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.

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