The Face Behind The Face

These two faces (below and right) both demonstrate the expression of surprise, but they are poles apart in every other respect. The photograph (below), with its mechanical recording of detail, exemplifies the literal, un-selective approach. By contrast, the shell face (right) has only those details that are essential to identify the expression of surprise. These essential details form the "code" for the expression: an O-shaped mouth and widened eyes.

Face Fear Facial Expressions

Both elements of the code must be present for surprise to be recognized. Removing either will drastically change what we perceive. If, for example, the circles around the eyes (1) are removed (2), the expression is lost. The circles around the dots simulate the surprised eyes' raised lids. In surprise, the eyes have more control over the look than the mouth. When the mouth is widened (3), the expression changes little; when the eyes are widened (4), the astonishment in the face appears to increase. The mouth is crucial in expressing fear. Fear is seen if a blunt wedge shape is substituted for the circle (5).

Fear Facial Expressions Drawings Fear Facial Expressions DrawingsFear Facial Expressions Drawings

How We Recognize Expressions

The art of communicating an emotion does not depend on photographic precision, on the accurate drawing of every wrinkle. Underlying every expression is a sort of code, a limited set of elements that are the real basis of our recognition. For the code to be readable, we do not need to be looking at a detailed rendering of a realistic face, with every feature painted just so. You can make a potato look angry with a pen knife and some toothpicks if you know what you're doing!

The genius of cartoonists and primitive artists has often been expressed in the invention of extraordinary and unexpected graphic substitutes for features and their actions—the elements of the code. The variety of solutions that have appeared is worthy of its own book.

But no matter how abstracted or stylized an interpretation of an expression may be, if it works well, it's partly because it's based on the real nature of the face. We can sense the anatomical truths operating behind the scenes. In the same manner, no amount of skill in rendering or finesse will make a face expressive if the insight into what makes an expression work is missing.

Cracking the Code

The code behind a particular facial expression can be seen as the minimum requirements for us to identify it. Not everything that happens to a face in a particular expression is part of the code. For example, though the nose widens whenever we laugh, it is not part of the laugh code. You can leave the nose out of a rendering of the laugh entirely, and the face will look just as amused. A time-honored method for determining what the code is for a particular expression is trial and error, seeing what you can leave out or stylize and still maintain the effect. In this chapter I point out the elements of the code for each expression; in the appen dix each expression is drawn with the fewest details necessary.

How Much of the Face is Involved?

An expression will only be clear and unambiguous when there is action in both the eyes/brow and the mouth at once. Draw a face with angry eyes but with a neutral mouth, and it might be interpreted several ways by several observers. One might see the face as stern, another as intense, a third as perplexed. Add an angry mouth, and the message of the face will be universally recognized.

Or look in a mirror and smile. Allow as little change in the area around your eyes as you can—keep them open wide. The face you see reflected doesn't look particularly happy; it doesn't look particularly anything, except perhaps silly. An authentic, warm smile combines a smiling mouth with smiling-specific wrinkles around the eyes. If your eyes aren't smiling, you're not happy.

The furrowing of the brow in perplexity or concentration is also a sort of facial expression. In this case, however, the intensity of the emotion involved is hardly of the primal variety. Such everyday expressions almost always involve only part of the face, thus carrying less emotional weight than the six fundamental expressions. The conscious use of the face to help a conversation along also falls into the category of everyday expression and tends to only involve the upper or lower part of the face, not both.

The Issue of Intensity

Is there a code for how intense a particular expression appears? For example, does the lowering of the eyebrow control the intensity of an angry face, and will lowering the eyebrows more make the person look angrier? Will opening the mouth wider make a surprised person look more surprised?

In almost every case, both halves of the face do not have an equal role in controlling the degree of emotion in a particular face. When it comes to degree, the determining factor is usually the eye. The eye by itself will not make an angry or joyous look, but if the other elements required are present, changing only the eye will generally have a much larger impact on the face as a whole than changing any other feature. You can alter the eye to make a face look angrier and angrier, with very little change to anything else; however, though the happy eye is crucial to the happy face, if you alter it too much without changing anything else, it starts to look very peculiar and out of place.

Subtle vs. Extreme

Each of the six expressions are presented in pictures that start with the most intense version and end with the least. As we work with the depiction of varying degrees of emotion, we discover that there are potential difficulties with both the most-overwrought and the least-detectable versions of every facial expression.

At one end, the problem is with be-lievability. Disgust and horror, for example, at some of the extreme levels depicted here, are well beyond most of our pictorial needs, as well as most of our personal experience. But such expressions do exist; further, part of my reason for including them is that the most-contorted faces help us recognize the same elements when they are only subtly present in less-active faces. The face of ordinary disdain contains the shadow of the face of outright physical repulsion.

At the just-barely-there end of the scale, the problem is with recognition —at what point is an expression too tenuous to be noticed? It depends on the specific expression, and .we will see that some expressions seem capable of much more than others in this regard. Sadness and smiling are both particularly vivid with a minimum of outward signs.

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