I’d like some tips on paint­ing the look of ex­treme pain with­out us­ing ref­er­ence ma­te­rial. Can you help? Ryan Rod­dick, Eng­land

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John replies

Not us­ing ref­er­ence is a sac­ri­lege as an il­lus­tra­tor! I’ve taken work­shops with some of the most leg­endary artists in the in­dus­try and they are the first to tell you to get some sort of ref­er­ence, even if it’s just mak­ing faces in the mir­ror. But if you can’t, there are some char­ac­ter­is­tics that ap­ply to any creature with hu­man-like fa­cial fea­tures.

When a face is con­torted in pain, the eyes squint shut, pro­duc­ing wrin­kles, and the eye­brows come up at the cen­tre, wrin­kling the fore­head (1). The teeth are clenched and bared, the lips part, and the cor­ners of the mouth widen and turn down (2). The nos­trils flare into a snarl and the na­solabial sul­cus be­comes more pro­nounced and comes up and out (3). The head tilts for­ward, tuck­ing in the chin and pro­duc­ing trans­verse wrin­kles across the neck (4). Fi­nally, the neck ten­dons bulge and tighten (5). Just think about the last time you stubbed your toe, and chan­nel that ex­pres­sion into your character!

For this ex­am­ple I draw a nor­mal, ex­pres­sion­less face, and then paint some key land­marks over the nor­mal fea­tures to map out how some of them will change. Then I use those land­marks to con­struct my character’s pained ex­pres­sion. Lots of quick, high-en­ergy strokes will also help con­vey the mood.

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