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How to Draw Manga-Style Faces

Rachael is a passionate long-time anime fan who enjoys writing about the storytelling aspect of anime, manga, and light novels.

A good thing to try if you're stuck is to look at your favorite manga for examples.

A good thing to try if you're stuck is to look at your favorite manga for examples.

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 emotionally identifies with. Big facial expressions are a critical part of getting that emotional response you need out of the readers.

Faces are hard. Challenges include eyebrows, ears, hair, eyes, mouth and nose placement, necks, clothing, etc. It can also be hard to get the sizes and proportions right for any feature. There's a lot to think about and a lot that can go wrong. But never fear, 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.

Choose a Perspective

Choose the viewpoint from which we're looking at our subject. It's like picturing where to point a camera. Do you want to show the subject from above, below, or straight on? Then consider distance. How far is the viewer from the person? A person seen from a distance will have much less detail than someone shown very close.

There's also the tilt of the face to consider. Having the subject face directly forward is relatively easy to draw, but boring. In storytelling, you usually want to show the subject looking at or talking to something. This 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 header drawing of this article, Mystic Mia from Ace Attorney's manga is pretty close to a basic frontal viewpoint.

So then we have the 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. The 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. 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. 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. 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 the 3/4 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 basic shapes first (an oval for a face), and then adding detail. You can use either or different ones in different situations. Try them both and see which one works better for you.

The "eyes first" method

The "eyes first" method


"Eyes First" Method

This is how I normally draw characters on my own, even though most "how to draw" advice I get in books or on the internet, as I said, prescribes the oval method. But the eyes are the key to a manga character's facial expression and personality. 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:

  1. Draw the eyes. You can either start with the small circles for the irises, start with the pupils to coordinate eye direction or start with the lash lines. The eyes convey your character's emotional state and what they're looking at. If they're talking to someone, they should be looking in their direction. Eyebrows are usually small lines that help tell the story of the character's emotions. High eyebrows indicate surprise, low ones can anger, etc.
  2. The nose and mouth. Below the eyes, the nose is usually minimal. It can be a shaded triangle, a small line, a dot, or maybe not even there at all. It goes in the middle, between the eyes, but is placed to show the direction the character's head is tilted. The line in a manga nose represents the shadow cast by the bridge of the nose. Lips are usually minimal, and unless you want to draw them, they can be omitted. They are also drawn in situations where the focus is on the character's mouth, for example, if you want to show one licking a lolly pop. The manga mouth is usually just a small line when closed, and an oval when open.
  3. The outline of the chin and cheeks. Feminine characters usually have thin chins and necks. You can draw the neck at any step. In my example, I put it in step 5. But it could also make sense to do it here.
  4. Then I add ears, bangs, and anything that covers part of the face.
  5. The outline of the hair. Anime hair can be really expressive, the sky is the limit. Or you can make it more ordinary.
  6. Shading and detail. For this example, I just quickly colored the face in with an airbrush tool. Create dark areas where the light is blocked by something, and highlights go where the light is reflected toward the viewer. You might play around with these. Generally, the inner part of the ear will be darker, and it will also usually be a bit darker under the eyebrows and under the chin. Be careful though, too much shading in pen or pencil can look like facial hair.
Oval method

Oval method

The "Oval Method"

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 erase a lot of the lines later.

For me personally, geometric shapes are not easier to draw than organic shapes. It's much easier for me, for some reason, to draw a tree than a triangle. If you feel that way, I suggest the eyes first method. The eyes are the dramatic, emotional center of focus in a manga face, so they're the most important feature.

But this method is simple, and it can help you nail down the proportions and placements of facial features correctly before you start adding detail. Nothing like really working hard on a detailed earring, only to realize the ear is too big and too high!

  1. Draw the oval. It's sort of a seed or tear-drop shape. The top of the head is a circle, and the jaw is a curved V shape beneath it. The angle of the face should determine how we view the chin. The curved vertical line shows the direction your face is looking. If it were a straight, full view, it would be a straight line up and down. The bottom of the circle, the line where the circle representing the cranium meets the V representing the mandible, should be drawn. This will give us a guideline for the eyes and ears.
  2. Eyes and ears. We give our creation sight and hearing. The middle line is the bottom of the eyes and ears. Draw a line parallel to that, above it. This will indicate roughly where the tops of the eyes and ears should go. You can make these distorted and really tall, or more realistic and shorter. You only need a basic seed or teardrop shape for the ear. We'll add details later.
  3. Add the outline of the hair. Think about where the part is, the character's hair will come out of wherever their part line is. Hair can show a lot about a character's personality. Is it neatly trimmed or sloppy and uncut? How do they style it? Long or short? Then, add the eyebrows, the nose, and the mouth. The eyebrows are above the eyes and can help a lot with indicating the character's emotional expression. Below them, again you've got that minimalist manga-style nose and mouth. Add circles in the irises. Remember to make them both look in the same direction. In a 3/4 view, you may see less of the further eye. It might be tricky to do, but it may be more shadowed and less detailed. It's kind of like the closer eye is the star of the show, and the second eye is along for the ride. Then, erase the guidelines that are no longer needed.
  4. Details and shading. If you're doing it in color, this is also when you'd color it. This part will be where your unique style shines through. You can decide how big and how realistically you want to make the pupils, and how you want to shade/color the irises. Remember to keep in mind where the light is coming from in the scene. Shadows and highlights are placed accordingly. You can use shading to also give the hair texture.
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.

More Tips

  • The mouth and nose are usually tiny. They can be emphasized if the character is talking, shouting, or eating. But most of the expressiveness comes from the eyes in manga-style drawing.
  • The top of the head should be round, but the bottom of the chin is more angular. Think of a teardrop, 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. In Western comic books, a square jaw is common for superheroes. But manga characters usually look softer and more feminine than that, even the boys.
  • The ears are the same height as the eyes and are placed evenly with the eyes. Looking up or down with a tilt of the chin changes the placement of the ears, but only slightly. The ear is like a reversed teardrop, but with a rounded point. Most characters' 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.

Practice Makes Perfect

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!

© 2016 Rachael Lefler