Pixton’s Ultimate Guide to Customizing Character Facial Expressions

April 28, 2017

Pixton’s Ultimate Guide to Customizing Character Facial Expressions

Facial expressions might seem like minor details in your comic, but the truth is, they’re incredibly important. After all, facial expressions are often the cue which tells us the focus and emotional state of an individual.

In Pixton, we can control a character’s facial expressions by adjusting 3 particular features:

  • Eyebrows
  • Eyes
  • Mouth

Using these, we can create countless expressions which will spark life and charm into your characters.

Facial Expressions Within the Comic Panel

Let’s see the difference customizing these seemingly small details can make to your comics. Can you identify the issues?

Example 1. A teacher gives instruction to a group of young students.
Example 2. A young woman and man chat while they drink coffee.
Example 3. An elderly man scolds a boy speeding along on a bicycle.
Example 4. A woman is surprised to encounter a ghost in a graveyard.
Example 5. A police officer chases a bank-robber down the street.

Let’s check out the tools at our disposal.

First, click on the character you’d like to work with. Then, click on the green “Edit Expression” button to the left of the panel. You may also want to click on the “Zoom In” button at the top-right of the panel, to get a closer look at your character’s face. [1]

Click and hold on your character’s eye. Take a look at the selection menu that pops up. There are a number of options here — wide open, tired, squinting, closed, closed tightly, etc. Each eye can be customized individually this way. [2]

Now, instead of clicking and holding your character’s eye, click and drag the eye’s pupil in any direction. This allows you to pull your character’s gaze wherever you need it. Both eyes are affected this same way. [3]

Next, click and hold on your character’s eyebrow. Several options pop up in the selection menu — pointed down, pointed up, raised, and at rest. Use these eyebrows to compliment the emotion in your character’s eyes. Like the eyes, each brow can be customized individually.

The Eyebrow Expressions pop-up menu.

And finally, click and hold on your character’s mouth. We’ve got a bunch of choices in the mouth selection menu — frowning, wavy, smirking, wide open, tongue-out, etc.

The Mouth Expressions pop-up menu.

Let’s take a look back at our 5 examples. How can we use these tools to their most well-suited?

Let’s begin with the first. Is the character speaking? Let’s find an open-mouth option which suits the situation.

Panel 1, modified.

Next, let’s look at the direction of the eyes. What is the character’s focus? Be sure your character is interacting with the elements around her, so there’s no visual disconnect in your panel. In this instance, the characters are interacting, one is listening while the other speaks, so let’s have them looking at one another.

Panel 2, modified.

For the third example, don’t be too broad. This character is upset, correct? But exactly what kind of upset? The situation and the body language lead us to believe he’s very angry, so let’s find a look that reflects that.

Panel 3, modified.

In this example, we’re part-way there. What happens when we’re surprised? Sure, we may open our mouths, but what else? What affect does this have on our eyes? Let’s finish the look. Check out your options and see what works best.

Panel 4, modified.

What happens when we go a little too far? Exaggeration can be effective when it comes to cartoons, as long as it serves a purpose. Here’s an instance where the expression goes a little too far in a particular direction which doesn’t quite suit the situation. Let’s reconsider what’s going on here, and dial it back.

Panel 5, modified.

The Full Impact of Facial Expressions on Your Comic Strip

Now, let’s step back and take a look at a comic strip which could use some work. How do all of these elements come together?

How can we improve this comic strip?

For starters, let’s look at a comic strip script. It’s always good to start with a clear, concise script. This way, we don’t lose sight of our original intentions.

It calls for a 3-panel strip. An incapacitated superhero is being lowered into a presumably beast-infested tank of water by his arch-nemesis.


PANEL 1 -- Super-Louis dangles helplessly from a chain, wrists tied, over a large tank of water. Dr. Rotcod approaches, holding a large remote control device.
 DR. ROTCOD: How long has it been, Super-Louis?

PANEL 2 -- Super-Louis panics as he drops closer to the water. Dr. Rotcod raises his arms in victory.
 DR. ROTCOD: After all these years, I’ve FINALLY got you!

PANEL 3 -- Super-Louis is now halfway into the water. He is relieved to find the tank is merely filled with harmless goldfish. Dr. Rotcod lowers his head in disappointment.
 DR. ROTCOD: Of course, today’s supervillain budgets aren’t what they were back then.

Here we go; we’ll use the first frame as our template.

Our hero hangs above a perilous-looking tank, as the villain proudly proclaims that he finally managed to capture him. Let’s modify their expressions such that:

  • The hero is looking directly downward, frightened of the danger below him.
  • The villain smiles a wicked smile as he looks at the helpless hero.

Panel 1, modified.

And then we move onto the second frame, essentially a heightened version of the first.

  • The hero is now lower, his feet nearly touching the water.
  • The hero continues to look down, now terrified.
  • The villain cackles maniacally. So intensely, in fact, his eyes are closed this time.

Panel 2, modified.

Of course, we change things up significantly in the final frame.

  • The hero is now in the water. However, there is no longer any danger.
  • The hero is at ease. His eyes have lifted, and he breathes a sigh of relief.
  • The villain, recalling budget setbacks, is clearly discouraged. His eyes show fatigue as he looks at the floor.

Panel 3, modified.

Here’s a trick: If your characters’ facial expressions are clear and in-tune with the action of your scene, you can remove the speech balloons and still enjoy a discernible (albeit somewhat vague) story.

The modified comic strip.
The modified comic strip, minus speech balloons.

Also worth noting is that Pixton includes a “Preset Expressions” selection menu for your convenience.

On the same “Edit Expression” screen, click on the bottom-left “Preset Expressions” button.

You’ll be able to scroll through dozens of pre-made facial expressions, or enter a word in the “keyword” box to narrow down your search. We encourage you to use these when a quick solution is required. Just be sure your characters’ eyes are pointed in the appropriate direction afterwards.

The Preset Facial Expressions pop-up menu.

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