A mother ordered several drawings from photos taken in hospital of her stillborn son. The baby alone, with his four-year-old sister, her with the baby or with both children. She had chosen eight.
One she wanted was a “selfie” – the three of them lying close together in bed, with the baby in the centre. When I saw the photo, I was surprised: it was too intimate and intense to hang on the wall, because of her expression. Here was the ultimate face of grief, of someone who has cried till no more tears are left. All the expressive muscles were neutral, as if erased. It is very seldom one sees this look, which is both beautiful and very private.
But she wanted it, and I made the drawing*.
When I emailed her a copy for approval, her response was that she liked it very much, but – could I just draw her with a smile?
The mouth is the most difficult feature to draw; everyone can read the smallest of changes very closely and accurately. I was pretty much convinced that the change she wanted was beyond me – that any change of the mouth – widening it, altering the corners – would ruin the drawing. I wrote and told her I wasn’t sure I could do it, but that I would try it out on a copy, and send her that for approval or advice.
I printed a copy to work on. I knew already I would not touch the mouth. AlI I did was rub in 2 small shadows (indicating 2 faint depressions) one on each cheek, there were dimples appear on children’s faces when they smile or, on any face, a visible, passing shadow shifting upwards, caused by the contraction of the elevator muscles – the zygomaticus major muscles where they insert into the skin. I also took a bit of chalk and covered a slight smudge under the left-hand corner of the lower lip.
I dared not change the original drawing.
But she wanted a smile.
When you do a commission you have to please the client. And it was, after all, only a drawing from a photo.
When I sent her the altered copy, she agreed that this was exactly what she wanted -“Now I am smiling.”
In the original, I also erased 2 tiny lines between the eyebrows, so light they do not show on the copy – these lines of anxiety (minute contractions of the corrugators) are invariably read by everyone – giveaways in any face that smiles and does not quite mean it.
I am more and more convinced that there is no such thing as “intuition” involved when we see and respond to another person’s face – what we sense about the person is visual (and to lesser extents audible/olfactory). If we are uncomfortable there is some masking, some disharmony in the facial muscles – and, even when we are not conscious of it, we are all experts at picking it up. Our brains are programmed and trained in this incredibly complex task. A large portion of the visual cortex – the fusiform gyrus – is devoted to recognition and to reading expression.
This work taught me that it is not the features themselves we are reading, when we look into another human face. Giacometti said the eye has no expression: “The eye is always cold and remote. It is the surroundings that determine the expression of the eye.” And the mouth on its own is not the source of the smile .
(*With her permission I have included the images: the drawing of the face before I changed it, and then the drawing with the smile.)