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Basic Manga Drawing 2: Drawing Faces

Updated on December 21, 2016

Faces in Manga

In manga, facial expressions are a big part of conveying the mood and actions of the story. Success in manga often hinges on having characters the audience strongly emotionally identifies with. Big facial expressions are a critical part of getting that emotional response you need out of the readers.

But faces are hard. Challenges can include eyebrows, ears, hair, eyes, mouth and nose placement, necks, clothing, etc., so there's a lot to think about and a lot that can go wrong. But never fear, I think if you dive right in and practice a bunch you can get better at drawing those iconic manga and anime faces.

This is a handy guide to the many perspectives at which you could draw a face.
This is a handy guide to the many perspectives at which you could draw a face. | Source

Choose a Perspective

Perspective means to choose the viewpoint at which we're looking at our subject. Think of it as like picturing where to point a camera in a video. Consider if we're viewing the subject from above, below, or straight on. Then consider distance; a person seen from a distance will have much less detail than someone shown as if they were very close.

With faces, there's also the tilt of the face to consider. Having the subject face directly forward is relatively easy to draw, but boring, and in narratives you usually want to show the subject looking at or talking to something outside the panel, which means the head is normally not facing forward. But if you're making a character model, or just starting out practicing drawing faces, it's a good basic view to start from. In the top photo, Mystic Mia from Ace Attorney's manga is pretty close to an example of this viewpoint.

So then we have profile, which is where you only see half the face. This is good for making a character look noble and elegant, emphasizing their neck, and making their pose look dramatic. Profile is the go-to standard for putting a face on a coin, so it makes a character seem iconic.

But it's not very natural looking. That's why the angle most often seen with faces in comics, anime, and manga will be what they call a 3/4 viewpoint. The FLCL face in the top picture is an example of 3/4. It's so named because it's between a full view of the face and a profile view (which shows half the face). Partial profile shots, where you see part of the other side of the face, are more natural looking too, like in the top photo's example from Gurren Lagann. 3/4 views and partial profile views are going to make up the bulk of faces you see in manga, because they look the most natural. When you draw or photograph a real person, it's very rare for you to either get a full-face view where both sides are symmetrical or a complete profile. So manga artists use this view a lot because it's the view you're most likely to see when you're interacting with people in real life.

So now, I'm going to walk you through two methods you can use for faces. When I draw manga characters, I often use an "eyes first" technique, where I start with the eyes and draw other facial features in relation and proportion to the eyes (which is why I started this series with an eye drawing article). But most "how to draw" books I've studied tell you to use an "oval technique", which means drawing geometric shapes first (an oval for a face), and then subtracting lines and adding detail. You can use either, or different ones in different situations. Try them both and see which one works better for you.

"Eyes First" Method

This is how I normally draw characters on my own, even though most "how to draw" bits of advice I get in books or on the internet as I said prescribe the oval method. But the eyes are the key to a manga character's facial expression and personality, as I covered in my earlier article. So the size, shape, and direction of the eyes and eyebrows can tell you a lot about how to make the rest of the face. So here's my "eyes first" method:

  • Step One: Draw the eyes (duh!). Drawing them both at the same time is a good way to get them to look even and to make sure they point in the same direction. I would start with dark eyelash lines at the top and bottom, then draw pupils, then irises, then the eyelid lines and eyebrows. If you're doing a frontal or mostly frontal view, they'll be about the same size.
  • Step Two: Draw the nose and mouth. The nose is located in between the eyes and slightly lower. Manga noses are very minimal, often just being dots, shaded patches, or small partial triangles. If you want to do a more detailed nose, it's still not a good idea to do nostrils, just draw an outline of the shape of the bridge of the nose. The mouth is slightly underneath the nose. The center of the lips is directly beneath the nose. Lips are optional in manga, and often omitted, unless the character is wearing lipstick or their lips are emphasized for some reason (like if you want to show them sucking on a lollipop, for example). The mouth in manga is often a simple line.
  • Step Three: Having drawn the eyes, nose, and mouth makes it easy to figure out the lines of the jaw, cheeks, and neck. The cheeks protrude from beneath the eyes and end at the level of the mouth. They stick out more, and are raised, if the character is smiling, and are flatter if the character's expression is neutral or sad. If the face is tilted to one side, the cheek is more prominent on that side, and less so on the other side. A square jaw is avoided usually in manga. Boys have a round chin, and girls and pretty boys can have a foxy, pointed chin. The chin is basically a parabola in a frontal view, but it's not perfectly symmetrical most of the time, because the head is usually slightly tilted, making it bigger on one side and smaller on the other. The neck in a frontal view is like a simple tree trunk shape. Don't worry about the clothes yet (I'll talk about clothing in a future article). You can just have the neck lines taper off to complete the drawing.
  • Step Four: Then, I draw the ears, bangs, and any other hair that comes forward and covers any part of the face. The bangs in manga are usually a jagged line pointing down, partially covering the eyebrows and forehead. But you can also use a straight bang, evenly parted bangs, or no bangs (where the hair goes right and left and downward past the face). Ears are at the same level as the eyes, and are about the same height. You can fuss with the details of the bangs and ears later.
  • Step Five: Then comes the hair. From the bottom of the chin to the eyes should be roughly equal to the distance from the top of the head to the eyes. So I draw a dot approximately where that top of the head point should be, in the middle. From there I draw arcs showing where the hair comes out of the top of the head. Then the hair curves gently downward. Hair can be short, medium length, or long, but I chose to use short hair in this example to illustrate how I made my hair endings as a zig-zag line. Gravity and wind will affect how the hair looks in each scene.
  • Step Six: Shading and detail. I choose where the hair's highlight goes, tweak the facial expression, shade and highlight the iris, and decide where on the face to shade. A lot of shadows on the face look really dramatic (like in the Claymore example I drew at the top of the page). Usually, there is a slight shadow underneath the chin, as well as some shading underneath the bangs, and underneath any hair that crosses the face. The eyes sink in, so there's usually a bit of shading under the eyebrows. Shading under the cheeks can make them look more prominent. People also often have shading on one side of the nose and beneath the lips. Shading is important because it gives the subject an illusion of being 3-dimensional. But, too much shading can be a bad thing too. Subtly blended, slight shadows are usually best. The hair has a highlight where the light hits it, and is usually darker at the roots and ends. Shade inside the ear, and wherever the hair overlaps the ear or vice versa.


The eyes look a bit off on the bottom one. Oops. I guess I'm not great at this method.
The eyes look a bit off on the bottom one. Oops. I guess I'm not great at this method.

The Oval Technique

This is what you see in most "how to draw" books, which build on the premise that complex organic shapes (people, animals, plants, Pokemon, etc.) can be broken down into simpler geometric shapes. There's nothing wrong with the approach, but starting with a geometric shape means you'll have to do a lot of line drawing and then line erasing, so make sure you level up your kneaded eraser game for this. And don't draw the original guidelines too dark either.

  • Step One: Draw the oval. It's sort of a seed or tear-drop shape, with the chin being smaller and more pointed than the top of the head, which is a semicircle.
  • Step Two: Add some guidelines. Draw a band around the center of the oval, as if you were tying a ribbon around it. The eyebrows will be at the top of this band, and the bottom of the eyes will be at the bottom line. The ears will be located where the sides of the band meet the face. Draw a vertical line separating the face into two halves. This is especially useful if you're doing a 3/4 or partial profile view, so that the sides of the face will look right even if they're not totally even.
  • Step Three: Outline the basic location and shape of the ears, eyes, eyebrows, nose, and mouth. Tweak the shape of the cheeks and jawline as desired. I then erased the horizontal guidelines.
  • Step Four: Draw an outline of the hair. The hair comes out of the top of the head-circle and flows out and downward. The bangs go across the forehead from ear to ear. Draw the neck. At this point, I erased the vertical guideline, as it's no longer necessary once you have the facial features and basic hair outline down.
  • Step Five: Erase all the guidelines, if you haven't already. Fill in details and shading. You can play around with the final details of how you want the eyes and other facial features to look.

An example of drawing a 3/4 view head usint the oval technique. Only here, the style is more realistic than manga.
An example of drawing a 3/4 view head usint the oval technique. Only here, the style is more realistic than manga. | Source

Tips:

  • The mouth and nose is usually tiny. It can be emphasized if the character is talking, shouting, or eating, but most of the expressiveness in the face comes from the eyes rather than the mouth in manga style drawing.
  • The top of the head should be round, but the bottom of the chin is more angular. Think of a tear drop, egg, or sunflower seed. You can make a square jaw for an older or more macho character, but this is the exception in manga, rather than the rule.
  • The ears are the same height as the eyes, and are placed evenly with the eyes. Looking up or down (not just with the eyes, but with a tilt of the chin) changes the placement of the ears, but only slightly. The ear is like a reversed tear drop, but with a rounded point. Most character's ears are partially obscured by the hair. But usually, they're not completely covered by it.
  • Anime hair tends to be very shiny, so it usually contains a highlight to show where light is hitting it. But any part of it turned away from the light source will be shaded, and not highlighted. Highlights that involve a subtle gradient from dark to light and back work best.

Conclusion

Faces are a crucial part of manga and comic book drawing. These media are character-focused, so figure drawing is a crucial part of making the story a success. Faces are about the emotional appeal of your character. Villains are remembered for their cruel eyes. Heroes are remembered for their idealistic, naive, pure emotional expressions. Certain types of stock character archetypes like the tsundere will have certain facial expressions associated with them.

Drawing faces is challenging, but it's essential. Practice, practice, practice!

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