Monday, February 8, 2010

On Eyes: Point of Focus, Lower Lid Shape

A while back, Pengo asked if I might write something about eyes. I've been procrastinating on that, because, well, eyes have been pretty well covered and it's not that easy to find illustrations for the few points I have to make. But I do have a few things to say about eyes that I haven't read already elsewhere. Here are the less important points:

1. Point of Focus - or lack of it. In humans, both eyes tend to look at the same thing. We are very good at reading what a person is looking at - from a straightforward look at something in the far distance, to a cross-eyed look at something close to the person.

Imagine two dotted lines extending forward from the eyes. Each eye is aimed down its own line. It is natural for the lines to be parallel (looking straight ahead into the distance), and it is natural for them to converge (some degree of cross-eye). There is no natural circumstance where the lines diverge.

However, there is a strong emotional content to such a representation. It is not an inward look: it is a defocused outward look. It virtually always reads as if the person's soul had been crushed by some circumstance or suffering, leaving them not introspective but vacant. It is a tremendously powerful configuration of the eyes if portrayed properly. I first became aware of it when I saw the poster for Julie Taymor's one good movie to date, Titus. The expression on Anthony Hopkins's face says it all, and I sat down at the time to figure out why:

The points of focus diverge. I came across this exceedingly rare depiction again recently, in a self-portrait by Israeli-Russian artist Yefim Ladizhinsky:

This is an effective tool to keep in your bag of tricks as a painter. And that's what I have to say about that.

2. Lower Lid Shape.

Artists give a lot of thought to the upper lid of the eye, because it is in the raising, lowering, and squinching of this lid that emotions are most directly expressed. To the extent we think about the lower eyelid at all, we are accustomed to thinking of it as a circle arc symmetric about the horizontal midpoint of the eye. This is almost never true. In most caucasians (and let's face it, most of what I know is about caucasians) there is a slight dip downward toward the inner corner:

After a little messing around with things that don't work, most artists also eventually figure out this shape, and apply it without further individuation to all eyes. Bad idea, artists!

I first became conscious of the reverse configuration when I was trying to figure out why Sarah Michelle Gellar had strangely emotional eyes. Check her out:

That's right, my friends. Her lower lids curve down to their lowest points farther to the sides of her head than that axis of symmetry. This makes her look very emotional, pretty much all the time. I have a hypothesis about this too.

Because the lowest points in her lower lids are not where we expect them to be, we have a preconscious impression that something is actively weighing them down. And what's the one thing that usually weighs eyelids down? Tears. Therefore, we have a vague impression that her lower lids are always brimming with tears. Of course, on Buffy, they usually are. But even when they aren't, we think they are.

This lower lid shape is fairly rare, but people who have this shape have an unusual emotional intensity to their eyes. Most artists don't know to depict this shape because even when they are looking at it, they don't see past the stereotyped eye-shape template in their minds. Well, except for the artists who draw Buffy comics:

Sooner or later, most of them figure it out.


  1. Hey, thanks! I was also curious about that other part of the human eye - self-awareness, intelligence, deep-seated sadness, what have you ... the kind of thing CGI characters didn't have (until AVATAR, apparently.)

    You are the one who chose EYES as your banner (something I copied without even thinking about) as opposed to, well, any other part of the anatomy. They are simple, but they are real, paint conveys something that a computer cannot. What up wit dat?

  2. No problem!

    Hmn. Consciousness in the eye - very very difficult to explain well, and yet, not that tough to do. One of the simplest tricks for an artist, actually. I have another post about eyes to write, which will be a lot harder to compile graphics for, that comes much closer to what you're looking for, but not so close as is possible. I'll think about how to address it even more directly.

    I did notice your eye banner! I'm glad it proved a handy design for you, and I'm glad I didn't choose, say, a nipple banner, because that would have been bad news for you attracting your target audience. The eye banner, though is an old practice - I remember near the end of the ad cycle for "Silence of the Lambs," their 32nd-of-a-page newspaper ads were just the eyes, and it totally worked.

    Avatar doesn't blow me away as much as it does everyone else. The eyes were pretty good, but not categorically better than, say, the LOTR treatment.

    Computers can't do it perfectly for a few reasons I can think of:

    1. They're dumb.
    2. The operators tend to be too tech oriented and not art oriented enough.
    3. The qualities involved are as nearly unquantifiable as a physical phenomenon can get.

    I'll think about it some more.

  3. "The qualities involved are as nearly unquantifiable as a physical phenomenon can get."

    And yet, with a crude pigment ...

  4. Just so! And even with a low resolution, and a great deal of missing information. But where to put the information, and how to guide the mind to interpolate what is missing - this makes the application of the pigment, though simple in its outcome, profound in its involvement.

  5. Great post, thanks muchly. I still struggle with what or who my eyes are looking at lol

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed it Jade! Good luck with the eyes - love your Viking ships!

  7. Then there's Marty Feldman. He didn't have to say a word in Young Frankenstein and he still would have been funny.

    Then there's Bette Davis. I'd like to read how she fits into your ideas about eyes.

  8. Sonofagun! I replied to this, Chris, but it seems not to have posted. I wanted to say - Feldman = hilarious, yes, and Bette Davis has the Gellar-type lower lid shape, which is odd, because she's the only one of this group so far who does not hail from southern or eastern Europe, where I figured the trait originated.

  9. I meant to post this last week, but it seems to me that if something is unquantifiable then even the artist couldn't do it. It's not like brains are magic, they're just inadequately understood at present.

  10. "Seems to you"? Well it seems wrong to you! Actually, this is a really interesting question, so I'll write a post about it when I'm not submerged by work - I'm in Minneapolis this week showing up in person to do stuff I usually do over computer, so I have almost no time to write. I suspect that some of my answer will appeal to the outlook you describe, and some of it will not.