Sunday Mailbag

March 31st, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: What is the best way to make up a funny expression for a caricature when all you have is a single photo reference with the person having a bland expression?

A: Before I answer that, I have to point out that you really can’t make up an expression for someone and still call it a true caricature. A person’s expressions are as individual as their nose or any physical feature. People smile differently, cry differently, scowl differently… their features react to and express emotions in very unique and individual ways. If you are trying to do a good caricature of someone conveying a certain emotion or reaction, you really need to see how that expression is displayed on their face. You can make something up, but then it ceases to be an accurate caricature and becomes something else.

Ironically, I do this all the time when doing work for MAD. In a parody of a movie or TV show, I have to draw the same actors over and over, displaying many different emotions (unless it’s Kristen Stewart, then it’s only one expression all the time). I obviously cannot find specific reference of every expression, so I don’t even try and just fake it. I get away with that in those instances because I have several more accurate caricatures sprinkled throughout the parody I call “keystone” caricatures, and they bridge the gap between the ones I take greater liberty with due to made up expressions. I also carry through several face “keys”, i.e. specific features and exaggeration choices that remain consistent and impart a cohesive look to the character in an ongoing narrative, even if the expressions are not that specific. Also, I tend to really “cartoon and crazy” up the expressions and emotions with the characters when I make up things like them yelling, crying or being really angry, as this makes it both more humorous and more forgiving when it comes to the likeness. However, we are talking about comic book style storytelling here, I assume you are talking about a single caricature image.

While the best thing you can have is an actual reference of the subject making the desired expression, you are not working totally in the dark when it comes to making some expression up. Everybody has basically the same muscle structure in the face, and there is a typical pattern those muscles follow when conveying specific expressions. When someone smiles, for example, their mouth obviously widens, the corners stretch out and usually rise up. The eyes tend to squint to some degree, the bottom eyelids flatten out and the outer corners usually rise slightly. The cheeks on each side flex into a round(ish) ball and rise up to squeeze those outside eye corners. The “ala” of the nose rise, obscuring the view of the bottom of the nose and nostrils somewhat. The lips tend to thin out, and any sign of a “philtrum” between the nose and upper lip disappears. These are all generalizations. The individuality of a person’s smile…like how one corner of the mouth might be higher than the other making it crooked, or how much the eyes squint, or how round the cheeks get, really makes the subject’s expression “theirs”. However these generalizations are what makes a face look like it’s smiling. One excellent source for artists interested in learning about facial expressions and how they work is a book by Gary Faigin titled, appropriately enough, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expressions. It’s extremely dense, but goes into incredible detail on how different expressions are created on the face, and even how the age and sex of the subject makes for different versions of the expressions.

The other, and more convenient, source of reference for expression is . . . your own face. I have a mirror next to my drawing board which I constantly use for referencing things like my hands and my face for expressions. I might not scowl exactly like the subject I am drawing, but by observing how the muscles and features of my own face create a scowl, I can project that onto the face I am drawing. If I use the specific features of that face but follow the pattern and direction my features change from “normal” to create a scowl, I can at least get that particular emotional response across in my drawing.

Thanks to Nelson for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here.


  1. Richard says:

    Excellent and informative post! Love the details.

  2. nelson says:

    Thanks a bunch, Tom! Very generous of you as always.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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