I'm trying to create a line drawing of my friend Steve, I was Steve's best man at the wedding where the photo was taken. I like the shot because the smile it subtle but definitely there.

I've been tweaking the image below in illustrator for at least 2 hours and Steve still doesn't look that happy.

What is it about the image that I've got wrong, Eyes and mouth are pretty much exactly as the original. Any help is much appreciated.

Line drawing and photo of Steve

Version 2 - Incorporating answers so far

Been away and had another crack, Steve looks cooler now but still not exactly delighted to be there. It's an improvement. As many of you said "it's all in the eyes" and while they are still not perfect they are much better. Feedback welcome.

enter image description here


5 Answers 5


One of the simplest methods of separating and isolating features or parts of a face is putting your hand over the rest.

I think that the smile is in fact displaying perfectly fine, as you can see here:

smile only

Only when you isolate the eyes, do you notice the problem well:

eyes only

Those eyes could say many things to me, but happy is not one of them.

Now simply by adding some of the indicators of a smile everything changes significantly, as our face creases in common places, especially around the eye, and they are entirely visible in the photograph.

one eye more smiley

Without finishing the other eye, you can notice the difference made by a few more details around the eyes:

one eye good, the other not

There is a reason why it's been said that

The eyes are a window to the soul

They say a lot more than I think you give them credit for. I think all of the answers are valid to this, and will help you to perfect it, but I think the eyes are the key component you're missing in this Illustration.

  • What a great answer. Thanks for taking the time to put so much thought into it.
    – Tom Styles
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 14:56

It doesn't look "bad".

But the reason the expression isn't conveyed very well is the lack of subtle definition.

The expression on Steve's face is a subtle grin or smirk. This is primarily expressed through the shadows on his face, not the existing hard edges. The shadows under the eyes, on the right side of his face, and under the nose are what defines his expression.

Line art is often not about following the subject completely accurately. You often have to forget the original and edit the artwork to convey what you want to convey.

  • 1
    I think its mostly this. Not only the shadows as Scott pointed out but also the lips. Right now your "lips" is actually only the shadow between the lips. You need to give them some sort of volume in order to define their form.
    – Ryan
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 3:13
  • Thanks for the advice, I'll have another crack tonight and post my results.
    – Tom Styles
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 11:22

I think what you need is more definition in areas where detail is needed, to define form. Notice that you haven't included a line to indicate the left hand jaw, or indication of a pocket, this may make it look slightly off.

Hope this helps

  • Pocket and Jaw added, See update, And Thanks.
    – Tom Styles
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 17:00

I think it's very close but there are three subtle details here that add a touch of sadness to the smile:

(left and right below are the viewer's left and right)

  1. The way the line that represents his mouth thins as it gets closer to the viewer. It looks a little bit like "pursed lips", like his mouth muscles are clenched tightly the way someone does when they are tense or trying to restrain emotion - like he's trying to smile but his facial muscles are tensed. Even out the thickness of that line, and it might help.
  2. The combination of raised right eyebrow and un-raised right eyelid sloping away. A slightly raised eyebrow normally expresses interest - but the eye itself is if anything less open than might be normal and dips outwards. Together (to me at least), this combination of slightly raised eyebrow and slightly narrow, outward-dipping eye suggests tired disappointment. Eye shapes that slope outward suggest worry, puzzlement, fear or sadness (while the opposite, sloping inwards, suggests anger or intensity). Smooth and round the kink in the right eye line, which is emphasising the outward slope (in the photo, it's more of a curve than a kink), and maybe extend it up and right slightly, so he looks very slightly more open-eyed and interested.

  3. The little dip at the far right of the mouth line, that looks a little bit like he's forcing a smile through a frown. In the photo, the detail it corresponds to is a crease in the skin created by his smile, which extends both above and below the mouth. If you cover that little crease above the mouth in the photo, it suddenly isn't clear that he's smiling - the expression turns neutral. So, make sure in the drawing it does extend above the mouth slightly, so it's processed as a crease caused by a smiling mouth, not a frowny dip in the shape of a mouth. Make it subtle, but make sure it does point up above the line at least slightly.

Maybe also try lifting the eyebrows very very slightly - they're very close to the eyes which could like a 'heavy brow' which is associated with a tired, haggard demeanour.

  • Great points for 2 and 3, I'l get right on that, and post the results later. Not sure about the lips @ryan would like to see them thicker. I'll experiment. Thanks again. Tom
    – Tom Styles
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 11:29
  • Thicker or thinner is fine - the point with the lips is that they should be more consistent or symmetrical thickness. At the moment the part closest to the viewer looks tighter than the part further away, which makes it look clenched or tense. Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 11:41

Some of the detail showing that his facial muscles are contracting which we instinctively notice are missing. I'm not much of an illustrator, or an anatomy expert, but I'm guessing the big details missing are around the cheeks and eyes. As to how you can pick which ones are most important and how to represent them in a line illustration without the guy looking like a wrinkly old man is beyond me, but that's why I'm no illustrator.

The solution's somewhere in how to represent motion/contracted muscles in a minimal illustration, then picking the most important features that represent this.

  • Indeed, as others have said the subtlety of the smile is what makes it so hard to capture. Thanks for the input.
    – Tom Styles
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 14:57

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