Monday, September 9, 2013

PICTURE BOOK WORKSHOP #30: Illustrating Emotions




If I were solely a writer, I would probably feel obligated to convey my character's emotion in words. I might write things like, Becky felt sad, or Chris was so excited. As an illustrator, I write those things in a first draft, but as soon as I open my sketchbook, I draw those sentences and delete them from the manuscript.

Today, I'm going to talk about different ways to convey emotion in illustration. For starters, there's facial expressions.

If you have a character with eyeballs (as opposed to dots), eyebrows, and a mouth – you're good to go. Nose and ears don't actually help a whole lot in conveying emotion, but eyebrows … whoa, baby!

Open any Elephant & Piggie book by Mo Willems and you will see such a wide array of facial emotions. In my opinion, Mr. Willems is like the king guru of doing showing a lot with very little detail.

Here's Elephant from PIGS MAKE ME SNEEZE.



I particularly loved the uneven eyes. Uneven eyes = something's wrong. Whether it's fear or disgust or whatever, I love a good uneven eye situation to show tension.

If you can, click on the image and just check out the differences in each face and the sneeze grows.  There's discomfort, irritation, and a complete loss of control.  I love it!

It can be easy to fall into an expression rut, drawing the same eyebrows for anger or disapproval.  But there are SO MANY emotions and SO MANY different ways to show it.  To help myself out, I made myself a little expression chart.


I don't stick to this like a rule book, but it often helps me push my facial expressions a little farther.

But faces aren't the only things that show emotions.  Check out these hands:


The way someone holds their fingers says so much.  Shoulders, leg position, the way one is holding their head ... they're all important ways to show the character's emotions.

Look at this illustration from A RIVER OF WORDS: THE STORY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS by Melissa Sweet.


The face, alone, only tells us that he's pleased.  It's the body that really does the heavy lifting here.  The extreme bend in the legs and the fact that he's barely touching the ground shows how much energy he's putting forth.  He's not walking into the building, he's running with enthusiasm!

What if your character doesn't have a whole lot of face to work with?  Check out this penguin form Oliver Jeffer's LOST & FOUND.


There are no eyebrows, no frowny lips.   Only the slight slouch of its head is used to convey that the penguin is sad, forlorn.  But it's so effective, isn't it?

So we have a facial expression and body language, now the only thing left is STYLE!

This illustration is from Sophie Backall's MISSED CONNECTIONS.


That is a man who loves his bicycle!  

This semi-stylized pose beautifully conveys the love the man has for his bike and it's fabulously composed.  (Look at the negative space under the arm cradling the wheel.  And why aren't his two feet together?  Because the composition needs a little balance on the other side.) 

It's not always about realism.  We're not making text books (unless you are.)  We're still making art.  It's wonderful to be able to push the boundaries of what the body can do in the service of storytelling.

So if you're an illustrator, do a few loose sketches or stick figures to get some good poses, try a few quick options to see what works best.  Play with wide eyes, droopy lids, weird-shaped screaming mouthes, tense fingers, crooked legs, slouched shoulders, and pointed toes.  Options are always good, and the more you play - the further you can push the emotions, the better the art will be.

I'll sign off with a few of my favorite Master Zutsu expressions. (From WINK, THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO NAP.)


Thanks so much for stopping in!

(PS - I kinda can't believe I've managed 30 posts.  Sometimes I simple don't know what I'm going to write about next. :)  If there's anything you'd by curious to know more about in future blog posts, please feel free to ask in the comments section or by email, julie_c@rocketmail.com.)

6 comments:

Mirka Breen said...

PB writers everywhere envy you, for our job as we write is to leave the explicit emotions out of the text, and convey these through action or dialogue. You get to draw what a final concerto between images and words really has to be.

Buzz de Cafe said...

how can he love a bike with no pedals?

Julie_c said...

Hey Mirka - I am a lucky duck. I definitely think it has been a huge asset to be able to present a book proposal with text and art.

Buzz - nobody's perfect. ;)

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Love, love, love the expression chart! My son has autism, which for him causes difficulty in reading facial expressions. We studied lots of Elephant and Piggie books to talk about what "faces" can tell us without words. Going to try using your chart as well, to help explain different ways of expressing emotions! Thank you!

Julie_c said...

Wow Cathy - I hope it helps. Sounds like a great idea!

Nelly said...

Loved your expressions chart, but felt the "disgust" was missing ;-)