How to Draw Caricatures: Mouths

January 21st, 2011 | Posted in Tutorials

This series of “How to Draw Caricatures” tutorials are a just a small taste of a larger and much more in-depth book I wrote called The Mad Art of Caricature! The book is 175 full-color pages, lavishly illustrated and contains greatly expanded explanations of the concepts presented in these tutorials, as well and a great deal of additional material on caricaturing other facial features, posture, hands, expression and more, techniques on drawing from live models, doing caricature for freeplace illustration and for MAD Magazine. This is a must have book for anyone interested in caricature, cartooning or humorous illustration. You can order it online here.

Part Five: Drawing Mouths

Like all features, mouths follow certain tendencies with regards to the subject’s sex, race, and age. More so than the other features, the mouth changes RADICALLY with expression. It is by far the most expressive part of the face, even more than the eyes. As a result, drawing the mouth becomes not only an exercise in observation of its structure, but sensitivity to its projection of the subject’s emotions. The real key to capturing “personality” in a caricature rests in the eyes and mouth. When a live caricaturist hears the magic words from the friends of their subject exclaim: “He ALWAYS has that look on his face! THAT’S HIM!” you know you just read the subjects expression right and captured it in the drawing. That is what you strive for… not just the likeness, and not just exaggeration, but CHARACTER… PERSONALITY. That is what makes a drawing come to life and spring from the surface of the paper. Mouths are a central part of this, both in and of themselves and more importantly how they are relating to the rest of the face.

The mouth is a complex feature. It’s made up of bones, muscles and tissues that create many distinct elements like teeth and lips, which vary widely with variables like age, which in turn interact in many different ways depending on expression. When I talk about the mouth, I am also including the musculature around the mouth, connecting it to the nose, cheeks and chin. Drawing the mouth basically finishes off the interior of the face, the center of likeness and expression.

The Anatomy of a Mouth

As with all features, it is very useful to understand the structure and anatomy of that which you are trying to caricature. Knowing the names of the muscles and bones are not really important, but understanding where they are, how they work and what you are really seeing is the best kind of foundation for a good drawing of anything.

Let’s start with the underlying anatomy, the teeth and surrounding bone (fig.1). The Mandibula and Mandible (jaw bone) is the only movable bone in the face/skull. It has several specific features, including the Ramus (The rear jaw that connects to the skull), the Angle (point at which the jaw angles toward the chin), the Mental protuberance (chin), the Mental tubercle (hollow area under and behind the chin) and the Lower dental arch (area below bottom teeth). The upper bones of the mouth are part of the larger skull. They include the Upper dental arch (area just above the teeth), the Maxilla (area above dental arch, under nose and nostrils) and the Coroniod and Condyliod processes (where the law bones and skull connect.) Humans have two sets of teeth, (three if you count dentures), that appear at different points in their lives. The first set are deciduous or temporary (baby) teeth, and the second are permanent teeth. There are 20 deciduous teeth and 32 permanent teeth. They all have names and distinct positions and features, but for our purposes there are only six teeth that are prominent and visible enough for us to be concerned with in the adult mouth. They are the upper four incisors and first two upper cuspids, commonly called the canines or eye teeth. These six teeth generally are what you see when a subject smiles. Other teeth are not as important to a caricature as what little of them might be visible are overpowered by the prominence of the afore mentioned six. Still, if you want to learn the names of all the teeth, knock yourself out. Your dentist will love you.

The muscles (Fig.2) that surround the mouth are highly flexible and interconnected, with the lower layers of the muscles peeking out behind gaps in upper layers. There is a large oval shaped muscle that completely surrounds the mouth itself called the Orbicularis oris. This muscle inserts itself into the skin at the corner of each mouth. This insertion point on each side is also where the orbicularis connects with three other top layer face muscles: the Zygomaticus, which connects to the cheekbone area; the Masseter Risorius, which connects to the rear of the jaw area; and the Triangularis, which connects to the bottom jaw. The Masseter is a large muscle that makes up the outside of each jaw. The Quadratus labii inferioris are two muscles that extend under the Triangularis from the sides of the chin and angle inward to disappear under the lower part of the Orbicularis oris. The Mentalis connects to the skin right at the bottom center of the chin and extends out in the “V” shape to disappear under the Quadratus muscles.

Finally, the surface features (fig.3) of the mouth and surrounding areas. The upper lip consists of the Tubercle, or meaty area in the center, and two wings that extend to the corners of the mouth. The lower lip has a dip or depression in the center called the groove, which the tubercle fits neatly into (actually overhangs somewhat), and two lateral lobes on either side that correspond with the curves of the wings above. The area above the mouth is separated from the cheeks on each side by the Nasolabial furrow, which is the line coming from the upper nostril and extending toward and around the corner of the mouth. The depression directly below the nose and above the tubercle, defined by sometimes-sharp ridges on either side is the Philtrum. The area between the lower lip and the top of the chin us the Mentolabial furrow.

Whew. That’s a lot of long, unpronounceable names. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to be able to get a perfect score on an anatomy exam to draw a good mouth. It’s just a very good idea to have some understanding of what is happening beneath all that skin when you are looking at the features.¬¨‚Ć It is harder to get fooled by odd lighting or a bad angle when you have some working knowledge of the structure you are looking at. I had to look up most of these terms for this article, but I know them all by understanding they are there. For example, I didn’t know the muscle on the side of the jaw was called a Masseter, but I did know it was there, and that it is a muscle you often see tough guys flex when clenching their teeth in the movies (see: Tom Cruise). Also, knowing how things work is the first step in exaggerating how they work.

Seeing the Mouth

As I mentioned before, the mouth seems very complex because it has so many elements that interact with one another, and they change so drastically depending on expression and other variables. Still, when all the extras are boiled away, the mouth is a shape, just like any feature. When I talk about the shape of a mouth, I mean the shape created by the opening of the mouth through which the teeth are visible. Like any shape, it will have its widest points, its tallest points, narrowest, etc. Like the other features, you need to eliminate the details and visualize the simplest representation for the shape you can, and use it for a guideline as you render the mouth to include all those details.

As always, it’s best to start with understanding traditional proportions (fig.4) and structure of a feature, and use it as a basis for caricaturing that feature. In traditional portraiture, the bottom of the lower lip is exactly halfway from the bottom of the nose to the bottom of the chin. That places the mouth itself slightly closer to the nose than the chin in typical proportion. The corners of the mouth usually rest exactly even with the center of the pupils. This is portraiture placement of the mouth. There is also a portraiture rule regarding a triangle created by the outside corner of each eye and the bottom of the lower lip. The rule is that this is an equilateral triangle, so the distance between the outside the outside corner of each eye is equal distance from those corners to the bottom center of the lower lip. As always, with caricature, it’s the departure from this “norm’ we seek to achieve, so long as the departure is a reflection of the perception of the face, and not done merely to distort.

The mouth isn’t flat across the face. It wraps around the face, like it’s being pulled toward the back of the head with a string on each corner. From the side, you can see the mouth protrudes not only according to the bones beneath but the nature of the lips (fig.5). The upper lip overhangs the lower, which overhangs the chin slightly. The entire mouth structure actually slopes backwards slightly from the bottom of the nose, and the front of the chin ends up roughly on the same vertical line as the front of the brow in profile. It’s important to remember the three dimensional aspects of the mouth when you draw it, so you are prepared to place parts of the mouth over other parts as needed to create depth, not so much with a frontal pose as a three quarter one.

So we need to see that simple shape of the mouth. Forget about the teeth, the lips, the furrows and all that other stuff. Imagine if the subject took a slip of heavy paper and placed it over his/her mouth between the lips, so it looked as though they had a white “mouth guard” like a boxer obscuring their teeth. (fig.6).

The area of the paper visible between the lips is the shape we are looking for. Typically, in a smiling mouth, it’s narrow at the corner, widest in the center and has a curve from the corner to tubercle, and an opposite curve to the other corner, with a somewhat flattened center area. Of course this is ridiculous over simplification… the shape of the mouth can vary widely, with about the only common element being the top and bottom lip always meet on each side. Sometimes the shape can be very narrow, with only a thin “white” area visible. Sometimes it’s very tall in the center, sometimes more so towards the corners. The lines that define the shape can be subtle curves or have very distinct, sharp changes of direction and angles. Seeing that shape is all about making observations, as with all features.

One trick I use for seeing the shape of the mouth is that “corner to corner’ imaginary line created by the corners of the mouth (fig.7).

Similar to the technique used with the eye, you imagine a line extends from the right corner of the mouth to the left corner. The shape of the mouth (white area when you think in “paper mouth guard” terms) will interact with that line in some ways. Sometimes the entire mouth shape will lie below the corner-to-corner line, giving the subject a wry sort of grin or smile. Other times it will lie entirely above the line, as is the case with small children and infants. Other times the line will intersect the mouth shape. Using the line as a point of reference you can see and interpret that shape. Now look at where that line intersects the “shape” of the mouth, and ask yourself some questions: How much of that shape is above that line? Below it? Where is the narrowest part of that shape? The widest? The tallest? One thing to remember is that the corner-to-corner line often is not perpendicular to the center line of the face, but at an angle. That’s a result of one corner of the mouth being higher than the other. Few faces are exactly symmetrical, and there are few single observations that can have as great an impact on the capturing of the “personality’ of the subject than seeing if they have a crooked smile.

There is another technique I use for helping see the mouth shape I call “nodes’ (fig.8). I look for points at which there are distinct changes of angle in the lines that define the mouth shape… where are straight line becomes a curved line, or vise versa. In computer design programs, these are called nodes. Anyone who has ever worked with Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw computer drawing programs is familiar with nodes. A shape in one of these programs is created by drawing segments of lines connected together, and between each segments is a point or node. Each node is where the line changes direction, and can change from a straight line to a curved line. A quick look at a given mouth shape lets me identify where the nodes of that mouth shape lie. The corners of the mouth are almost always nodes, or points where the line of the mouth shapes direction. Thinking in these terms, I can mentally “connect the dots” with straight or curved lines, depending on the mouth, to create the simple shape.

The beauty of the mouth is that seeing and placing that mouth shaped on the face is 90% of the work. The rest becomes fairly easy because the shape of the mouth creates a great frame of reference for making observations regarding the teeth and other elements that make it easy to draw those features. Most of these observations are a function of knowing and seeing what features typically do, and drawing them.

Drawing the Mouth

Of course seeing the mouth shape properly is only half the battle. Drawing it, and in the case of caricature exaggerating it, is the rest of the fight.

Like the other features we’ve previously discussed, drawing the mouth is a function of accurately capturing the shapes and structures and caricaturing the mouth is about recognizing the unique relationships between it and the other features and exaggerating those relationships. Since the mouth itself can change so drastically with expression, there is no one approach to drawing it that works the best every time. In terms of doing live caricatures and drawing the mouth using line, here is a basic method of drawing the mouth from start to finish:

The basic idea is to start in the center/top and work to each side and around the mouth “shape” first, defining the interior area where the teeth and gums will appear. This mostly works best when doing a straight on head angle. In a 3/4 view, it would be better to start with the nearest corner and work in to the tuberuncle. 3/4 views are further complicated by the protrusion of teeth and the partial hiding of the far side/corner of the mouth.

The next step is to connect the mouth to the rest of the face… the nasolabial furrow, philtrum and the muscles/tissue surrounding the mouth connect it to the nose, chin and cheek areas. Age becomes a factor here, especially when working in line. The addition of lines around the mouth will instantly age your model. The younger the subject the more minimal you must be with your linework. In some cases you have to literally ignore lines you can plainly see on a kids face, simoly because drawing it with a line is too harsh and will make them look like they are an adult.

Teeth are something people struggle drawing well. They often want to define the lines between them too strongly, or they gloss over them and make them all the same size and shape… like fenceposts. Remember it’s the upper 6 teeth that make up the majority of what is visible in a typical smile, and they are of different sizes and shapes. I compare the Central Incisors (front teeth) to “Old Testament tablets”, the Lateral Incisors (teeth to left and right of front teeth) to an upside down Superman symbol, and the Canines/Cuspids (eye teeth or “fangs”) as long Tic Tacs with one sharper end. Teeth are not squared off on the edges but rounded and smooth, covered by a shiny enamel and are wet… all these elements combine to make the sperations between the teeth indistinct from a normal distance (barring gap spaces where the darkness of the inner mouth is seen). Therefore using hard lines makes the teeth look wooden and blocky. I will used “implied line” here, to suggest the lines between the teeth without drawing them from top to bottom. Just make sure if you use that technique your gum point and the corresponding spot between the teeth on the edge line up.

It might seem in this example that you should expect the teeth to remain obediently within the mouth shape… not so. The front teeth often protrude over the lower lip, and may partially obscure it. Teeth can be very prominent features, as can gums. Observing and recognizing the relative importance/unimportance of these elements is something you have to develop your eye for.

The relationships of the mouth to the rest of the face, like with all features, is determined by factors like it’s size relative to the other features (for example like how wide it is compared to the centerpoint of the eyes and its “tallness”) and the distances from the mouth to the nose and the chin. More so than the other features, the mouth projects expression and personality… so exaggerating things like the crookedness of a smile, the toothiness of a grin or the pucker of pursed lips captures not just likeness but a recognizable attitude and personality. Recognizing these relationships and exaggerating them is the key to caricaturing the mouth.

Here are a few examples of some different generic mouths and some considerations to think about:


Take a look at this drawing of David Letterman. The mouth is a central part of the effectiveness of the caricature. Letterman has a very distinct mouth shape, especially when he displays the toothy grin. One side of his mouth curves upward at the corner, and the other curves downward. His entire mouth shape lies below the corner-to-corner line. His famous gap is only one part of his unusual dental structure. His front teeth curve off each side making the outside edge seem longer than the inside, and all his teeth protrude forward the gums to the point of overlapping his lower lip in an obvious overbite. Note how I completed the teeth separation lines on the left side of the mouth and made them stronger, and on the right side I used a little implied line and a lighter touch. This was because of the 3/4 view, where the left side teeth were more strongly overlapped in space while the right side were more parallel to the viewer.

This “How to Draw Caricatures” tutorial and others of the same series on this website are part of a complete book on drawing caricatures live and in illustration, entitled The Mad Art of Caricature!


  1. Tom says:

    I know I said I’d have this done yesterday… sorry. You can withhold my paycheck for the week.

    I will probably post one more of these before the book comes out this summer, which is a definite plan. I’ll be announcing ordering details as the summer approaches, but the plan is to debut the book at the San Diego Comic Con, at which I have an actual booth space reserved. I may take advanced orders once the book is actually at the printers being produced, but it will ship after the Comic Con in late July.

  2. Beth Cravens says:

    I wished I had seen this before I did my last job. I had a good drawing going right up till I got to the mouth. As always, thanks for sharing this stuff with us, it’s very very helpful.

  3. Mike Wade says:

    It is amazing to me that you have put so much helpful detail in “a blog”! The Teacher in you is quite obvious. Thank you for the tutorials. I look forward to having my own copy of your book!

  4. Bill Karis says:

    Thanks for the tips, can’t wait for the book to come out, so everything will be in one package. Keep us posted….

  5. Bill Karis says:

    ….also don’t let your editor change your format for the book. Your tips are very easy to read and understand. I have many art books that are hard to follow, because of the way they are laid out. You are definitely a teacher. Thanks again.

  6. Warren says:

    Wow, this is great! Though – well, maybe it’s just my frame of mind, but – in fig. 6, the second mouth shape makes me think of a tube top on a buxom woman. Yeah, it’s my frame of mind. Anyway, I’ll be looking for the book! Thanks for being willing to share your techniques!

  7. Dylan says:

    Thanks so much for these tutorials they are such a great help. I will definitely buy your book when it comes out, thanks again 🙂

  8. George Cook says:

    Thank you for posting this, Tom!! I will have to try to save up some to get a copy of the book when it comes out!

  9. Mufeed says:

    Thanks for the informative information. And I can’t believe that “A book from you!!” I’ll buy it…

  10. Wade Collins says:

    Tom, I love the depth of detail that you always include in your tutorials. Please sign me up for a signed copy of your new book. I’m looking forward to soaking it all up and then some!

  11. David Paccia says:

    These how-to posts are fantastic Tom! I will definitely be purchasing the book. Thanks for sharing so much valuable information with everyone!

  12. Krishna says:

    Count me in for a copy of your book, Tom! Very useful tips!

  13. karl simpson says:

    great stuff and looking forward to getting the book, my drawings have improved immensely over two yrs from constantly reading yr blog and these tutorials.
    Still a long long way to go but i’m enjoying it more and more.
    Good luck with the book and put me down for one.

  14. Koji says:

    Any chances copies of your book will come to Brazil later??

    • Tom says:

      If by “coming to Brazil” you mean can someone in Brazil buy a copy from me and I ship it to Brazil, then yes… shipping costs will be expensive but I will ship internationally. If by “coming to Brazil” you mean will it be in bookstores there or will it be printed in Portuguese the answers are no and no.

  15. […] Just added is How to Draw Caricatures: ¬¨‚ĆMouths […]

  16. Jose Andres says:

    Gracias, muchas gracias. En Colombia tambien esperamos tu maravilloso libro.

  17. Alberto says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial! I will definitely be adding your book to my reference library.

  18. deb says:

    just what I was looking for thanks! cant wait for the book!

  19. eduardo nafat says:

    Hi Mr Tom and tank you for this tutorial, it was very importan for me, because i can to put in practice for my own disignes, by the way I from to colombia. already I have had some copies of you caricatures , and i sorry for my english I hope that it understand

  20. Brian Benson says:

    Please consider a DVD or online video access. Iwould learn so much easier if i could watch you or some of your other artist draw.

  21. wagner martins says:

    Voc?™ com certeza ?© uns dos desenhistas mais admirados do mundo, claro que isso ?© exclusivamente por seu talento e trabalho duro! mas li em um dos seus coment?°rio que n?£o publicaria seus trabalhos no Brasil, geralmente voc?™s norte americanos consideram os povos da am?©rica do sul como ignorantes e atrasados que ?© uma pena, espero que n?£o seja seu caso, mas se for lamento por voc?™, e espero que repense em publicar seus trabalhos aqui no Brasil em portugu?™s, visto que voc?™ tem muito admiradores.

    • Tom says:

      obrigado! Meu livro estar?° dispon??vel em Brasil requisitando o no Web site. O livro estar?° em ingl?™s somente. Pesaroso!

  22. Matias says:

    Muchas Gracias desde Argentina.

  23. Janet says:

    thank you, tom! you are an amazing teacher! i cant wait for the book! 🙂

  24. Karla Irais says:

    Muchas gracias ¬°eres genial!


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