Depicting faces with character
Julián del Rey explains how to add life and personality to your character drawings, using anatomy, expression, light, colour and composition
Julián del Rey on applying life and personality.
When I started working as a digital and traditional artist seven years ago, I found that all the faces I designed looked flat and lifeless. They had no personality. For a long time I always drew the same faces, just to stay inside my comfort zone. One day one of my friends, who is also a digital artist, asked me, “Do you want to create characters who look alive?” I said yes, and he answered simply one name: “Norman Rockwell.” Next day I went to the library and found a book about Norman Rockwell. When I saw those faces, those expressions, something changed in my mind. So then I started thinking about how I could apply this in my drawings. I spent a lot of time looking at a lot of digital artists, concept artists and illustrators who made their characters very simple overall, yet managed to put a great deal of effort into one place: the face. The human face is one of the most important parts of a character, so here are some of my tips and tricks to help you to add life and personality to it.
1 Proportions for realistic portraits
When starting a character, the first thing I think about is the fundamentals of anatomy and how the face works. You can then play with the muscles, the shape of the eyes and of the mouth, adding expression and making characters more interesting.
As we’ll see through the rest of these tips, this approach makes it easier to deal with the forms and proportions of all the elements. The most dangerous situation is when all of your characters look like a bunch of clones.
Capturing the moment
This may be obvious, but I think it’s important enough to warrant mentioning here. Live drawing sessions are not only a good way to meet and socialise with other artists, but they’re also a good exercise to learn new techniques and, most importantly, capture the moment.
Drawing quick poses helps you memorise them, as you unconsciously create a library inside your brain, which will be useful when quickly creating expressions for your characters. Capturing the moment of a face when it’s sad, focused, happy or uncomfortable is one of the aspects that adds personality to your character.
3 The power of the look
People say the eyes are a window to the soul. This makes them one of the most important elements in a character’s face. The eyes can express any kind of human emotion you can think of: happiness, sadness, anguish…
The look can be also boosted by the eyebrows. The eyebrows help by intensifying what the eyes are expressing. When the character looks worried, the brows tend to arch up, giving rise to wrinkles at the top of the forehead, while the lower jaw drawn back can cause creases on face.
4 Playing with shapes and proportions
Every shape evokes a different reaction for the viewer. Whenever I’m creating a character from scratch I usually imagine what type of personality and attitude the character is going to have, and then apply this to the body and head shapes.
5 Eye shapes
When I design characters, I start by drawing the eyes. That’s because I think they’re the most important part of the face. As I’ve already mentioned, we get to know the character’s soul through their eyes – how they’re drawn make them capable of expressing any kind of emotion.
At a fundamental and more immediate level, the size and position of the eyes conveys your character’s personality. Bigger eyes tend to express childishness; smaller ones imply seriousness; wide-set eyes generate a sense of oddity; while close-set eyes can often indicate a comical demeanour.
The eyes can express any kind of emotion, and the eyebrows help by intensifying what the eyes are expressing
6 Adding character to a face using lighting
Here are the steps I follow to add appeal to a stylised portrait…
A Decide on the composition
The first step is to apply the Rule of Thirds to my composition and try to find the primary point of interest for the face. In this particular case I want my character to have her head towards the left-hand side but be looking to the (viewer’s) right. This helps to focus the expression I’m after.
B Construction and lighting
The next step is to construct the different planes of the face, the form of the eyes, the nose, the mouth, and all the features. When I’m happy with this, I use Photoshop’s Photo Filter and apply a cold tone to put the face into semi-darkness. I refine the face a bit, adding more shading until I’m satisfied with the lighting. More of the character is visible, but it remains incidental – our interest centres on the face.
C Bringing out the details
Once I have the portrait with the cool tones that I want, I add another Photo Filter layer using a warm tone. In this case the light comes from the right-hand side (the character’s left) and so I add the appropriate highlights to the eyes, the nose and the mouth. At this stage it seemed to me that the mouth I originally drew was a bit flat and lifeless, so I parted her lips a little in order to make the expression more interesting. Finally, I added a decorative motif – the luminous star in the forehead – to make sure that the viewer’s attention is drawn to the character’s face.
7 varying The mouth
Another important feature that adds expression to the face is the mouth. It can be wide open to yell, or tight to show concern. To show happiness, the lips are parted showing the teeth, with the corners of the mouth pulling upwards to hint at a smile. In sadness, the shape of the lips turns concave, and the corners of the mouth droop. For anger, the mouth is slightly open, showing the teeth; the centre of the upper lip rises, creating a zig-zag line.
Instead of a happy person, draw an ecstatic one. Instead of an angry person, draw a furious one
Often we get the feeling that our characters look very similar and they don’t have something that makes them unique. A useful trick is to decorate the face. Once I have the face shape that I want and eyes that express what the character feels, it’s time to decorate. This can be achieved by adding a distinctive element such as an eye patch, a specific hat that tells us the character is a pirate, a pair of glasses or maybe a long beard or a bald head. All of these elements – not an excess of them – will help strengthen the personality conveyed by the face.
9 The importance of the light on the face
I always try to simplify my process to give me more control. Here’s a useful trick I often use: when a character is coloured I apply two Photo Filter adjustment layers using the background colour. If the character is on a white background, I apply a warm colour on Multiply for the shadows and a cool colour for the lights in Overlay or Color Dodge, depending on whether I want stronger or smoother lighting. This tints the character.
Then I mask parts of these layers selectively, darkening or brightening areas according to what I want to depict. I recommend darkening the whole scene and lighting up the face as a central focus, to draw the viewer’s eye.
10 Embrace the wrinkle
Drawing beautiful girls, nymphs and handsome men is always nice – the audience loves it. But have you tried to draw older people’s faces? Their faces show the passing of time, which makes them interesting and adds much personality. It’s common to exaggerate some of their features, like the ears or the nose, which usually look bigger than a younger person’s. It’s always fun to create characters that have had a lot of experiences, such as shamans, ancient kings, or even mages or sorcerers.
11 Facial expressions
I always begin with an oval for the form of the head, then place the eyes and nose, forming a basic T-shape. For expressions, treat this as a unit, noting that if you alter the shape or position of one feature, it affects everything – nothing stands completely on its own.
When I’m trying to nail down an expression, I use a mirror for reference. But for a stronger drawing and character, really push the expression. Instead of simply drawing a happy person, draw one who’s ecstatic; instead of an angry person, draw a furious one. To show more personality, exaggerate the expression.
12 My best friend, the rim light
Using a rim light not only adds depth to a composition, but also helps separate different objects from each other and from the background. I’ve also been using it to sculpt the face of my characters. Rim light is a key element for adding personality to an expression, and helps draw the viewer’s attention to the face. You can also use it to highlight different aspects, like the glow in the eyes or the shape of the nose. It all adds up, and when combined in a practical way with dark lighting it introduces seriousness and interest.
13 Reinforcing the look
Besides using the tricks I’ve mentioned so far, you can further add personality to faces using focal points, as if you were creating a landscape composition, using tone and colour to frame an area. You can also apply leading lines – like the ones we use to give movement to characters – to make faces more interesting.
This means that sometimes to create a more engaging face you should add things to highlight it. In this example I use the body shapes to draw attention to the character’s face. These are especially helpful when your drawing is a portrait because the face is the most important element, the point where you want to draw the viewer’s attention.
14 The face as storyteller
We can use the faces of our characters as an enhancer of the story we want to tell in an illustration. Faces can tell us how the different characters in a scene interact with each other. If a character is alone in a scene, try to make it look at the viewer so as to focus attention on what’s happening to it. But if there are several characters, try to establish a visual connection between them so that a story can be told. This helps the viewer to understand what’s happening. Hence it’s very important that the characters have expressive faces and eyes, the mouths should “talk”, and everything tells a story.
15 Add life to the face
As well as exaggerating the expression, you can highlight key features to breathe life into your character. When starting a new character, I begin with a sketch that explores the character’s attitude, pose and look. Then, as I’m adding colour and polishing details, I change some aspects of the face: I exaggerate face shapes using the Liquify filter, then add lighting and shadows emphasising the most important features: the eyes, the mouth, the eyebrows and the nose. Finally, I add glow to the pupils to highlight the eyes and increase the appeal. For this I always use a light turquoise tone in Overlay mode.
When the character is finished I duplicate this layer and apply the Lens Correction filter with subtle values. This distorts the channels and emphasises the brightness of the eyes, making them look more lively.
16 Putting it all together
A good character is one that has its anatomy, volumes, expression and lighting fully controlled by the artist, so that the artist can draw out its full potential. The face is a crucial element, not only for creating a nice-looking character, but also to express what you want the characters to convey and reinforce your story.
Now it’s your turn to use these tips and create a dynamic character with personality. As Antoine de SaintExupéry once said: “A designer knows they’ve achieved perfection not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.” I hope these tips help you to develop amazing aspects for your characters!
Perfection isn’t when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing to take away
Circular shapes: These suggest appealing, good (so, not evil) characters. Circular shapes are typically used to connote cute, cuddly and friendly types. Square shapes: Consider words like dependable, solid, strong, secure, firm, certain, serene and heroic. The square shape evokes stability and fortitude. Triangles: Easily leads to more sinister, suspicious type of characters and usually represents the bad guy or villain in character design. SWEET STRONG EVIL