Even the slightest tweaks to natural facial expressions, like the smile, can change the way the world views a person’s face, according to artist Gary Faigin.
Faigin not only sketches and paints faces, he also studies them. His fascination of smiles, frowns, angry faces, sad faces, overjoyed faces and more led to the development of his book The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression. The text, in its 26th printing, is a go-to reference for modern-day animators, including the one who depicted the creature in the new movie The Shape of Water.
His work in facial expression spans three decades. Notably, in the last six years Faigin has been working with a team of computer scientists and animation specialists at the University of Washington to conduct thousands of tests on how others perceive facial expression.
Faigin speaks to various groups, including cosmetic physicians, about his findings. Last year, he presented “Face It. The Seductive Power of the Expressive Face,” at the American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery’s Fall Scientific Symposium.
Notably, the study of facial expression isn’t so much about aesthetics, according to Faigin. It’s about science. It’s quantifiable.
Take the smile, for example:
“What’s really critical here is how hypersensitive we are to what’s going on with the smile. We have this North Star in our mental framework for what is normal and everything is based on that. When we see a smile that is off the norm, we get queasy — we don’t like it,” Faigin says.
Using online testing with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, Faigin has learned the optimal pattern for a smile, where 100% of people, chosen at random, will say the person in the image or sketch is happy. Faigin can then fine tune the happy smile, extending the mouth corners a bit, for example, and garner a very different response.
“The smile is particularly fascinating because it is by far the most complex and interesting of all the facial expressions. We have very strong patterns for a smile and there isn’t just one flavor for a smile. There are warm smiles, cold smiles, sexy smiles, bittersweet smiles…,” he says.
Faigin only days ago was drawing closed-mouth smiles, where the corner of the mouth can be in different positions. By simply tweaking the corners of the mouth only, “happy” results spiked by 30%.