight into space. (Unless your character is a zombie, of course. Then I'd say a dead eye is apropos.) It's also important to make sure that both your character's eyeballs are pointing in the right direction. Unintentionally crossed eyes can be confusing.

Eyes both pointing in the same direction,
because Carson Ellis is a rock star.
-The Mysterious Benedict Society

The eyebrows have it. 
The emotion your character, expressed from their eyes, is continued and emphasized through the eyebrows. The closed eyes of the girl below, with her wide reaching smile shows us her happiness, but the raised eyebrows show a touch of surprise or delight. But do watch out for floating eyebrows, which can be distracting. It helps to draw a superhero-like mask on your character to see if the eyebrows appear connected to the eyes.

                        by Meridth McKean Gimbel (that's me :)

Mind the mouth.
The mouth can be another way to emphasize or clarify the emotions your character is communicating. Below we see Merida's eyes and eyebrows are showing shock, and her mouth is small and reserved, showing fear. Her mouth is complimenting the emotions that we see with the rest of her features.

Brave Concept Art- Daniel Muñoz

But lets look at another example. Below we see the eyebrows of the little girl. When looking at just the eyes and the eyebrows, we might think she looks concerned, maybe scared? But when we also look at her smile, we see that she is trying to look sincere, sweet, and innocent. The eyebrows and the smile need each other to make this visual story work.

Dave McKean -
The Day I Swapped My Dad for 2 Goldfish

Pick the right nose.
The nose can occasionally stretch in extreme emotions and can be helpful in emphasizing an expression. Look at how King Fergus' nostril is flaring up. We can tell, with his eyebrows, that he is afraid. The flat line of the eye shows seriousness and the flared nose shows grit and determination.

Brave Concept Art- Daniel Muñoz

Yes, even a bushy eyebrow can show emotion.

The face is fleshy.
Its good to remember that the face can be flexible. Our faces are full of muscles, bones, and fat. Look at how high Norman's forehead is pushed from his eyebrows in his shocked expression (#2). His open mouth also lowers the jawline. In his bottom concerned/disappointed face (#3) there is a frown that moves the jaw up from the resting face (#1).

1.ParaNorman Concept Art-
Pete Oswald
(Resting face.)
2. (Shocked face.)

3. (Concerned/disappointed face)

Asymmetry is interesting. 
No face is perfectly symmetrical. I find it more interesting when a smile spreads halfway up one face, or you see one eyebrow rise higher. Asymmetry can add to a character's individuality. Just remember to keep it consistent. Typically a character will always favor the same side of the face.

Annette Marnat - Kat Incorrigible

Keep it simple.
Pat Cummings once said that when we create picture book illustrations we need to create them for three different audiences; kids that are sitting in the laps of their parents, kids reading on their own, and kids that are being read to in a classroom. When I say keep the emotion simple, this is for that kid in the classroom. Kids need to be able to read an expression from at least a few feet away from the illustration. Below we have a disgruntled mom. We can see her eyebrows raised in frustration and disappointment, and her angry, pursed lips. In the full illustration below, even though the expression is small compared to the rest of the image, we can still see the facial gesture because of the simplicity.

Mark Teague - How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight

Take mental notes. Observe from life.
So when my kids have a meltdown, I try to remember what their face is doing (without staring too much, because that does not help during a meltdown). Also, I always have a mirror or camera handy to see what my face would do when feeling mad, sad, glad, etc.

             This is what I look like having a meltdown ;)

Practice, practice, practice.
I'm hopeful that I'll be perfect in my next life, but for now I am content in working my little tail off so that I can continue to learn how to fully emote what my characters need to express. Emotion is key to storytelling, so this is something that I will always focus on.

Suggested tools:      

-Your face! (How very convenient.)
-Pinterest - This is a great place to find reference for facial expressions and all sorts of other fun scrap. 

So many gems on pinterest. But beware, it's a rabbit hole.
 -The Grimace Project - If you are not sure how you would like to draw a specific emotion, have fun playing around with the 'Grimace Project.' You can adjust the scales to make the face show different expressions. 

It's pretty fun. And helpful. 


What are some of your top tips for creating great facial expressions? I know you all are savvy illustrators, so please post if you'd like to share.

Thanks friends for dropping by and happy illustrating!



Interview by Meridth McKean Gimbel, a kidlit writer, artist, & champion taco cruncher who is currently building a time machine. They are also represented by Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt. You can follow their work at:


  1. My favorite bit of placement is the iris/pupil, which I often save for last like the dollop of icing on the crust's edge.

    1. (Delicious iris icing. Mmmm. ;) Good point Julie. Thanks!!

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  3. Thank you! very helpful article!

  4. Thanks, Meredith! This is exactly what I need right now.

  5. That's so nice to hear. Thanks Rahele and Suzanna!

  6. Very nice examples and the link to Pintrest was helpful!