Monday, January 06, 2020

FACIAL EXPRESSIONS

Many contemporary illustrators don't devote much effort to capturing facial expressions.  They either rely on a "photo-illustration" to do the heavy lifting, or they draw a simplified face and write in the desired expression.

Here, famed illustrator Seymour Chwast shows us the expression of someone "overcome with emotion" in a 2010 illustration for Dante's Divine Comedy:


And you'd never recognize these facial expressions from Reuben award winner Roz Chast if she didn't label them for us: irony, sarcasm and passive aggression. 


So I find it instructive that every collection of reference clippings I've ever seen from artists working earlier in the 20th century included a substantial file of faces with a wide range of expressions.
















These files of facial expressions show us how crucial these artists believed expressions were to their work.  



From the wildest extremes...




...to subtlest smirk:


These artists felt it important to understand how facial expressions worked.

You also discover many pictures of the faces of pretty girls.  Those expressions include 47 varieties of demurely lowered eyelids:


That tells you something about the era too.  

But in this post I'd rather focus on examples of the more fun animated faces I found.








18 comments:

Gianmaria Caschetto said...

Thanks David, for this illuminating post (as usual). I've grown up reading comic books and I always admired those cartoonists who really went to town with facial expressions.
Yet I wonder if things work differently in comics, due to the sequential nature of the art. Every panel works in the context of the picture that preceded it and that will follow, and the text that may or may not be there.
Do you think that the visual grammar of comics is such that it allows for more stylization than illustration? I know you do not particularly admire Art Spiegelman as a draftsman, but do the blank expressions of the characters prevent in any way MAUS from reaching dramatic heights? Would it be any more moving or compelling or terrifying if the characters where more expressive? (it’s not a rhetorical question I’d really like to hear your opinion on it)
Or take Schultz’s Peanuts. The characters have a very specific (perhaps even limited) range of facial expressions, but this did not stop the cartoonist from reaching significant depths with his oeuvre.
On the other hand, I remember what a breath of fresh air it was when I discovered comic book artist Kevin Maguire in the early nineties, who was able to draw any imaginable facial expression on his somewhat silly superheroes, and still drawing them on model.
I suppose that comics, at least to a degree, can rely on the Kuleshov effect and let the readers project their feelings on to the characters, whereas illustrations needed to dictate it.
This skill has nowadays become a rarity, developed only by artists who take pride in rendering every possible nuance of the human emotional experience.

Ignacio Noé said...

Great comment. Really interesting topic.

Gianmaria Caschetto said...

Ignacio, I've checked out your blogspot: I'm impressed!

Jan said...

"Why isn't everything how I like it, goddamit?!"
an old man yells at yet more clouds.

Seriously, I would love this blog, if you just posted the pictures. Without the constant whining about current artists you don't get. (though "current", in this case not so much. Roz Chast is fucking 65 years old. You're just even more of a dinosaur than that.)

Expressions are very important, yes. But some of your examples look mighty goofy, man.
(also not knowing the first "bad" one, I suspect it might be a joke that flew over your head.)

kev ferrara said...

The most beautiful thing about these heads, for me, is the unique handwriting of all the artists. This is the aspect of art that has been most thoroughly obliterated by Photoshop's takeover.

Smurfswacker said...

Shorn of its righteous indignation, Jan's comment still makes a valid point. It's worth noting the degree of exaggeration in most of these expressions. I point this out not as a criticism but merely as an observation. It was a common stylistic choice during the 30s and 40s; less so in the 50s. I speculate that illustrators (or, more properly clients) wanted to "sell" expressions to catch a prospective buyer's interest. Almost every "how to illustrate" book of the time stressed how magazine illustrations were designed to sell the mag to someone idly flipping through it on the newsstand. By the time the reader got the magazine home the job was long since done. I notice that story illustrations of the 20s tended to be subdued and decorative. I wonder if the more dramatic action artists, like those from the Cornwell and Wyeth schools,boosted sales numbers and led editors to ask for more drama. Inevitably this extended to facial expressions as well.

Another thing that fascinates me about this sort of illustration is the extra effort many artists put into "character" faces. Heroes and heroines had to fit rather narrow definitions of "handsome" and "pretty," which didn't mix well with exaggeration. It was with the secondary characters--old people, barkeeps, cops, salesmen--that an artist could really pull out the stops.

Saber Tooth Tiger Mike said...

Jan's response is indicative of the current response of most working artists when they are compared to older artists.

"oh, stop being an old man. " "Um, some of those expressions look goofy."

These are ad hominems that have the purpose of deflecting attention away from any criticism of their art skills and the general lack of respect that illustrators have today compared to illustrators from the golden age.

David Apatoff said...

Gianmaria Caschetto-- All good questions. I do agree that things can "work differently" in comics , just as they can work differently in animation or in different types of illustration. There are plenty of illustrators I admire who employ simplistic or crude facial expressions by choice-- perhaps because of the medium they use or the style they've adopted. John Held, Jr., Rockwell Kent, Lynd Ward and Milton Caniff come to mind. Howard Pyle's medieval style drawings certainly used very basic faces, but that was part of their "look."

For me, there's no one formula. There are many kinds of greatness, and we always have to be receptive to the possibility of new kinds of greatness. I tend to ask myself: 1.) has the artist chosen a worthy mission (one that requires judgment and taste and imagination, one that improves upon the blank page) and 2.) how well has the artist succeeded in their mission? I don't fault Art Spiegelman for not drawing like Alex Raymond, I only ask how well Spiegelman has succeeded at what he set out to accomplish. Is he the best he can be, working with those objectives? I think Maus poses a very interesting case; for me, the powerful story does most of the work. The accompanying illustrations make a contribution to the extent they show a raw, harsh line like barbed wire (rather than the elegant curlicues of more sophisticated pen and ink illustrators) and when they heighten the horror of the story by contrasting it with images of little talking mice. The problem for me starts when Spiegelman attempts to do things he lacks the talent to do. For example, when he tries to show facial expressions (such as rage) they just look clownish and inadequate for the story. When he tries to use perspective or other sophisticated drawing techniques he doesn't integrate them well in support of the story, and it reveals how limited his bag of tricks really is. Many an artist has done well by tailoring their mission around their personal weaknesses, but in order to keep that up they have to be aware of and respect their limitations.

I think that some comic artists excelled at conveying the subtlest and most nuanced expressions (such as Leonard Starr: https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2015/12/an-artists-attic-part-3.html ). Some animators have done the same. ( I am awed by the facial expressions of Nigel, the mean cockatoo in Rio, and by what the animators in Wall-E were able to do with simplified robot faces). So it's not, in my opinion, that illustration requires more explicit facial expressions while cartoons rely upon the Kuleshov rule. Different artists can set different ambitions for themselves. What I reject is what I perceive to be a current trend of lazy artists using words to patch the gaping holes in their drawing ability. They simply "write in" a facial expression or a concept when their visual talent falls short. In fairness, much of today's audience is too inattentive or ignorant to appreciate what is being lost. I do, and I try to justify my view on this blog.

Ignacio Noé-- Thanks for your comment. Like Gianmaria, I respect your work.

David Apatoff said...

Jan--I'd urge you to check out the insults from some of the talented insulters on this blog.  If you want to make an insult stick, you'll have to do better than  "Adults are icky" or "My generation likes pictures more than words."  Otherwise people just smile at you indulgently. You'll find plenty of harsh comments from people making meaningful, persuasive criticisms of this blog.  Study their work; if it's too much for you to absorb at this stage of your life, please come back and give it a second chance when you're a little older. I think you'll find it worthwhile.

Kev Ferrara-- I like that too. These are all hard working artists grinding out art under challenging conditions with deadlines, yet they can do no other than to work in their own peculiar way of seeing the world. Obviously, some are better than others; I'm not wild about all the art in these clippings. But as Fritz Eichenberg wrote, "what makes an artist create in his own particular style is an indefinable gift, almost a state of grace."

Wes said...

The sad but sophistcated state of comic books illustrates the good point you make that perhaps the younger generation might claim "My generation likes pictures more than words." They fail even that test. I'm sorry, but sloppy drawing on a computer program with a mostly incoherent story line in 90% of all comics now is not an advance in artistic talent and skill. I'm been reading comics since the early 1960's and the perpetuation of guys and girls in spandex fighting other creatures in spandex in a nihilistic universe is just not that clever anymore. As Napoleon Dynamite said: "Girls like guys with skills." Get some skills, even if you have to go back to 1940 to get them.

There are some that are current that are geniuses, e.g., Seth, but there are not that many.

Its not: "Why isn't everything how I like it?" Its: "Why do we have so much dreck?"

The drawings are fantastic, beautiful, skillful! Thanks!

Laurence John said...

The 'demurely lowered eyelids' lady looks like the work of someone from the Charles E Cooper studio, such as....
Coby Whitmore ?

Jeremy Smith said...

There’s a great page in the Famous Artist cartoon course that shows the various ways the artists break down the human face. Some drew realistically, others had a more abbreviated style- the one thing you can tell is they all did their homework, and knew the face/anatomy backwards and forwards. I’d argue you have to know it to be able to simplify or exaggerate it convincingly and with authority. Richard Thompson is a good modern example of brilliant simplicity.

Tom said...

Kev wrote,
"The most beautiful thing about these heads, for me, is the unique handwriting of all the artists. This is the aspect of art that has been most thoroughly obliterated by Photoshop's takeover."

Wow, great observation! I feel you could say the same about the influence of photo references, they had a way of uniforming illustrations by being a recognizable source of some much work. IMHO.

David
Nice posts, and collecting images by artist is a age old habit that has included the likes of Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt.


Richard said...

They're certainly striking, but not exactly in an artistic way.

Seems like most of the golden agers leaned too heavily on their references when working with extreme expressions, so the pictures end up very flat and dead compared with their usual work.

R

Richard said...

*I should have said some of these fall into that trap.

A few others here seem to involve a full mastery of the dynamics of the expression in play, not being a mere recitation of photographic reality -- the adventureman wrestling with the arab for example, does not seem to be overly reliant on a reference.

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

These wouldn't be classified as 'Golden Age' as they're circa late 30s to late 50s; a period that was notable for the heavy reliance of illustrators on photoreference.

Richard said...

Ergh, duh

What do you call the ~30-50s period? Bronze Age?

Saber Tooth Tiger Mike said...





"Anonymous Wes said...

The sad but sophistcated state of comic books illustrates the good point you make that perhaps the younger generation might claim "My generation likes pictures more than words." They fail even that test. I'm sorry, but sloppy drawing on a computer program with a mostly incoherent story line in 90% of all comics now is not an advance in artistic talent and skill. I'm been reading comics since the early 1960's and the perpetuation of guys and girls in spandex fighting other creatures in spandex in a nihilistic universe is just not that clever anymore. As Napoleon Dynamite said: "Girls like guys with skills." Get some skills, even if you have to go back to 1940 to get them."



As Tom King said in a Tweet, comics are a safe space for the socially marginalized, which in English vernacular, means it is a clubhouse for the mentally ill--not a group of people you expect to be capable of improving their work.




"Girls like guys with skills." Get some skills, even if you have to go back to 1940 to get them.

There are some that are current that are geniuses, e.g., Seth, but there are not that many.



Everything else you mentioned in your post above, you are extremely ignorant about. The superhero genre is NOT nihilistic. What has happened since the 1980s, when kids stopped reading them in large numbers, is that a bunch of intellectuals decided the genre needed to be deconstructed, and that included deconstructing the morality in the genre.



Girls are in charge and they don't need guys with skills anymore. This isn't the 1940s, anymore. They can make their own damn money!

Hyberbole aside,women have unprecedented power and representation in the arts, and they aren't particularly interested in "skill." In response to the lack of appreciation for skill, schools and educators are providing less and less training and are charging more and more tuition. Sure, we could blame youthful ignorance, for the state of art and illustration, but the youth aren't really forming ideas of their own. Adults are telling them what will be. If their teachers and other authority figures don't value skill or can't teach it--don't expect them to. Tales about the rebellious nature of young people have been greatly exaggerated.