This post explores how important and how tricky conveying expressions can be for the construction of funnies. It explores the search for the right expression, the teaching of expressions in comics ‘how-to’ manuals, and a possible way to help students with this for future.

On Monday, I got stymied trying to draw a winking magpie and this process drawing indicates the layers of failed erased drawings,

After much overdrawing and overthinking, I gave up and grabbed the manuals for help. Interestingly, these were not much help. I looked at many comics and cartooning manuals to find a simple way to design expressions and each writer/creator had a slightly different approach (Abel and Madden 2008, Bishop 2006, Byrne 2008, Hall 2009, Hart 2013, McCloud 1994, 2006, Woodcock 2007). From comics creator and writer, McCloud’s detailed approach in ‘Making Comics’ (2006) to many but various approaches to simple expression construction. The best for simplicity was from cartoonist Robin Hall (2009), who offered simple round heads to develop expressions. Yet, even these simple versions offer expressions from different angles, which further complicates. To sum up, there appeared to be infinite ways to create comics expressions, but this should surely be as simple as possible to support a beginner.

In Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics,’ (1994) he underlines how simplicity can convey much with his concept of the ‘cartoony style’. He asks, 


(McCloud 1994: 31 extract)

And notes, ‘The fact that your mind is capable of taking a circle, two dots, and a line and turning them into a face is nothing short of incredible!’ (1994:31). Yet, despite this notion of ‘cartoony’ which strips down ‘an image to its essential ‘meaning’, [so] an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t‘ (1994:30, his bold emphasis) in his next book he approaches the design of expression with complex detail, 

(2006:84 extract)

Perhaps this is a style useful for superhero comics and other genres that enjoy a technical and representational approach to comics design, but this does not appear particularly helpful for my search for easy minimalism in funnies construction. My desire is a quick easy shorthand to build the funny idea with fast energy in minimal design and lots of white space. Minimalism seems a strength in funnies construction, as it gives the viewer quick access to the humour with the aid of fewer details to process. The logical starting point is perhaps to begin with McCloud’s basic circle, line and dots, and play with the expressive communication of these elements in a frontal view. Practitioners could experiment with different shapes and styles to develop their styles of face in this frontal view. Then in time, they could then move onto working with their face-style in different angles with new possibilities for expressions.

Dulcie Ball demonstrated perhaps the simplest exercise for developing expressions in an online ‘Sketch Appeal’ session (Ball 2020, Sketch Appeal 2021).  She used an exercise where creators create self-portraits (or ‘selfies’ to use Ball’s term) with  various expressions in reference to emojis. This provides an effective simple support for beginners, where they can draw on their own knowledge of emoticons. In my case, this was tricky, as I didn’t really use emojis at the time of workshop in 2020, so perhaps it would be good to provide a crib sheet of common emoji expressions for older people. I suspect that the younger generations may not need a reference sheet though.

On Tuesday night/Wednesday morning 2/3.3.2021, I attended ‘Epic Sketch Time’s online drawing group from 01:30 to 02:30 GMT. This group consists of professional illustrators and cartoonists in the USA from Washington to Texas. I asked their advice about creating expressions and then mentioned my problem with cheeky expressions. Three of the group instantly had ideas and took turns to share their ideas via their screens.

Bill Morse showed me a photograph of Gwendoline Christie with a particularly cheeky expression. He’s a self-described ‘pack-rat’ and saves all kinds of useful imagery, but I managed to find the image on the Internet anyway (imgur 2021),



Mark Monlux also noted that Christie had a kind of a cat smile and he illustrated this in a simplified online sketch.

Mark also shared that he liked to notice expressions in anime and web comics each day. It sounds like he is always noticing useful elements around him for his own practice. He also suggested that manga uses great simplification for expressions and demonstrated how he prefers the conveyance of ‘joy’ in the manga style. Lastly, Janee Trasler drew for me a wonderful quick cheeky character online that looked roughly like this,


I loved her version (much better than my copy here) which had incredible energy in the fast line work. This cheeky expression also draws on the importance of posture and gesture to construct expression, which is another element to explore in time.

I asked the Epic gang if they had developed their own shorthand for expressions over time and Janee concurred. This is now my aim to develop a useful structured approach to help me and my students develop a shorthand of expressions. After the session, I ordered a book on manga expressions, which arrived today. It is excellent at simplification and I look forward to experimenting with this (Henshubu 2020).

During ‘Epic Sketch’ we work on our own creations and also enjoy some chat while working (on this occasion there was lots of lovely talk about camellia trees and puppies that kept Janee warm through the Texas power cuts). I worked in a relaxed fashion and finished up my ‘zen doodle’ of the magpie without really thinking about it. I drew it directly into my ‘zen doodle’ sketchbook without being precious about elements. I’m not particularly happy with it, but it is done. This is the way to do it – just do it (do it badly) and it gets done, then practice moves forward and skills develop. The ‘magpie is far from perfect, but it communicates its message for me (this is a zen story for me to remember). That is enough. 





Abel, J. and Madden, M. (2008) Drawing Words and Writing Pictures. New York and London: First Second. 

Ball, D. (2020) Sketch Appeal – The Art of Self-Love. London: Hardie Grant Books

Bishop, F. (2006) The Cartoonist’s Bible. Kent, UK: Search Press.

Byrne, J. (2008) Need to know? Cartooning. London: Collins.

Hall, R.(1995) The Cartoonists Workbook. London: A&C Black

Hart, C. (2013) Modern Cartooning. New York: Watson Guptill. 

Henshubu, N. (2020) How to Create Manga – Drawing Facial Expressions. Japan and USA: Tuttle

Imgur (2021) ‘Gwendoline Christie’ available at: (accessed 05.03.2021)

McCloud, S. (2006) Making Comics. New York: HarperCollins.

McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins.

Sketch Appeal (2020) available at: (accessed 05.03.2021)

Woodcock, V. (2007) How to Create Crazy Cartoon Characters. East Sussex: Apple Press.