How Artists Use Facial Expressions to Lure Us into Their Worlds

They say when infants (or young children) fall down, they look up to their mother or father, to see how she or he reacts. More often than not, a parent will have an anxious and frightened facial expression–"Oh no, my baby is hurt!"–which, in turn, causes the child to cry.

Yet, if the parent is cool and collected–"Oh it's just a little scratch, you're a brave kid."–then the child will stand up, and react accordingly…cool and collected.  

The same rule applies to art. Although art in and of itself is subjective, we react based on the image the artist reveals to us, especially when it comes to clear and strong facial expressions.

The Kiss by Klimt, detail.
The Kiss by Klimt, detail.

If the artist adds a smile to a woman's face in an oil painting, it doesn't matter whether the picture is set in a dark forest or at midday brunch. The energy emitted through the smile (happy, cunning, evil, or nervous) sets the mood of the fine art oil painting.

In the same way, two people can pose for a portrait, in the same room and in the same general position, yet their faces will reveal how each subject truly feels, and that in turn influences how you will feel. 

The Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch.

A few years back, I sketched two human figure drawings in an art class. One model was a bashful girl (probably thinking "Why did I ever agree to this?") while her male counterpart held his head up high, making sure the light reflected his strong jawline. To this day I still feel uncomfortable looking at the sketch of the girl. Her expression makes me feel as though I used her in some way…while the arrogant male sketch just makes me roll my eyes.

This concept applies to all art genres, not just when sketching living models. The Kiss by Klimt portrays a woman who is peaceful, enjoying the bliss of being loved. The Scream by Edvard Munch lures you into to a disturbing yet curious scene and prodding you to discover if he is frightened or just frightening. The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is also known as the Dutch Mona Lisa and the oil painting captures the look of an innocent young woman, caught off guard, though other readings interpret her as a figure who is not so innocent.

Weeping Woman by Picasso. The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer.
Weeping Woman by Picasso. The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer.

Picasso's Weeping Woman exudes tension; the figure's worried, distraught look makes me nervous and I ask myself, has she just heard bad news or is she waiting to hear it? The ginger girl in Bouquet by Hanne Hoejfeldt is full of happiness. She lets out just enough of a smile to make me wonder what she is thinking, though I know it must good because the cats are smiling too!

Bouquet by Hanne Hoejfeldt.
Bouquet by Hanne Hoejfeldt.

Simply put, artists do have the ability to control how their audience reacts to a certain extent. The most direct way to accomplish this is through emphasizing facial expressions. Have you ever come across a painting that made you feel like you really understood what the figure was feeling? Leave a comment and let me know!


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About Nirel

 I currently get my art fix by painting and writing an art blog  for a gallery (called Naive Art Online), the largest collection of international  and truly awesome Naive Art!