Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Medusa Explained

Well, first of all, let me just say I'm not going to sign off "I'll write the rest tomorrow" anymore. It turns out I don't have as much ability to predict my schedule as I would like.

Now, back to the concept of the fundamental face. Let's take another look at Francoise.

A commenter noted that this face is captivating in its imperfect and human beauty, and this is true. But it's not what I'm looking for here. I'm looking for why, seeing this face, I have a sense of, "Yes, of course." Because many faces share the qualities the commenter noted, but not all of them seem so absolutely natural and true to me.

I first noticed this phenomenon in two independent contexts, and it was only later that I put them together.

The first context was an accumulation of ordinary interaction: some people just had faces that captivated me more than others. And these faces had certain things in common.

The other context was in life-drawing workshops. Portraits of some models I found easy - absurdly easy - to draw. And their faces had certain things in common as well.

EMMA (early state of "Emma, Twice" painting)

LEAH (early state of "Day" painting)

I will demonstrate below the similarity I am proposing between these two faces.

So I began to think in terms of "face templates" that we carry around. My intuitive hypothesis was that there was some mechanism by means of which the developing brain comes to recognize a "face," referring all actual faces to this face concept. But the face concept is not completely abstracted - it is actually a fairly specific face, and faces that show high correspondence with this face, are perceived to be more "facelike" or "true" by the observer. Moreover, this face template, the true face - it is different for each person.

More recently I read Dr. Livingstone's staggering book on how we see, and lo and behold, I may not just be making things up. She describes the mechanics of visual field integration by the eye and the brain - from simple light sensitivity in the most basic cells, to cells specialized to detect contrast differences in small areas, to cells specialized to detect lines, to cells that perceive "extended contours, corners, curvature, and so on, over larger and larger regions of the visual field. We do not yet understand very much about higher visual areas and what complex features they code for, though neurons that are selectively responsive to faces have been described." (p. 63, italics mine)

In short, your sense of sight is based on crappy vector graphics.

I'm going to go out on a not-very-long limb and guess that Dr. Livingstone and her colleagues are going to eventually distinctly find and observe the face-responsive neurons, and that not only will they discover that their function involves a kind of basic inherited face template (front-view relative locations of features, eyes, mouth, nose, front-view shape of face, profile view, in that order of priority), they will also find face-specification that takes place in response to early childhood imprinting.

(Don't worry, this does all have something to do with art, getting to it.)

Why am I so confident about this? Because I've got a pretty good idea that this happened with me, and I can show you the particular image I imprinted on:

That's Helen of Troy, from D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, which my parents read to me when I was very little. So, in my case at least, Truth and Beauty actually are linked inextricably.

Let's compare Helen and Francoise:

Perhaps you can see the similarity. Ignore the hair - hair isn't part of my theory, except as it bounds the face. To take my proposed order of priorities in the face template: The eyes are large and set wide apart. The mouths curve up in the little smile commas at the outer ends, and the separation at the midpoint is distinct. The noses are of a medium length, relatively narrow, without a noticeable bridge, and come to a point. The faces are wide at the brow, with high cheekbones, and curve toward a small rounded chin - a heart shape.

Now let's look again at the faces of those two models whom I find easiest to draw: Leah and Emma. Remember, the overall shape of the face is the least important feature.

An interesting thing about all this is that, because I'm imprinted on Ingri D'Aulaire's Greek ideal, I'm not as sympathetic to the actual Greek ideal:

Yes, a beautiful face - but like all Greek sculptures, I find the nose too broad, the lips too thick, and the eyes too close together for it to read as completely natural.

Maidman, you might say, that's very interesting, but isn't it really just a hunch you have based on your own proclivities and some hints in a book?

Good point. What I'm presenting isn't enough evidence, and in fact I won't be able to provide enough evidence with what resources I have. But it is worth looking at some other artists to see if they tend to be consistent with the thesis.

First, let's look at a couple of prime examples of artists who painted types instead of individuals:

That's El Greco.

And that's Schiele, who despite the individualizing elements of his portrayals, was always at or near his type:

As you can see, Schiele himself was close to - but was not exactly like - his type.

The very phenomenon of artists depicting types instead of individuals argues powerfully for the thesis. But it could also be interpreted as providing little evidence for it, since one could posit that some artists are of a genetic type prone to typing, and others not - without an underlying typing mechanism present in all artists (and, by extension, all people).

So let's look at some of the individualizers:

Sister Wendy, my wife (who has my template facial type, incidentally) tells me, was painting Helene Fourment before he knew her. And this makes sense. Helene Fourment's face, as depicted by Rubens, is structurally similar to Rubens's depiction of his own face. That's him on the left, beside her:

How much of this can we put down to ethnic type? Not enough.

Or consider Rembrandt's idea of himself:

How different is this, in terms of basic structure, from his idea of Hendrickje?

Not very - the same wide-set eyes, dome-like forehead, little mouth, and square chin.

I will skip Titian and Tintoretto here, but I'll be coming back to them later in this blog, and when I do, consider the faces. For the time being, let me finish with a rather famous similarity:

A lot of speculation about whether the Mona Lisa is a secret self-portrait has been made. I think this misses the point. The self-portrait is very convincing - but that doesn't mean it's accurate. Every artist can convincingly distort features at the level of his expertise. Da Vinci's expertise is very high, and he probably looked a lot like this. A lot, but not entirely. Consider the facial structure of a couple of his other famous faces:

They all have tall, oval faces, with rounded foreheads, eyes relatively close together, long straight noses with rounded bottoms, and relatively thin lips. My suspicion is that the resemblance between Da Vinci's self-portrait and the face of the Mona Lisa derives not from a relationship between the two images, but from the emergence of the two images from an underlying template by means of which Da Vinci understands faces.

Let's assume that this model is true. What does all this mean? For one thing, it means that one day, an examination of a certain part of your brain will be able to reveal the face of your one true love.

But it also means that artists resonate with some faces more than others. It means that, as you work with various models, you should try to become sensitive to the face that you are seeking, and learn to recognize the sense of unclenching, of ease, of essential rightness you feel when you are working with a model who matches your imprinting.

There is nothing banal or deflating about discovering the neurological mechanism which underlies this powerful facet of the human and artistic experience. It is what animates the ability of the artist to capture that complexity which the commenter observed in the Picasso drawing. The physical substrate is not the same as the spiritual phenomenon.

The experience is unchanged: we are all vulnerable to our medusa, and when we meet the medusa, we will seem to become like stone, because we are transfixed. But inside the frozen, insensate artist, the fullest potentials of thought, emotion, and sympathy are revealing themselves, because the artist is finally looking at humanity through a clear filter. The medusa's face is the clear filter: it is the perfect window. When you are seeking to learn, to see, and to represent what you discover, you cannot have a clearer window than the company of a model who is also your medusa.

Lest you should take this as an absolutist statement, let me also point out that my favorite model, Piera, whom I find endlessly fascinating, and have now painted more than I have ever painted anyone else - is not of my type particularly at all!


  1. Scientists and pseudo-scientists have been grappling with the relationship between faces and their impacts on others for years. You describe it as a neurological/psychological phenomenon, whereas some believe that our reactions to faces occur because faces give us a glimpse of a person's true nature. It's like a fight or flight kind of thing. This deals mostly with men, but I am sure there is some overlap with what you're discussing.

    Check out this article from Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2232409/

    BTW they say that Hollywood casting directors cast supporting roles largely on facial type, so as to not confuse audiences about the character's nature or role in the plot.

    A great example would be the demon bike rider Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona (played by heavyweight prizefighter Tex Cobb). Sure, his size, cigar, and outfit reveal much about his character. But that face. That face was amazing.

  2. Just found your blog and have really enjoyed reading your entries. Look forward to seeing more of them.

  3. Steven -

    Thanks for coming by, and I hope you enjoy future posts!

    Chris, you raise an interesting point, but I think we may still be talking past each other. I think that you are completely correct, that close study of the face, at least as re-imagined in art, does provide a glimpse of true nature.

    I am also interested in the mechanics of how this works at the most basic cognitive level. If we can sort out how we know, by means of analysis of neural phenomena, it will still do nothing to explain its meaning in human terms. I had this discussion (well, disagreement, if I recall correctly) with my friend Ehren one time, about the meaning of anger versus the chemistry of anger. I posited that one can know everything that can be known about the chemical and structural underpinning of anger, and still not know the experience or meaning of anger. As I remarked before, the physical substrate is distinct from the spiritual phenomenon.

    So why the interest in the substrate? Because part of my goal as an artist, and as a blogger now, is to explore the mechanisms of perception, because to understand the mechanism provides the means of manipulating and optimizing its function for the purposes of the art. I'm going to cover a lot more "tricks" that help art work in future posts, including a single trick used by Rembrandt and Caravaggio which accounts for much of their perceived profundity. The thing is, they *are* profound - but it's because they knew this trick, and used it with deft artistry.

    The magnificent Randal Tex Cobb, by the way, produces a good deal of his impact by interacting with a particular neurological phenomenon which I just read about today. Does this interaction diminish his unholy awesomeness? Not a bit. But it's interesting to know - and to know that this same interaction accounts for the threatening effect of Francis Bacon's portraits. Keep reading - I'll blog about it soon!