In this tutorial, we’ll experiment with different ways to draw cartoon mouths. We’ll also review how the mouth works and see how this understanding can help an artist simplify, exaggerate, and experiment with stylistic renditions of the mouth and face.
While stylistic drawing will be our focus, in this tutorial, references can still be of great value. This applies to both analyzing how the face “works” and aesthetic inspiration! Remember to use references that are properly sourced.
1. Understanding Cartoon Mouth Basics
Let’s begin with some of the basics of how the mouth is constructed. While we won’t focus on realism in this tutorial, I find it important to keep in mind how the face and its parts work, even when drawing stylistically. Think of it like studying the rules so you can strategically break them!
The upper and lower lips can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Let’s look at some ways we can construct them.
The upper lip often has a variation in contour called a cupid’s bow (in pink, below). Ovals can prove to be helpful guidelines here—notice how they help refine things like the dip between the lips, as well as their depth.
Here are some examples of how you can use the same general construction to draw lips with varying shapes and proportions.
The mouth is quite flexible. This can be a particularly enjoyable feature to experiment with when drawing a cartoon mouth, because there’s so much room for exaggeration! However, we can still keep that same construction in mind, when the muscles in the face move the lips.
Like the lips, the teeth are not in a “straight line” on the face—they, too, are a rounded part of the skull. While teeth can vary in appearance, this is generally a good rule of thumb to keep in mind.
Now, let’s look at the anatomy of the face, as it relates to the mouth.
I like to use the different parts of the face for visual references and even as units for measurement. This is particularly useful when drawing from sight, but it can also come in handy when drawing stylistically.
For example, the eyes tend to sit about halfway down the head, with one eye’s width in between. The center is a good reference point for the bridge of the nose, and the mouth is typically in the bottom quarter of the face. I can use these different features to gauge their relationship to one another.
The same applies when looking at the face from different angles.
Again, keep in mind that the lips have depth. Even if the subject you’re drawing has smaller, thicker, thinner, or fuller lips, there are likely still varied contours in comparison to the surrounding parts of the face.
Notice that whether I opt to emphasize the lips with contours or leave them implied, they still have the same, oval-inspired shape.
2. Simplifying a Cartoon Mouth
Cartoon artwork often uses simplification as a part of the desired aesthetic. For example, the artist might omit part of certain facial features that we’d normally see if we were recording our subject realistically.
Note the following examples. All three have stylized and simplified mouths. A “real” mouth doesn’t look this way—yet it still generally reads that way to the viewer and conveys emotion too.
So, why do we read imagery like this as a “mouth” when that’s not what an open mouth naturally looks like?
We know this by association—imagery can often relate to or communicate preconceived concepts and ideas. This is why a simple drawing, like the one below, “means” mouth, even if that’s not what a human mouth actually looks like. It’s what the image itself communicates.
We can use this premise to our advantage when experimenting with simplified and stylistic renditions of the mouth. This could mean anything from complete omission of some aspects to selectively minimizing parts of the mouth.
3. Exaggerating a Cartoon Mouth
One of my favorite parts of drawing a cartoon mouth is exaggeration. We can take an expression and make it ten times as big, to further convey emotion or an idea.
Here’s an example of two surprised faces. The first looks surprised, but the second one looks really surprised—we’ve upped the intensity here, and the two communicate quite differently.
Take a moment to think about how the face moves. There are a lot of muscles there! While they are not the focus of this tutorial, note what happens when you smile to one side. The face generally “squishes” when we do that, indicated in blue.
Point being, the mouth is not independent—the face and its features are connected. I would recommend staying away from thinking of the mouth as an independent “line”. It’s an opening that moves, stretches, and affects other parts of the face.
We can also abstract and exaggerate the mouth aesthetically. For example, we could remove the cupid’s bow and instead work with circular shapes, or we could omit the outermost contour for the bottom lip.
Remember, we can use our knowledge of preconceived ideas to break rules yet still clearly communicate an idea to the viewer. There’s no “wrong answer” here, so experiment freely—the deciding factors here are your goals.
4. Bringing It All Together
Now, let’s take the concepts we’ve discussed and put them together, in a step-by-step example.
Start by laying out your subject’s basic proportions. Here are three varied examples that experiment with different proportions. Think about the shape of the face—what might you exaggerate or simplify?
While they aren’t necessarily true to life, these stylized proportions still draw from associations the viewer will likely make with the face. Remember that these proportions can be exaggerated to match your aesthetic preferences and goals.
In the case of the mouth, I often like to start with the contour where the upper and lower lips meet. Use your guidelines to place the mouth accordingly.
Consider which features you might omit, exaggerate, or stylize—will you include the upper lip? The lower lip? The slight curvature where the lips meet? Experimenting with the aesthetic is one of the most fun parts!
While we’re not necessarily going to record all the contours we might see if we were drawing realistically, those building blocks from earlier in the tutorial still apply. Even if we completely omit part of the lips, in terms of line, we can still imply width and depth.
Normally, I would not draw the mouth first—that’s for the sake of example, in this tutorial. As mentioned earlier, I like to use the different parts of the face as visual references. Where do I want the emphasis? Are the features working together? I like to ask myself questions like that as I work.
Here are some examples of how one might continue to push these faces further.
Keep in mind, again, that the mouth can be quite flexible, and, when drawing a cartoon mouth, we can take that premise even further. Have fun with it!
Normally, I would determine the expression I wanted from the beginning of my process, but let’s adjust these faces for the sake of example. When it comes to mouths, I often like to take a look in the mirror—try making the face you’re trying to illustrate! It’s a quick and easy reference!
And There You Have It!
In this tutorial, we’ve experimented with stylistic renditions of the mouth. Drawing a cartoon mouth can be a lot of fun, with a lot of possibilities for experimentation! When in doubt, take a look at references (even a mirror can be helpful for observing how the mouth moves). Good luck, and happy drawing!
If you enjoyed this tutorial, here are some others that you might also like!