Cracking the Smile

Yesterday, I noted that an intense laugh sometimes has an amount of ambiguity. However, the ambiguity in yesterday’s post is, I fear, the fault of the artist.

Expressions conveyed by the mouth are extremely difficult to capture. For example, if one looks at photographs of family members, a particular the line of the mouth represents an intimately familiar meaning. And yet, as simple as that line may look, reproducing it in a sketch or painting, in my experience is nearly impossible.

Today’s watercolor experiment:


I tried a larger scale version of yesterday’s laugh, thinking that bigger is better when looking at details.

Underlying the watercolor is a combination of charcoal and conte sketching.  I added neutral tint to my four color palette of phthalo green, cadmium red, titanium white and yellow ochre. But I paid most of my attention to the negative space that was the shape of the open mouth.

Watercolor: Closeup of a Smile

Laugh Closeup
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block


Working on a larger scale and reducing the context of the rest of the face, didn’t capture the essence of the laugh that I was seeking.

The watercolor below reduces the laughing mouth to a mere detail, but the context, including other details of the face and the body language conveys more of the mirth than the mouth alone.

Watercolor: Portrait of a Man Laughing

Carm Laughing
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

This brings up the question, “Is the mouth by itself sufficient to express an emotion unambiguously?” I must continue to practice.

12 thoughts on “Cracking the Smile

  1. Yes. But mouths in portraits, I find, are suggestions rather than strong features, as you have rightly pointed out. It’s amazing how a tweak of the corner up or down, or neither can completely change the expression. I find the mouth probably the most fascinating part of the face to sketch, and probably the most difficult, just because it is so expressive.
    I hope all is well my marvellous friend.



    • M!
      Nice to hear from you.
      A line does do the trick much better than a complete rendering. In thinking about it, there are so many opportunities for making stray or false contours on a more detailed drawing, any one of which can destroy the expression one intends to convey. It’s as if any tiny imprecision is magnified many times. The muscles of the face must have a large area of the brain that control them.
      I am well and hope that you are too.
      All the best and

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nice to hear from you too Jack!
        I think it comes down to how our eyes perceive the face, they see tonal variations rather than delineated areas or details. Over the course of my life I have drawn hundreds of portraits, and what I’ve discovered is that the ones that have the most impact are the vague ones where features and facial expressions are conveyed in suggestions of light and dark. Near to photographic renditions are difficult to get right in that there is no perfect symmetry in the face, and too many nuances, or as you say movements of muscle that give a face a quality of being. It is all too easy as the artist to autocorrect what appears to be an imperfection, yet it’s the imperfections that bring a portrait to life. Mouth lines are not regular, lips are often barely visible save for thin highlights. It’s possible that in treating the mouth as a tangible feature of the face, it becomes distorted and overworked. What the muscles of the lower half of the face are doing is what dictates the expression of the mouth. The strength of the neck will shape the jawline, which in turn also changes the definition of the mouth.
        It’s a tricky task, but as always I do love following you on your artistic journey my friend.


        Liked by 1 person

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