Creative Communication: Cartooning for Emotional Literacy

Plenty of cartoonists have offered ‘how-to-draw’ workshops on ways to capture emotion in cartoon faces.  Often the ‘workshop’ is more of a demonstration or performance – the style is quick and sketchy, a quick fix aimed at entertainment rather than learning, and usually intended to promote the cartoonist’s latest book or other product. Of course, plenty of kids enjoy it, it satisfies the cultural expectation, and fair play to the cartoonists, who after all are just trying to earn a living.

However, this approach doesn’t necessarily investigate the dynamics of emotional communication or promote deeper reflection, and the human emotional experience (as you’ve likely noticed by now) is nuanced and complex. This article looks at some of the work I developed in classrooms between 1990 – 2014, using cartooning to help children develop emotional literacy.

Ethos / pedagogic intent

Emotions are often confusing, especially if you don’t have a vocabulary to describe them. Children (and bigger humans) should always be encouraged to develop effective ways to think about and communicate what they feel. All the moreso as we continue to recognise and understand the complex needs of people living with trauma, neurological difference and cultural dissonance.

I’m not so naive as to suggest that drawing cartoons will ‘save the world’, but if the act of drawing helps us think – build more creative neural networks – then it’s an excellent vehicle for stimulating brain health & learning. Research into drawing & learning has been steadily growing (eg see UK initiative The Big Draw), and reflects my own observations throughout 20+ years of teaching cartoon drawing as a thinking and learning tool.

Over those years, I witnessed many remarkable spontaneous outcomes in the classroom: children who were usually socially withdrawn, discovering an unexpected new confidence; children who struggled with prolonged focus, being completely immersed for an hour; one boy became very vocal after months of being non-verbal in the classroom. From time to time I still hear from a parent or teacher many years later, that the positive impact had been enduring & life-changing in some way.

During the late 1990s, I began tailoring my cartoon drawing workshops to explore emotional communication with children & adults.  I carefully deconstructed the drawing process, and modeled it sequentially, so that any student could easily adapt & modify the techniques to suit their ability. Drawing is mostly an act of perception, and mindful attention. Through the focused attention of building lines, students can be inspired to ask deeper questions about themselves, how they perceive, the assumptions they make and the stories they tell themselves.

Over time I developed two main learning ‘units’: FACIAL EXPRESSIONS and BODY LANGUAGE. Both components could be adapted as stand-alone workshops or in combination, and compressed or extended on in various formats, depending on the context.

In 2014 I compiled this work into a suite of sequential classroom resources, as part of a larger set of drawing-based resources using my thINK Draw Connect Learn process.  The Emotional Communication unit includes interactive workbook exercises and sets of laminated cards, to help students develop their own stories using facial expression & body language.

More recently I’ve presented this work at conferences, for school psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists & other child carers working within education and social services.


In the Facial Expressions component we draw simple but versatile cartoon faces to demonstrate a wide range of complex & subtle emotions as well as the more extreme & obvious.  Using various combinations of eyes & mouths, we delve into each of the four main emotions (happiness / sadness / fear / anger) as a wide-ranging spectrum or scale (eg from slightly worried to scared to panic), and also consider expressions that may be a mix of conflicting feelings.

As we draw together, we discuss how some expressions can be interpreted in many ways, and I demonstrate how small changes in a line can radically enhance or diminish the strength of a drawn emotion. We look at how subtle variables such as altering eye direction can communicate connection or avoidance, or whether a feeling has an outward or inward expression.

When time permits, the Facial Expressions component can also include extension work, such as sequential art (creating a simple comic strip without text, telling the story via facial expressions), simple animation (flipbooks), character design and more. In the example below, we can observe and discuss how the emotional dynamics of two characters change as they move through time. We can imagine a complex human story even without details such as age, gender or race. Students add these details later and think about the context they create (see examples below):


Building on the Facial Expressions unit, the Body Language component looks at how bodies express intra- and inter-personal dynamics. We draw characters with simple bodies, placing them in familiar scenarios in which they are interacting & responding emotionally to each other, through their body language & facial expressions. 

When we first build the drawing together, I deliberately leave out details such as hair and clothing, so that the characters are not defined by age or gender. This is to open up discussion about assumptions & stereotypes, and to consider other points of view. Often this inspires deeper thinking about behaviour & power dynamics, bullying & respect, and gender (or other) stereotypes.

In the simple examples below, we draw the characters’ bodies first, leaving the faces blank. We talk about what feelings the bodies suggest on their own, without other information. I then demonstrate several different combinations of faces, to show how even slight changes to the expressions will radically alter the story.

This example looks at how a body can express its energy expanding or shrinking, depending on whether limbs are extended or retracted, hands are open or clenched, and so on:

This scenario focuses on subtle connections between the characters, such as the hand resting gently on the shoulder. I use this to demonstrate how eye direction (where you draw the little dots) can communicate whether the characters are connecting directly with each other, with themselves or somewhere else:

In this scenario, how we interpret the body language relies very much on the facial expressions, which can radically change the story being told. Power dynamics shift depending on which characters are expressing uncertainty, shyness, embarrassment, intentions (sincere or otherwise), and feigned or genuine disinterest. Look carefully at the student examples below, and notice which elements change in each:

By adding more characters, there’s an opportunity to develop more complex interactions and stories. The ‘Laughing Scenario‘ is useful for examining stereotypes such as ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘boys don’t comfort each other’, ‘girls don’t bully boys’ and so on.

The ‘Whispering Scenario‘ has several complex interactions, and while at first glance the dynamics may seem obvious, the interconnecting stories depend very much on our interpretations. If the first two characters are a girl & boy respectively, Character 2 may seem conceited or overly confident, or he may be genuinely proud of Character 1, the girl by his side. But she is clearly uncomfortable – is she embarrassed to be with him? Has she been forced into something? Is she uncomfortable because of Characters 3 & 4? Character 4 appears jealous, but of whom? And while character 3 is obviously enjoying stirring up trouble, what is their motive for doing so?

One fascinating interpretation came from a student who suggested it was a family scene, depicting a father (Character 2) and his three sons. The father is making a big deal of one of his sons (Character 1), who is uncomfortable with the attention (why?). Character 4 is jealous, either because he desperately wants his father’s approval, or maybe even because he has previously been the father’s favourite. Character 3 might be a rebel in the family, trying to manipulate the situation to covertly attack the father. Shakespearean themes, to be sure.

Generating a creative learning environment

In these workshops I always encouraged interaction and discussion as we drew together.  Students could compare emotional descriptors and practice specific language for more subtle emotions, building on existing emotional vocabulary. This created an environment of shared learning for myself and the group.

I aimed to cultivate rapport, empathy, honest communication, humour & curiosity in my teaching approach, as it seemed to help people relax into the creative process, especially for anyone lacking confidence in drawing. Often, as they experienced more confidence, they felt safe enough to reflect, either privately or to the group.  

I chose a bold simple style of line to minimise distracting details, so students could clearly see how each line moves, and creates relationships with other lines, when we draw. In deconstructing the process of drawing, we explored emotions as a system of visual symbols or building blocks, like an alphabet, able to communicate complex and sophisticated ideas. The modular nature of these building blocks means the system is infinitely creative – a ‘perpetual possibility generator’.

Teachers have applied these programs to their curriculum in all kinds of ways:

  • Creative expression
  • Character design
  • Sequential thinking
  • Storytelling
  • Investigating (and challenging) stereotypes
  • Accessing difficult emotions
  • Non-verbal communication / visual literacy
  • Using drawing for mindfulness
  • Simple animation

Evolutionary threads

The prototype of my Emotional Communication workshops for schools emerged in 2000, as part of an extended Artist In Residence collaboration at Pembroke Primary School in Melbourne’s Eastern Suburbs. It was also a natural extension of my deeper personal journey of the previous decade, developing and honing my abilities in emotional intelligence and mindful awareness.

Throughout the 1990s I explored and trained in many dynamic psychotherapies that provided me with a rich, deeply insightful emotional vocabulary, from the raw & primal to the infinitely subtle. Through these experiences I also developed a more compassionate understanding of emotions from a universal or archetypal perspective, as our shared humanity. This decade of deep personal transformation permanently altered the motivation and direction of all my creative work, and set the foundations for my desire to teach – or more accurately, to share and facilitate processes of creative self-discovery.

As a result, I spent much of the 90s presenting a diverse range of creative workshops, all with a core focus of helping people access well-being & personal development through creative discovery. Cartoon-drawing was just one aspect of this work, and led to collaborations with Youth Services and similar organisations, in the role of creative mentor.

I had no understanding of autism back then, but my lived experiences of depression, suicidality and emotional sensitivity helped me empathise with young people who were struggling, whether the setting was marginalised youth or private school privilege, remedial or gifted education. I just approached them all as human beings trying to make sense of things, like the rest of us. The emotional vocabulary I had acquired also helped me to better understand behavioural signals in a group, and respond to them with compassionate honesty.

Pembroke’s then-Assistant Principal Kate Perkins was a passionate advocate for the role of creativity in children’s learning and emotional development, and she recognised my ability to connect with children in this context.

Kate had a remarkable ability to utilise resources, and by connecting my skills to various educational grants (Artist In Residence, Numeracy and Literacy, Mentoring programs etc), she was able to keep me involved in the school throughout 2000. Over the course of that year we collaborated to build an arts & well-being focus across the whole school from K – 6, using drawing as a key, or springboard, to further exploration within the school’s curriculum. 

An inspirational mentor, Kate was always looking to creatively subvert the conservative limitations of the education system (and local culture), while working within them – and keeping the children firmly as the central focus.  Back then, the school community was largely a ‘low-income demographic’, meaning that for many of the kids, school was their only refuge from generational poverty, abuse and emotional chaos…..all the things no child should suffer, and which you would hope an intelligent and caring society might have been able to improve by now, decades down the track.

There were many small victories and lasting impacts that year, but one of my roles was mentoring some socially-withdrawn boys to design and layout the school’s inaugural Yearbook. It contains at least one drawing from every child in the school. You can view the Yearbook at the bottom of this page.

Programs addressing bullying and resilience were a popular focus in schools at that time, and on the back of my work at Pembroke, I was approached in 2001 by Wesley College’s Glen Waverley campus to develop a program for their Yr 7 students. With the school’s ongoing support I continued to refine the program and ran it annually as a week-long residency for 15 years.

I ran similar annual residencies at Rowville Secondary (2010 – 2014) and Friends School (2010 – 2015), and you can view some inspired examples of student outcomes here: Friends School, Wesley College.

Since 2001 I’ve presented compressed versions of this format in countless primary & secondary schools, and adapted it to specialised programs for groups such as autistic, dyslexic & “twice gifted” students, adults recovering from addiction and young adults living with mental illness.