Wednesday, November 25, 2009


OK, I apologize for the light posting. Holiday season. I'm cooking up a piece about edges, and I still have more to say about optical black...

In the meantime, thank you Pengo for your thoughtful description of the art that moved you. It immediately struck a chord with me - in the performance arts, the two pieces that most changed my life were a production of Equus I saw my freshman year in college, and Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris, which I saw the same year. Oddly, what I found shocking about each of them was their sharp evocation of the limits of information that can be obtained from rational analysis of available sense data. Or, more simply, they both pointed out the mystery of things, which I had forgotten at that time.

Here's the progress on the Leah painting:

The cloth is in an underpainting state - it will be red in the final version. I spent a long time noodling around with it after Leah left, trying to get it to be more voluminous and floaty - or, as Steve Wright phrased it when he saw it, more undulating. That was the exact word I had been looking for. The painting was inspired by my visits to the art museums in Venice earlier in the year, and the cloth is modeled on the standard undulating cloth in Assumption of the Virgin paintings, particularly by Giovanni Batista Tiepolo:

Tiepolo sets a pretty high standard for undulating cloth. Happy Thanksgiving to you all...

Monday, November 23, 2009


Well, I finally killed off the rest of the background on that painting of Theresa. Since I'm not only lousy at self-promotion, but kind of mediocre at titles, I'm calling it "The Shock." Let's look at how I changed the background:

Final Painting

Original Background

I thought the squiggles were too thick - overwhelming the figure. And all it really took was going back to my compositional source material to figure this out. What source material? Gustav Klimt, of course. Apart from the blue fever theme, the whole thing was designed as a photo-inverse of a gold period Klimt. It didn't completely turn out that way, but you can see what I mean:

Why on earth would I do that? Well, the short answer is that's just how I thought of the composition, when it popped into my head. The analytic answer, I suppose, is that painting takes such a long time, and there's so much room in a painting to put in interesting things, that sometimes I do stuff like that just to see if I can get it to work. Lately, I've been thinking about graphical elements in the backgrounds, so this was a natural development along those lines.

I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Here's How Lousy at Self Promotion I Am

I forgot to say that I'm in American Art Collector's November issue. This is the main painting featured: all means, run out and buy a copy. Already off the newsstands, you say? Never worry - I'm in the December issue as well (smaller notice, page 41, with this painting featured).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Optical Black: Part 3

Well, a while back I promised to continue the inquiry into modes of representing darkness in painting. These are the first two posts on the subject:

Part 1

Part 2

You may remember that I left the discussion at the point of asking: is it possible to use the panchromatic Impressionist palette to produce a painting of the ethical or psychological profundity of a Caravaggio?

Let's say I were to say "no." This no can arise from one of two possible causes:

1. Nobody is that good (a contingent argument based in art history).

2. It is categorically impossible (the technique and the content are mutually exclusive).

I am, in fact, going to say "no." I think that both of the two possible causes are true, but only cause 1 comes close to being provable. Cause 2 is a matter of speculation which I will cover in the fourth and final Optical Black post.

As I commented before, the Academics provide a useful counter-example to the Impressionists. Why? Because they are using the same panchromatic palette as the Impressionists, but unlike the impressionists, they are deeply invested in the themes that dominated Western art during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. I'm using the term "Academic" loosely here to mean "guys who painted painstaking figurative paintings appropriate for exhibition at the Salon even after Impressionism was invented." For practical purposes (laziness), this post will allow Bougeureau and Alma-Tadema to stand in for the rest.

And while I'm going to talk a lot of smack about these two, please keep in mind that I adore them. Appreciating art over the long term involves appreciating more than one thing. They don't offer some things, but they do offer others. Those things are worthwhile too.

So let the flaying begin. Here's a fairly typical Bougeureau:

He painted a lot of pictures of young girls. His fans describe his sensitivity to the plight of the lower classes, like he was Millet or something. From the historical record, his sensitivity seems to be true.

But it's not reflected in his paintings. His lower-class individuals are all young girls, and they all look like this - pretty, clean, sentimental, well-fed. Not exactly Dickens (although I think I remember reading that Dickens was a fan).

On the other hand, look at those colors - he expresses light and dark in terms of transitions between warm and cool, saturated and desaturated. He is using the same appreciation as the Impressionists of the machinery of optical perception of brightness in terms of color. Unlike Renaissance figures, his outdoor figures really read like they're outdoors.

OK, moving on from Bougeureau's favorite subject, let's see how he handles the Greek classics:

Birth of Venus. That is a pretty goddamn snazzy composition there - he's obviously competing with Boticelli, and I think he's come up with a formulation to match the riveting quality of the Boticelli. Swirls of slow-motion distributed over a large number of figures. And look at those lush colors - the dazzling pastels, the superb integration of the figures into their environment.

And yet, the figures all look posed. This painting reeks of the studio. You can argue, and you would be right, that Boticelli's figures also take contrived positions. But Boticelli really believes in his figures. This animates their poses, it makes them work, because they are so sublimely weird and personal. In contrast, Bougeureau's figures seem to be the outcome of Bougeaureau asking himself, "What would be the right pose for this picture, to result in my prefered composition and maintain verisimilitude and interest?" It is analytic, it lacks blood.

Now let's consider his take on a scene with some more vivid emotions in it:

Hmm. What do we have here? One figure turned upward, in a classic Grace pose. Another looking downward, brow furrowed in a state of ardor. I'm not buying it. These are stereotypical poses. I don't see the artist digging into himself to find an expression of his theme that hasn't been done a million times before. I'm no big fan of originality either - I think it's perfectly acceptable to repeat something, as long as you do it well. But to do this well takes a personal commitment to the psychology of the scene, not a skilled rehashing of commonplaces.

The problem becomes even more glaring in his treatment of Biblical themes:

Adam and Eve mourning Able. Notice how brilliantly the painting is arranged in terms of lights and darks, so that the jagged shape of the dead Able slashes across the dimmer field. Bougeureau is slipping out of his comfortable contrast range here, all the way down into black, to express the emotions of this story. And yet he is still failing with regard to the figures themselves. Everything just feels posed - Adam's hand on his breast, Eve's face buried in her hands, Able's outflung arms. Again, there is no personal contribution to this painting. In the course of researching this post, I found out that Bougeureau painted this right after the death of his own son. And yet, this practitioner of the well-made picture couldn't summon up a single authentic feeling for his figures, only for his colors and values.

Doubt it? Take a look at Ilya Repin's 1885 depiction of Ivan the Terrible just after having murdered his son:

Click on the image so you can see Ivan's expression clearly. That is real fucking agony. Repin has drawn on everything he has to understand and communicate the emotions of the scene. Technically, the painting is nowhere near as flashy as the Bougeureau; it is entirely in the classical black=dark mode. But Bougeureau himself was struggling toward this mode for his own dead son painting, and he flubbed it.

Enough about Bougeureau. Let's take a look at the same arc of emotive failure in Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Here's a fairly ordinary composition:

Once again, the colors are very Impressionist - full-spectrum, responsive to bounce light from surrounding surfaces, varied and vibrant. (You may note there's a lighting resemblance between this painting and that Bougeureau of the beggar-girls above. There are technical and practical reasons for this which I'll get into sometime.)

Alma-Tadema is better at poses than Bougeureau. These people do look like they're hanging out together on a relaxed afternoon. His technique isn't as solid as Bougeureau's, although I personally would drive a large truck over any number of defenseless old ladies to be able to paint even this well. Anyhow, nothing major happening in this painting - just some friends chilling, reading Homer, as groups of friends tend to do.

Let's go up the emotional dial a little bit and see how well Tadema handles the challenge. This is called "The Unconscious Rivals," so I'm guessing they both like the same guy:

Look at that unbelievable bounce light on the interior! Holy crap is that lighting incredible! And the flowers - and all those colors! Wait, there are people in the painting? Yeah, sure, whatever. You see where we've arrived? The same sensual overwhelming that we have with the Impressionists. The way things look is very important. The people are not so important.

Shall we go up the scale a little more? How about another dead son painting (Pharoah, in this place - the one who tangled with Moses):

Hmm. No facial expression on Pharoah - I do believe he's frozen with grief. Dead son with arms flung out. Woman bent over covering her face. And Tadema's clearly been reading from the same Book of Tragic Aesthetics as Bougeureau (Rule 3: Make dead son scenes dark. Dark, and brown.). This image is pictorially compelling, but it is not psychologically revealing.

But this isn't the top of the emotional scale on scenes that Tadema tackled. For that, you have to go to his Heliogabalus painting. In case you don't know, Heliogabalus was a strong contender for the title of most psychotic Roman emperor. One time, he threw a dinner party and then killed all the guests by dumping several tons of rose petals on them. Tadema thought this would make a pretty good subject for a painting...

...I guess because it involves lots and lots of freaking rose petals. And no doubt this is the finest depiction in the history of painting of several tons of falling rose petals. In fact, it is not much different from any good floral painting by an Impressionist. What Tadema completely fails at is insight into any of the characters. The people getting killed by rose petals: not particularly fussed about it. Heliogabalus: bored.

Now you could make a fine argument for Heliogabalus actually having been bored during this scene. For him to be bored is an expression of absolute decadence. It's a frightening proposition. But the decadence bleeds from Heliogabalus to Tadema. You can search high and low in the works of Tadema and not find a single strongly felt emotion. Because this is the case, one starts to suspect that Tadema isn't so much expressing a choice in his Heliogabalus painting as he is covering up a deficiency.

As I did with Bougeureau, I contend that part of the problem here is that Tadema is spending all of his energy worrying about light and color, and there is nothing left for the integration of strong feelings into the work. The work is so technically demanding that, mighty though these painters are, they cannot create their paintings at this degree of technical polish, in this panchromatic paradigm, and also express the greater part of their humanity.

This is not a monovalent explanation for the essential failure of the Academics. The Academics to me are a haunting and tragic subject which touches on many of the themes and pathologies of modernism itself. As with so many other things, I will have more to say about this.

For now, I hope I have demonstrated, at least rudimentarily, that arguably the most technically accomplished painters who ever lived:

a. did work in the panchromatic idiom.
b. did care deeply about and did tackle the mighty themes of Western philosophy, mythology, and drama.
c. did fail, at least in part because of the technical strictures of the panchromatic idiom.

In the last post, I will cover this failure of integration in terms of aesthetics, psychology, and philosophy. Or, to put it in a more positive way, I will describe what I see as the divergent strengths of each of the two major idioms (darkness from black, and darkness from dark colors).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Scariest Painting in the World

Well damn, it's been a while. I'm sorry I left all two or three of you in the lurch like that (hello Cleveland!). Traveling left less blogging time than I expected. I've just gotten back to New York...

Here's a little update for you: I thought the most frightening painting I had ever seen was a particular Magritte. In fact, it was two particular Magrittes that I had conflated in my memory. This is the first one. The image is small, but that's because it's the only image of it I could find on the Internet - not a particularly good image:

And here's the second painting:

How are these scary paintings? Well, when I was very small, I had a distinct terror of scale distortions. Even now, when I am dead tired, the relative sizes of things seem to fluctuate before the eye of my imagination, in a very frightening way. So Magritte's room filled by a rock was naturally terrifying to me.

But in my memory, it wasn't the rock filling the room, it was one of those odd spheres. Why? Because before I saw either painting, I had a nightmare of a room filled by a stone sphere, sliced horizontally. The top hemisphere rotated in one direction, and the bottom hemisphere rotated in the opposite direction, so that they made a terrible stony grinding noise against one another. This nightmare included the scale distortion and the, for some reason, elementally horrifying bisected sphere.

Naturally, when I saw Magritte's spheres and Magritte's filled room, I reacted strongly to them, and eventually fused them in my recollection.

Now, you may never have seen those spheres before, but I can guarantee you've seen something similar, which is also terrifying to children:

Lucas and his designers were pretty careful to push your buttons in the most reliable way possible. They put a lot of thought into how to make the first glimpse of Darth Vader terrifying, and they cooked up his black shape coming down that white hall as an optimal solution to the problem. So I'm guessing the design of the Death Star was no accident either.

Here's the question: is there something to this form that we are wired to find frightening?

Maybe. I don't know. It sure scares me, though. I'm still scared of that room with the stone sphere in it, grinding.

Let me add a word about something I will call scientism. You may have noticed that I've put a lot of scientific explanations of various optical and cognitive phenomena into this blog so far. Well, that's all very well and good. But I am also skeptical of my own urge to find a "scientific" explanation for every little thing. Not that I won't go right on doing it - I've got some more stuff planned along these lines, and it's very interesting.

On the other hand, it's worth remembering that to try to explain away every artistic phenomenon by reference to science, is a very weak approach. This approach, this scientism, is weak in terms of science, and weak in terms of art. How?

In terms of science, it's weak because it fails to acknowledge that science is constantly advancing and changing. I gave you a whole lot of stuff about the current understanding of the neurology of facial recognition a while back. Guess what? These surmises are guaranteed to change, eventually. That's how science works. So let's not get carried away with the idea of some deeply conditioned "facial templates," and let's not stop thinking about Rembrandt just because we think we understand some things about foreheads.

In terms of art, this scientism is weak because it misses the point. When we talk about art, we talk about soul. The chemistry of anger is not the experience of anger; the scientific description of the physical substrate of any subjective state should not be confused with the subjective state itself. Art pertains to the subjective state; science is irrelevant to it. Science is relevant only to the making of art - and only inasmuch as it helps us to understand the tools and vocabulary we have available for interacting with the subjective state within which the soul exists. Apart from that, science has nothing to say about the significance, and the magnificence, of art.

Which is to say - science may help us to understand how it is that a painting strikes us just so, but it cannot help us to understand why this is important to us, as human beings in a transit between what we have been and what we will be. Therefore, when we are dealing with the seductive charms of scientific explanation, it is worth remembering the limits of what science offers us, and not shirk our responsibility as artists to see science, like all of our painting techniques, as a tool and not an end in itself.

That is how we can obtain what science offers, without becoming entangled in scientism.

I'll try to watch for that myself - because there is plenty more stuff from the fields of cognitive psychology and neurology which I am going to draw on as this blog progresses. I think the mechanism of our ability to gain visual knowledge is fascinating, and useful for us as artists. But I'm trying not to make a totem out of it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Favorite Sculpture

It's nothing large, heroic, or famous. A copy of it lives at the Tel Aviv Art Museum, which I had the good luck to visit yesterday. I've been visiting this sculpture, at this museum, since I was about ten years old. It's Rodin's extremely rough 1886 study Camille Claudel Wearing a Bonnet. How rough is it? Well, he seems to have dropped it before casting it, because there's a big flat spot on the right side of the bonnet:

When I first saw it, I sank into it. This person in this sculpture seemed to contain an awareness of the entire world. And yet she was suffused with a sort of sadness. I could not comprehend it at the time - how could somebody who knew the entire world be sad? I wanted to know what she knew, and I wanted to talk to her about it. I wanted to live in her, in the world she contained that was inflected with her personality and its sublimely sensitive awareness.

Also, she was beautiful. This face, the plainest of faces, the simplest, unfolds into beauty as you stand and study her. The seeming androgyny dissolves in the profound femininity of that curved jaw, the softness to the sides of the lips, the delicate nose. You keep returning to those mesmerizing eyes, whose gaze you can never quite catch, because they are defocused, they are staring into that interior universe.

After I first met Rodin's Camille, I had a teacher who stumbled on this same concept of containing the world. He suggested that genius might be defined as having the capacity to undertake, and succeed at, the process of reproducing the entire world in one's mind, to so great a degree of validity that, by examining the reproduced world, properties of the real world could be deduced. His example was Einstein, who, examining his interior model of the world, derived the principle of general relativity.

Take or leave this idea of genius. I don't necessarily find it completely useful myself. But according to its terms, this Camille would have to be described as a genius; and by extension, Rodin himself, who created, or re-created, her. This is one reason it is my favorite sculpture: many other sculptures capture large parts of the world, but only this one includes all of it.

When I was 14, I read Rodin on Art, a short but mighty book about which I will have more to say. And I spent many years after that thinking about Rodin.

During all that time, every time I came to Israel (I visit frequently - my father's family lives here), I visited that same Camille with whom I have been in love since I was very young, and who will haunt me all my life. One time, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I kissed her when nobody was looking. Every time I visit, I draw her a couple times. The drawings are always just atrocious. I am intimidated by the totality of this work of art; I begin to fail as soon as I try to capture it a second time. Camille will never be mine. I will have to create my own Camille.

Here are this visit's wretched efforts:

What, you thought I was kidding? I wouldn't lie to you. They really aren't ever any good. Maybe I'll scan some older ones when I get back to the States if I can find them.

This sculpture changed my life. From it, I learned the profundity available to art - the magnitude of the world - the beauty of women - and I got my first inkling of the tragic quality of consciousness itself, which is infinite, in the context of the human condition, which is finite.

What art changed you?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Foreheads: Bruce Willis and Robert de Niro (Plus a Bonus Cameo)

OK, let’s talk about some dramatic examples of the impact of this whole forehead theory. But first, let me explain something which it struck me might not be intuitively obvious: most of the muscles we can consciously control connect internal structures of the body – bone to bone. The muscles of the face are different. They connect bone to skin. When we make expressions, our muscles are pulling directly on the skin of our faces.

I’m glad I could clear that up for you.

Now let’s take the happy case of Bruce Willis. He’s got a forehead of gold. Age adds character to foreheads. In Bruce Willis’s case, he’s gotten lucky in terms of skin structure. What do I mean?

The skin on his forehead is fairly thin and tight. This means that he doesn’t show much bumpy folding when he tenses his frontalis muscles. He can do it when he wants to. He just doesn’t do it without really intending to. Moreover, the thinness of his forehead skin means that when he tenses his corrugator muscles, he gets all kinds of interesting sharp furrows between his brows.

When he was young, his comparatively smooth forehead contributed to the impression that he was a callow actor. Consider him being threatened by arch-terrorist Alan Rickman in Die Hard:

Yeah, I look really tense.

Here too. Tense, but also interested. And tense.

However, as he’s gotten older, he’s finally started showing some structure to his forehead, and to his credit, he has understood its expressive power. Here he is in Hostage:

As you can see, there is virtually no tightening of the frontalis. However, the corrugator is tense, producing the furrowing of the brow that works so well for him. He doesn’t have to overplay scenes where he’s upset: his brow brings all the punch he needs to a below-the-brows expression of distress. He seems to understand this, at least intuitively, because for the past ten years or so, he’s been playing up the pathos very successfully in scenes where somebody’s got the drop on him and he’s afraid and upset and humiliated.

It’s important to note – the corrugator isn’t only good for expressing distress. Check out Bruce doing anger and focus:

He’s tensed the muscles under his eyes, and the muscles in his cheeks, and his friend the corrugator. Look at those complex lines between his eyebrows. He doesn’t need to raise his voice, he hardly needs to talk at all. His forehead can do most of the emoting for him. He knows this, and he uses it.

But that’s not where Lucky Bruce’s luck ends. He’s got something else going for him: a strangely shaped frontalis. Take a look. This is from Hostage again (there is a reason he's naked, which we need not discuss here):

What’s happening in this picture? The corrugator is relaxed, but the frontalis is starting to show some flex. Why is his forehead still relatively smooth? Because when he flexes his frontalis, it tends to produce folding on the outer edges of his forehead. You see that little bump of light on the right above his eyebrow? That’s the base of the axis of his normal frontalis flexing.

The outcome of this is that he can flex his frontalis and produce a line of deepened folds rising from the outer edges of his eyebrows, without the center of his forehead folding. The emotional impact of the frontalis contraction is transmitted, without the extremity of the entire forehead wrinkling up. This makes a huge difference when your closeup is 14 feet tall. It means he can go on marginally underplaying scenes of emotional intensity, and come off perfectly pitched in the footage.

I couldn’t find a still of it on the Web – and boy did I look – but he uses this ability to fantastic effect in the final shootout of Hostage. When he shoots the last bad guy (if you rent it, you’ll know which shooting it is), he maintains that flat-affect below-the-eyebrows expression. His eyes widen only slightly. But his frontalis is fully contracted along that outer axis. A column of lines rises up the outer edges of his forehead. You get the impression of a state near to panic and emotional chaos – without an ounce of scenery-chewing.

That’s how Mr. Willis is so lucky. That, and he’s a smart enough actor to take roles that fit the optimum use of his face.

Now let’s look at the reverse case: Robert de Niro. Here he is asking if you’re talking to him:

You know the scene. Look at those forehead wrinkles – the corrugator is relaxed, but the frontalis is raising the eyebrows and folding the forehead. The forehead is a series of pronounced ripples. It works great as a maximal emotional state. Sadly, de Niro is 31 or 32 in this picture. How do you think that’s going to go for him thirty years later?

Not so hot. This is some candid shot of the man, presumably not in a state of any emotional intensity at all. But he’s got distinct horizontal furrowing, as if his frontalis were tensed, and vertical furrowing between his brows, as if his corrugator were tensed. That’s his neutral expression. He can no longer keep from expressing a particular set of emotions, whether he’s feeling them or not.

But he also doesn’t respect that this is a physical parameter he has to work with as an actor. Here’s a still from Righteous Kill:

What the hell is he looking at? I don’t know. I skipped the movie, cuz you know what, life is short. But holy moly, I’m gonna guess from that frontalis action that what he is looking at is just about the most disgusting thing a human being has seen since they were lancing bubos in London in 1351.

What we’re looking at is the physical substrate of a bad case of late-career overacting. It’s so severe that many of his roles are now designed around the buffoonish extremity he cannot help putting into his work:

Yeah, that’s from Analyze This. He’s doing stuff with his frontalis, his corrugator, and everything else he’s got. It’s a comedy – that face is a cartoon face.

But look, Maidman, you might say, what’s the poor man to do? He’s got genes for a very foldy forehead. Well, that’s a pretty good point. But it doesn’t have to get in the way of his acting. You know who had very similar forehead structure as he got older, and didn’t ham it up with what nature gave him? Marlon Brando, that’s who.

As a young man, we see him achieving a reasonable maximal forehead folding in an intense scene, in Streetcar (1951):

Clearly age is going to take him down the same bumpy-forehead road de Niro has traveled. And so it did. Here are a couple shots of him from The Godfather, when his neutral-expression forehead structure was already emergent:

Really study that second image, small and crappy though it is. His frontalis is contracted there, his corrugator is partly tensed, and he’s got the same field of bulging ridges that de Niro has. Are you getting the sense that this is a parodic scene? Overplayed? Of course not. Brando is compensating – his cheeks are slack and his eyes are half-closed. By instinct, by training, by looking in the mirror a lot – whatever it is, Brando knows how to recalibrate his younger acting technique to match the instrument he’s working with in middle age. That’s 1972 you’re looking at. Let’s jump foreward to 1990:

That’s from The Freshman, a movie where he played a character who was a parody of Don Corleone. At this point, he can do absolutely nothing about the complex structure of his forehead. So what’s he doing with the muscles in it? Next to nothing. In his very late films, he shows virtually no muscle activity on his forehead at all. What he permits himself to show is quite enough to convey all the emotional changes his characters are going through. In Don Juan de Marco and The Island of Dr. Moreau, he frequently wears a bandana or hat, eliminating the problem altogether. He has a deep understanding of the use of his changed face as an acting tool.

This concludes my series of posts on foreheads. I hope this analysis of actors strikes you as useful, even though you are painters or painting enthusiasts. As figurative painters, we are trying to understand how to convey states of character and emotion through faces. Actors are after the same thing. I think we have a lot to learn from their successes and failures, and the reasons for their successes and failures.

Two last things:

1. I was looking at a lot of mediocre baroque paintings today, and I realized I spoke too soon before. A lot of painters have shown a lot of complex foreheads. They just didn’t do it very well.

2. Robert de Niro, if you ever wind up reading this, please don’t take offence. I think you’re an incredible actor, and I hope my discussion of the physical aspect of your acting is more useful to you than it is insulting.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Feelin' Silly... La La La...

Long day. Domenico Ghirlandaio painted this baby around 1490:

Madre de Dios! That is one hell of a nose!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On Foreheads: Rembrandt, and Also Me

So – Rembrandt. Don’t forget that Rembrandt was fascinated with facial expression, and used a mirror to train himself in representing it from an early age:

So by the time he was painting his late self-portraits, he was extremely sensitive to the nuance of the forehead:

His forehead is a lot like this in most of the later self-portraits. What do we have here? The most complex interplay of “what he looks like,” and his expression. This figure just has a liney forehead. But he is also working the muscles of his forehead – the corrugator is tensed, showing us that he is not in a state of emotional peacefulness. And the frontalis is raised, to raise his eyelids so that he can see more clearly. But notice that his eyelids remain relatively low – the muscles around the eye are not working like the frontalis, the eyelids themselves are heavy and inelastic, and age has made a bug-eye impossible.

Thus, Rembrandt’s face-below-the-eyebrows, and his forehead, are at odds with one another. This produces a contradictory emotional expression, which the viewer has no choice but to read as complex. And the failed effort of the frontalis combines with the overall complexity of the forehead to yield the pathos of age. Rembrandt does not show us age in wrecked jawline and baggy cheeks alone – he reaches the pinnacle of his expression of age in his forehead.

It is also worth noting that he lights himself from above. The thickness of his paint varies in proportion with brightness. Therefore, his paint is always thickest and most sculptural at the forehead, drawing the attention to it.

Well, you say, portrait convention is lighting from above. Sure, but this is Rembrandt we’re talking about:

You know, Rembrandt van Rijn:

Not exactly constrained by convention. Master of light. The emphasis on the forehead is meaningful. It is in the forehead that he finds the most complexity and poignancy with which to make his point.

Let me show you an instance where I used the action of the corrugator drawing the brows together, along with the muscles around the eye and the frontalis pulling the eyebrows up at the center, to express a state of imploring. It’s very subtle – you almost can’t see it in the painting itself. But it’s there:

That’s from my painting Gemini, and let me tell you, I had no idea I was doing that. I didn’t even know the names of the frontalis and the corrugator until I started researching foreheads for yesterday’s post. I have simply had a feeling for a long time that the forehead was important, and I started to explore it in Gemini.

But wait – I’m not proud. I’ll show you one where I screwed it up:

That’s the face of Anxiety. It’s subtle, but there’s an anatomical error – her brow is furrowed, which means that the corrugator muscles are drawing the skin together at the top of her nose. Where’s the folding, the corrugation, if you will? Not there. You can argue that the painting works, but you can’t argue that I got the anatomy right.

I once ran across a model named David. Great guy, very expressive face. In fact, I have put off painting him because I felt that I wasn’t good enough yet to do justice to his forehead. Considering that I painted Anxiety around when I met him, I was probably right. Take a look:

What a magnificent forehead this man has! That’s the best forehead I’ve ever drawn, and it’s not as complex and expressive as his actual forehead. But I’m getting closer these days, and I’m going to paint him soon.

Let me add a note about attitude here. If you’re a painter, you may be feeling that I’m getting awfully finicky about details. Where’s the romance? Where’s the passion? Where’s the inspiration? That’s a fair point. My answer is this: painting has a tremendous vocabulary of expression because the things of the world have a tremendous range of possibilities. To make full use of this vocabulary, you must watch the world for many years. And not “watch” the way you read a book, but “watch” the way you study a textbook. The subtleties of the forehead are not available to the beginning painter, because he or she has not trained their powers of observation yet to recognize the smaller cues to emotion that are visible in the face. They can make a bold painting, an original painting, a powerful painting – but they cannot paint a Rembrandt, because they have not yet learned to see.

The paradox of learning to paint is to learn to see, really see, while also keeping in view that initial romance, and passion, and inspiration. It is very difficult. You start with something that drives you to paint. You spend a long time learning to paint. And by the time you know some tricks, you may have forgotten why you started, and perhaps you think that the tricks are the point. The tricks are not the point. Learning to paint is a process of learning, and of remembering. The most difficult task is marrying your motive and your means – which is not to say that your motive will never change. People get older, and they change.

The forehead principle is important, and it’s visible. Next time we’ll take a look at a practical application of the principle in another context: how it’s helping make Bruce Willis a better actor as he ages, and how it’s making Robert De Niro a worse actor. I’m not kidding.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On Foreheads: Caravaggio

Hey – check it out! A network!

Earlier on, I said that Caravaggio is getting a lot of mileage out of a simple bit of knowledge, which Rembrandt also uses. I said it wasn’t hard to do. Actually, it kind of is hard to do, but like every other technical thing, if you know what you’re looking for and you practice, you can eventually get pretty good at it.

They understand the expressive power of foreheads.

This is a very profound thing for facial expression. When we talk about how we read emotions in a face, we’re accustomed to thinking a lot about what goes on under the eyebrows, and not so much about the area above them. I think this is a profound mistake. To me, expression below the eyebrows relates to expression above them much the way the text of a play relates to the performance of a play. The idea may be clear enough in the word, but a world of nuance enters when the word is performed.

To get all tech on you, the muscles of the forehead are mainly controlled by two pairs of muscles, the frontalis muscles, which run up and down the whole thing, and the corrugator muscles, which are little muscles on either side of the top of the nose. Take a look (this is from the anatomical atlas I drew – I’ll tell you about working with cadavers sometime):

My hunch is that the effect these muscles have on the overlying skin is so expressive because they reinforce what the eyes are doing in a face. More than one fella has said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and that’s true, but they’re also pretty small. You have to get right up and squint to really read the eyes. The forehead tends to do something either consistent with, or in interesting counterpoint to, the eyes. And it’s a lot bigger. So the immediate read of the action of the eyes actually lies in the action of the forehead.

When I say that the forehead is like the nuance of performance, I mean that the outright emotion of the face becomes textured and modified in the expression of the forehead.

Foreheads aren’t very expressive in young people. They’re too smooth. This means that most of the most expressive foreheads in art are on the faces of older men, older women not having played such a large part in the history of narrative painting. There are two masters of the deeply expressive forehead – Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

This is the Caravaggio painting of the incredulous Thomas we were looking at before:

Let’s take a closer look at Caravaggio’s stunned Thomas:

His facial expression is stunned, sure – his eyes bulge and he thrusts his mouth foreward slightly. But it’s the action of the frontalis that really drives it home: these broad vertical muscles have raised the skin of his forehead, producing line upon line. Before we have even seen his eyes, we know that his forehead is helping raise his eyelids – we know that his eyes are bugging out in wonder.

Now let’s look at Thomas’s corrupt buddies:

The guy on the left has some frontalis action going on, but not a lot. His frontalis is working – it knits his brows together. This is an expression of concentration, or of anger. We can hardly see the man’s eyes, but we know that he is not stunned like Thomas – he has not had his innocence restored to him like Thomas.

The same is true of the guy on the right. He can see clearly, but he is squinting. His squint, however, lies in shadow. Our first read of his squint is in his forehead, where the corrugator, once again, is knitting the brows together.

It is in his tremendous sensitivity to the complexities of ridge structures in the forehead that Caravaggio evokes character, age, and nuance of emotion. And it is only because he has set the default on his painting to “high forehead sensitivity” that we automatically read Christ’s forehead as expressively meaningful as well:

No wrinkling, no folding. Christ is young – but he is also calm. His mouth opens in pain, but his forehead is in counterpoint to his mouth: it tells us that his peace is greater than his agony.

Caravaggio uses the expressive properties of the forehead in most of his paintings. Consider the variations in the meaning of the brow-knitting corrugator in these faces:

Surprise and pain, with a sexual edge.

David: Disgust and sorrow.

Judith: Shock and revulsion.

That Judith is worth looking at more closely:

Why? Because we have another famous take on it from the same period, that of Artemisia Gentilesci:

Here, the furrowed corrugator indicates concentration, but it is much less clearly defined – not in the figure itself, but in the painting of the figure. Gentilesci does not see this as a useful tool for her painting. There is more expression in the mouth, but she reserves the most expression for the pose: the pose is the most expressive part of her representation of Judith. It is slightly contrived to make for pictorial effectiveness, but it retains the qualities of hard physical labor, and recoil. Caravaggio’s Judith does not have a physically convincing relationship with her work, but her forehead expresses a much more complex emotional state.

Tomorrow (ha ha): Rembrandt and foreheads, and me and foreheads.