How to paint a painful expression

John Petersen reveals his tips on painting the look of extreme pain without using reference material

calm to pain expression

Use a calm-looking face as a starting point that you can refer to as you construct the new expression.

Discovering how to draw various facial expressions is no easy task. And not using reference is a sacrilege as an illustrator! I've taken workshops with some of the most legendary artists in the industry and they are the first to tell you to get some sort of reference, even if it's just making faces in the mirror. But if you can't, there are some characteristics that apply to any creature with human-like facial features.

painful expression without reference

The different areas of the face change dramatically as it contorts in pain. Wrinkles become more pronounced and everything scrunches and stretches.

When a face is contorted in pain, the eyes squint shut, producing wrinkles, and the eyebrows come up at the centre, wrinkling the forehead (1). The teeth are clenched and bared, the lips part, and the corners of the mouth widen and turn down (2).

The nostrils flare into a snarl and the nasolabial sulcus becomes more pronounced and comes up and out (3). The head tilts forward, tucking in the chin and producing transverse wrinkles across the neck (4). Finally, the neck tendons bulge and tighten (5).

Just think about the last time you stubbed your toe, and channel that expression into your character!

For this example I draw a normal, expressionless face, and then paint some key landmarks over the normal features to map out how some of them will change. Then I use those landmarks to construct my character’s pained expression. Lots of quick, high-energy strokes will also help convey the mood.

Tip: Broad brush for hair

When painting hair, avoid painting individual strands. Start with a broad brush and block in large shapes, subdividing as you go.

Watch the full tutorial

Words: John Petersen

An education in biological and pre-medical illustration led US-based John to become an animator and designer at Engineering Systems, Inc. He’s also a freelance illustrator. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX issue 114.

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