Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Cheese Business: Smiles!

A friend of mine, when asked what he does for a living, sometimes replies "I'm in the cheese business." We, along with every children's photographer out there, have to make people smile. Except for us it can sometimes be an excruciating experience for the poor soul who thinks they have to hold that smile for the ENTIRE time we draw them. Or the self-conscious people who know full well that holding a smile gives them squinty eyes or crow's feet, so they try to fight nature and hold their eyes open during the process.

As a result, I often look up to see plastered, uncomfortable, angry mannequin smiles looking back at me. Ouch.

A fake smile can wreck the likeness in a photo, just as it can wreck the likeness in a caricature. The eyes don't match the mouth. It weirds me out. A genuine smile involves both voluntary and involuntary contraction of the zygomatic major (the corners of the mouth) and the inferior part of the orbicularis oculi (raising the cheeks, producing crow's feet around the eyes--which so many of my oh-so-politically-correct patrons react to by complaining "Omigod, I have chinky eyes!"). This type of contraction of the orbicularis oculi is involuntary, so in a way it really can't be faked. Psychologists call the genuine smile a "Duchenne smile," after the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who studied facial expressions in the nineteenth century. As opposed to the Duchenne/real smile, the fake smile tends to just involve the zygomatic major muscles. The fake smile has an official name too, incidentally: it's known as the "Pan-Am smile" (named after the airline--or, more specifically, that airline's perky attendants). 

Now, I'm about to go on a rant against fake smiles . . . but as a disclaimer up front, there are always exceptions. Sometimes a fake smile is what you want to draw. Are you illustrating a politician and want to emphasize his used-car-salesman grin? Slap it on there. And often times a smile is unnecessary (or just a flat-out wrong choice) for a caricature. Are you drawing a kid who is sitting there all pouty and refuses to smile? Draw the pout if you can get away with it. The big, gruff guy refuses to smile even though his girlfriend wants him to? Ignore the girlfriend's plea, and just draw the guy gruff. Trust me. The one thing worse than drawing someone's fake smile is just making up a smile wholesale for someone who hasn't flashed you a single grin during the sitting process. 

I personally think there are levels of fake smile. A salesman (or airline attendant) might flash you a fake smile, which--if you analyzed it with photography--you could tell is a fake smile because of the absence of those micro-muscle movements. But a caricature model will go further. They have extra emotional baggage loaded onto their Pan-Am smile. They aren't just trying to look friendly, they are actively worrying about how they look. They are aware of their age, their flaws, their wrinkles, and the reputation caricature artists have for "accentuating flaws." They are on a mission--be it conscious or subconscious--to camouflage everything a real smile does to their face. And that results in a hyper-fake smile--a caricature of a fake smile, if you will. 

Paula Deen is the epitome of this caricatured fake smile. (I owe this example to Court Jones, who used her photo to illustrate a fake smile in his ISCA seminar on facial anatomy a few years back.) Poor Paula just looks worried about her appearance in every photo. The eyes are bugged out, with lots of makeup, and the smile is big to the the point of being painful, and the teeth are fake Hollywood veneers. Paula Deen is also in the demographic that seems to be most worried, and therefore most fake-smiley, when they get caricatured: the older females. 

And it makes sense that Paula, and many other ladies, take on this possessed appearance when they smile. Our entire lives we are hawked products that try and erase the Duchenne Smile and all the nasty, bad natural creases that come with it: eye wrinkle creams, botox treatments, microdermabrasion, the airbrushed/photoshopped 50-year-old actresses that appear on makeup ads looking like they walked out of the Uncanny Valley. We females are bombarded with messages that SMILING IS BAD unless it's FAKE. (Sure, there are guys who use eye cream too, but when was the last time you saw a guy in a commercial for it?) We ladies are conditioned to believe that we better accentuate our eyes! Hold them open when you smile, like a pageant queen! 

How do you, as an artist, undo this programming when someone sits for you? Well, luckily it's just a simple matter of getting your customer to really smile. A genuine laugh or two is all you need. I personally always try to get them to crack a natural smile when I'm starting on the eyes, because if you get the eye creases and squintiness right, you are getting a big chunk of what defines a natural smile. If they fake a super-cheesey smile for you later, you can still draw their dental structure from it just fine. So tell your best joke while you look at their eyes! Engage them! I have often just flat-out made fun of fake smiles when I see folks mugging too much like a wax figure. I say "if you hold your eyes open so hard when you smile, you look like you REALLY have to go to the bathroom." I bring up Paula Deen and do my impersonation of her smile--it always get a genuine laugh from older women, who, to their credit, realize they are trying too hard to keep their eyes open. And that realization makes them smile naturally. 

Okay, so: Smiling with fake wide eyes = weird. Smiling with too-squinted eyes = weird. But for every model there is a happy medium in there where the zygomatic muscle contraction matches well with the orbicularis contraction, and BANG then you get a good, happy, genuine-looking caricature that looks like the person's natural expression. I am constantly trying to keep this in mind as I draw, and trust me it's not a simple task. Remember, I'm not blogging as some high authority: I'm talking about my own struggles in the chair, and by writing about them and doing a little research, I'm hoping that I can learn something too!

In my experience, kids have a special kind of fake smile, which I theorize comes from endlessly being told to "SMILE SMILE SMILE SMILE SMILE!!!" by their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and everyone else in their camera-toting family. Kids are great little information sponges, they get simple principles like "smiling means showing my teeth." The more teeth the better, in fact. So with the little kids you get teeth, but it's a growly display of every tooth they can possibly show you through angry stretched lips. They look like they're about to bite me. 

Real young kids can give you a natural smile too if you make them laugh. I sometimes sternly say "I need you to SIT STILL, LOOK AT ME, and WHATEVER YOU DO, WHATEVER HAPPENS, DO NOT FART." Giggles ensue. Everybody giggles at farts.

Now, speaking of kids (who often act like little monkeys), what can we learn from smiling behaviors in other primates? Mammals show teeth as a sign of aggression, submission, or other negative emotions. Chimpanzees can smile as a sign of fear, while macaques show teeth as a display of playfulness. So, in short, smile behavior in the animal kingdom is kind of all over the map. But think about how humans use smiles (or grimaces, or other teeth-showing displays) to communicate: we can show love, happiness, sociability, amusement, pride, contempt, embarrassment, or anxiety by flashing our pearly whites. So we're kind of all over the map, too.

As caricature artists, this array of different types of smile communication can be mind-boggling, and intimidating! Just one wrong slip of the pen and your intended happy-smile could turn into a fright-grimace. And, as social animals with highly attuned abilities to pick up on smile cues, your customer WILL notice. They won't know WHY they notice, not in terms of muscle movements, but they will notice. Your patron, or their companions, might remark "Oh my gosh, I look scared!" or "Wow, he looks angry." And they'll be right. You can shrug it off and move to the next customer, and hopefully with each drawing (and with study), you will get better at creating the right kind of smile. The best way is to get a natural smile from your model and draw from that--but no one can hold a natural Duchenne smile for minutes at a time, so learn what to look for and how to fill in the information gaps once their smile fades. 

Tim Roth doesn't smile much, but it's a fun show.
Duchenne wasn't the only guy interested in smiles, by the way. Swedish anatomist Carl-Herman Hjortsjo, along with Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, developed an enormous taxonomy of human facial movements that is known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). And for you Netflix junkies: Paul Ekman has written a huge amount on facial expressions and what they can tell us, and he is the inspiration for the character Tim Roth plays on the show "Lie to Me." On the show, this character is depicted as a human lie detector and near-superhuman reader of emotion and intent. (It's a fascinating, fun show, even if the writers take Dr. Ekman's work and--well--kind of caricature it for effect!)

But back to the FACS. It was first published in 1978 and then updated in 2002, and indexes all sorts of expressions based on "Action Units" (i.e., "chin raiser" or "jaw thrust" . . . these are like the lego-building-blocks of what kind of expression our faces can build). Eckman and his cohorts came up with over 500 pages detailing thousands of deconstructed facial expressions and what emotions they communicated. Holy cow, and I thought WE were face experts! Psychologists, I tip my hat to you guys!  

Since the FACS was published, it has been used by animators to help create more believable expressions and it has also helped computer programmers working on facial recognition software. Really, I could write reams of information about what FACS has taught us and how it's been used, but there are only so many hours in the day for me to write this blog. So if you want to know more, go forth and google! See what you discover. You need not invest as much time as a psychologist studying cultural smiling differences or neuroscientists studying the micro-movements of particular muscles, but if you want to expand your expression repertoire, look up some FACS images and start doodling! Have fun! Or, in FACS language, have AU6 + AU12!


  1. Your words are pearls. Indeed. Everyone does giggle at farts.

  2. "We females are bombarded with messages that SMILING IS BAD unless it's FAKE." So sad and true.

    1. Thanks Aaron. Yeah, glad you seem to understand that too (as a guy, even!).