Tuesday, September 12, 2017

More on Expressions

Facial expression is something humans understand innately. One of the first expressions we see is the smile on our mothers' faces. We understand a frown before the reason is explained. But drawing or painting an expression can be very difficult. The difference between a smile and a grimace is tiny, for example.

Adriaen Brouwer, "The Bitter Draught,"ca. 1635
Genre painters in particular began exploring facial expressions and naturalistic expression in earnest in 17th century Europe. (There may be earlier examples in other cultures, of course.)  One of my favorites is Adriaen Brouwer, a Flemish painter  who who contributed to the development of a particularly enjoyable class of paintings called tronies, which were a kind of generalized portrait, usually a peasant, often wearing an exaggerated facial expression. In particular his painting "The Bitter Draught" is a gem that depicts a peasant who has just swallowed a medical  concoction of some kind. In those days, like now, if it tasted bad it was probably good for you.

Gustav Courbt, "The Desperate Man," 1843-5

A later artist who explored expressions was Gustav Courbet, who lived in the 19th century. Courbet was one of the French artists (along with Millet and others) whose work depicted more gritty real life than had been the case in the 18th century. His work,  along with that of several others, came to be called Realism. Courbet, like Brouwer, produced paintings that featured exaggerated expressions, like "The Desperate Man," which he painted in about 1844. The Desperate Man shows us a near-frantic young man with wild eyes and hair. It is a self-portrait, painted ostensibly to show his talents.

McClelland Barclay, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," ca 1942
In our own times, it has mostly been illustrators who have produced realistic expression in their work.  Unlike artists before the advent of photography, though, we've had the advantage of still photographic images instead of twitchy models for the last century and a half.  Capturing an expression is considerably simpler in the 21st century than it has ever been. Nonetheless, illustrators of the 20th century in particular didn't substitute photography for on the spot sketches and notes. Many of the most prominent illustrators of the last century used both, often carefully staging their models (Norman Rockwell, for example). The use of exaggerated expressions in advertising was particularly important during wartime, beginning with World War I.

One of my own interests has been to improve renderings of facial expression in my work. Some time back I mentioned Gary Faigin and his book about facial expression. For a long while I've worked on various kinds of looks and expressions, similar to the six basic ones Faigin lists in his book. But sometimes you come across a particular look or gesture that isn't one of those six. It might be a look like that in Barclay's illustration from World War II above or a strange look of madness and horror, as can be seen in Repin's famous painting of Ivan the Terrible.

"The Fury," ca. 2015
This is a drawing I did a while back showing a woman shouting, probably in fury, at someone. The basic structure of the head is exaggerated by the wide open mouth and lowered jaw. Whatever the reason for this woman's anger, I would not like to be on the receiving end. 
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