Navigating Subtle Facial Expressions

In conversations with acquaintances, colleagues, and other various newly-met people, occasionally my drawing hobby comes up. Although not everyone is particularly interested in art, usually I can expect a follow up question or two; something along the lines of “what do you draw” or “using what?” People are usually somewhat surprised to hear that I consider my comfort zone to be head-and-shoulders portraits of people, while I tend to struggle with most other scenes. Not to say that I’m any kind of brilliant portrait talent, it’s just what comes to me easiest and so it’s naturally what I gravitate towards.

Although I consider this relatively small, quirky niche a strength, there are still some aspects of it that I find very difficult. One ever-present challenge is hair; I’m really not great at it. I’ve been watching some YouTube tutorial videos lately to try to gain some new insight, particularly from one of my first and all-time favorite colored pencil learning resources Luisina Juliete. But also from Kirsty Partridge, who has a ton of detailed tutorials specifically on hair. Aside from hair, a second aspect that is always tricky for me is a person’s facial expression. Although there’s naturally more to expression than just the mouth, I find that part depicting subtle expressions the most challenging.

In pondering this particular topic, I tried to narrow down why exactly I find expressions conveyed by a person’s mouth to be so difficult to draw. First off, I think generally lips are not so easy. The defining borders/color transitions between facial skin, lips, and mouth interior all exist, but not are not as clear as being a solid line in most cases. Additionally, perspective can throw a monkey wrench into any slight upward/downward turn you’re trying to show. Hard smiles and frowns are one thing, but how about showing a subject who is slightly annoyed? What pencil lines define that? We can recognize when it looks like a person is thinking, but what exactly does a thinking person’s mouth look like? These are the things that derail me sometimes.

For the portrait featured in this post, I met a challenge right on this topic. The original image was one I saw in an article on The Onion (I could not find the photographer’s name to credit, so my apologies to the stock image creator). In the image, my interpretation of the visual scene is that the woman just isn’t buying whatever the guy is saying. Basically, the question is – can I capture a somewhat vague rejecting or disbelieving look? Spoiler alert: The answer is no. Or perhaps “not quite.”

So, here is the final version of this portrait. I have to say, I did manage to salvage something that was really going off the rails at various points in the drawing. I’ll embed the progression video towards the end of this post, so you can see for yourself. But there were times early on, mostly after the first blending attempt, when I thought I was actually going to have to abandon this one. Fortunately, the paper had just enough tooth left to grab a few correctively layers.

There are two core questions/thoughts on it. One, do I like it? Yes, I actually do like the end result. So that’s a victory in and of itself, that I feel positively about the drawing. Question two though, did I success in capturing the expression? Unfortunately, that’s a no for me. When I look at the drawing, I see a person who appears to be sad or tired. Maybe this is a woman hearing some bad news. But that’s not what I was going for! I should be able to read that the lady in red is more agitated or irritated by what she’s hearing, rather than sad. Either way it could be that she’s hearing bad news, but the reaction should be readable on her face…and I’m reading the wrong reaction when I look at this.

As for the specific details, as I said, I do like the drawing ignoring that I didn’t accomplish specific things with it. I did a good enough job with colors, although my depth of shadow/contrast didn’t quite get where I wanted. I leaned too heavily into grays for shadows, particularly in her hair. But as hair is typically something that is difficult for me, it’s not a bad effort relatively speaking. Again, compared to how badly I thought this drawing was going early on, I’m happy that it turned out this way.

In keeping with recent tradition, I’ve embedded the progression video from YouTube above. In a way, this is kind of an ironic one…just as I’ve finally figured out a camera set up that works well, I’m now starting to consider dropping the whole video thing. I like the result well enough I guess, but it’s a bit cumbersome to make them compared to the old sequential progression .gif images I used to share.

If any readers made it this far in the post, what do you think about the video vs .gif question? Please let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear opinions on this! Do you find these videos interesting or helpful at all? Did you prefer the old progression .gifs (strung together still frames of the drawing)? I’m definitely open to feedback! Really of any kind, not just on this topic. I’ve gotten a lot of great information and advice from other artists on WordPress, so it absolutely makes my day if I can provide something useful to someone else.



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  • I think I’m seeing a tone of “dejected” as well, it sounds a very hard project to capture.

    I do remember a fellow artist commenting on one of my dog portraits. She said “wow, how did you manage to really capture the soul of the dog like that?”. I had to answer, “I just tried to copy the shapes and colours”. I think it was more her interpretation than anything on my side, I didn’t even like the picture much.

    Overthinking… choose that for the next expression 😀

    • Hey there Steve! Although it’s not quite what I was going for, “dejected” is at least somewhat in the ballpark. I’ll take it as a partial win! Ha – at least I wasn’t going for a downbeat type emotion and ended up with her looking happy or something.

      I’m going to have to hunt down this dog portrait, was this a somewhat recent one? I’m very certain I’m not at a place where I can capture a soul, but that’s certainly something to shoot for!

  • I’ve just watched the video from Kirsty Partridge. Wow, I had no idea but I guess if you want the realism you have to take the time. The part using the craft knife was fascinating, and what a difference to the result.

    • I actually tried that craft knife thing! I just wasn’t able to get anywhere close to that effect though. It does appear that she’s vastly more patient with her layering…not that I’m saying I’m lazy. But yeah, maybe in comparison I am! Haha

  • Hi Jon, I read her expression as either apprehension or dejected. The hunched over position (which I love) leads me to dejected. The mouth is really good, but I’m not quite comfortable with the focus of the eyes. Even though they are on the same level as the guys it doesn’t seem like she is focusing quite highly enough to be looking into his eyes, which might give a more assessing or appraising expression.
    I like the gifs although this format allows us to enjoy your little ‘helpers’!

    • Hello Claire! That is so true, I do have some helpers that like to make cameos. I do enjoy when the kids pop in, but I’m not so sure the cat is helping too much. I think the next one, which is a portrait of the kids, has quite an extensive helper section!

      I definitely have to agree with you on the eyes – the line of site isn’t quite where it should be. That’s actually a third aspect that I find very challenging. First, making sure the eyes actually align in the same direction, and also that they’re looking at what they are supposed to. It’s interesting, there are some areas that I can refine and rework, like the nose or mouth. But I feel like with the eyes, if there’s too much pencil traffic, sometimes it’s hard to save it.

      Anyhow, I appreciate the thoughts on this one!

      • I forgot to mention the hair and your challenge with it. Honestly I don’t see it, because I’ve always thought the hair to be really well rendered.

      • Thanks Claire, that is really good to hear! It definitely feels like a struggle when I’m working on it, more so than so many other aspects. I think it’s some combination of me needing to be more patient, plus probably needing some more practice. I was watching this video by Kirsty Partridge, who I mentioned in the write-up, realizing how much I can still learn about hair techniques:

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