Portraits - Handling a BIG smile

Hello Everyone,

I've recently finished 4 pencil portraits and have been having a great time.  My newest portrait sitter who's fiance is commissioning a pencil portrait and as well as an oil painting is known and recognized for her big, beautiful smile. I like to paint what I see based on my first impression and immediately noticed that she also has amazing colors in her skin.

This is a great opportunity to talk about how to handle smiles.

Usually, I paint portraits 100% from life. The result is that sitters have at most, a "mona lisa smile" (if any) because in an effort to sit still, people naturally relax their facial muscles. A big smile requires activation of multiple of muscles which can quickly grow tense if the sitter makes and effort to "hold" the smile.

One response I have to this is to encourage all sitters to let themselves smile or twinkle their eyes whenever they drift off and think of something happy. Sometimes, in that fleeting moment, I can see the way they hold their cheeks, eyes, mouth and even their chin when they are happy. Generally, the smile is so fleeting that it's a challenge to capture all of that information in the 4-30 seconds that the smile remains natural. For people with a big smile like my current sitter these changes are even more dramatic.

By the way: I know someone out there is cringing right now at this suggestion of letting the "model move" and I realize that facial movement would drive plenty of artists and art students nuts! It's totally fine to ignore all of this smile stuff right now if your current goal is to just make the painting of your sitter look human, practice flesh tones, figure out how to model the turns etc. It's best to practice from life! We're all learning all of the time and it's nice to focus on learning just a few things at a time. 

This sitter is unique. I decided that her smile was too important to her likeness to relegate it to a rushed memorization at random intervals. So, during her first sitting we did a photo shoot and I spent the majority of our time together working on a color study to understand those lovely fleshtones.

Between sittings, I studied the shapes of her smile, face and likeness while finishing the pencil portrait above.

Things to look for in a spontaneous smile:
- The flesh under the eyes folds up and the lower lid starts to cover the eye as the muscles around the eyes (orbicularis oculi) contract and rise the cheeks. This intensifies the highlight on the cheek and also darkens the crease under the eyelid. (note that ignoring that crease for fear of making the sitter look old can backfire and make the smile look fake)

- The upper lip thins and the dark shadows inside the mouth reveal a dark shape that the artist can capture to show the unique shape of the corners of this sitter's smile.

- The muscles (contracting zygomatic major and relaxing orbicularis oris) pull up the edges of the mouth and open the lips to create deep dimples and fold the muscle (levator labii superioris) and skin running from the sides of the nose down to the insertion point of the zygomatic major next to the mouth. This fold with flesh rounded over it casts a shadow.

- On some faces, crows feet, nose wrinkles as the eye muscles (orbicularis oculi) contract.

- The flesh along the sides of the chin stretches an flattens (from the pull of the zygomatic major) which sometimes reveals the shapes of the bone inside the chin or may show additional wrinkles or folds.

- The tip of the nose may also move

In my next post, I'll talk about how to use all of this together to create a foundation "drawing in paint" to prepare for the next sitting with a client who is known for her big, wonderful smile.

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