The Subtle Art of Smiles 2

Great art is about subtlety. That’s why, when I paint portraits, I prefer the quiet, timeless expressions of a relaxed face over one with a large smile. First of all, no one can hold a wide smile for an extended period of time. And quiet smiles, I feel, have more mystery and beauty, as with Mona Lisa.

The portraits with big smiles that you see are a result of what I call the photography curse. Photos can capture a quick moment of happiness, which is great for the refrigerator. But when these images are put into a painted portrait, the effect can give the illusion of the Cheshire cat’s grin from Alice in Wonderland. In many cases, big smiles are a case of the artist trying too hard to get a likeness and please a demanding client.

In addition to inspiring artists to make portraits with wide smiles, photographs also make it tempting to over-render the mouth. Take a look at the photo and drawing of a young girl (above) that my daughter Liz created. In the photo you can see all the lines between the teeth. Had Liz copied these lines exactly, your eye would have been drawn straight to the mouth rather than to the eyes. Instead, she merely suggested the teeth by hinting at the spaces near the lips. As a result, the smile and teeth are less pronounced and the viewer can more easily see the essence of the subject.

Another tendency I see is making the teeth too white. As with the lines between the teeth, it’s a matter of values. The viewer’s eye will zero in on bright-white, Chiclet-like teeth for no other reason than that’s where the greatest value contrast is. As you’re working on the mouth, shade the teeth as dark as you dare, then lighten them until they appear natural.

Tips for Terrific Teeth
Sometimes you won’t have any choice but to draw or paint people with their teeth showing. For some subjects it’s a matter of a vivacious personality that needs to come through. And other people just naturally show their teeth most of the time. Even when they’re relaxed and resting, the design of their mouths allows for the teeth to show; completely closing their mouths often makes them look unnatural. So when that happens, it’s important to keep the teeth a simple element rendered in broad planes. This means showing them with minimal detail and with correct values. Here are two ways to help you do just that.

  • Squint. As I’m working on a portrait, I’ll stop from time to time and squint at my subject and then at my painting. If I can squint an element away in the subject but not in my painting, then I know the value is too light or too dark in that area of the piece. Fixing it is usually a matter of adjusting the values accordingly. This technique works for other details, as well.
  • Use your peripheral vision. Another way to help you see the true nature of the mouth and teeth is to study them while staring at the eyes or collar of the subject. Go ahead, try it. This gives you a softer view, much like squinting, and helps you weed out the unnecessary details.

Finding a Balance
The key to a successful portrait is to find an expression that quietly captures the essence of your subject. If that means teeth, then show them—but capture them in a subtle and masterful way. Paint the teeth as a broad unit that curves and darkens as it recedes into the mouth. Squint to be sure the values are dead-on, and resist more detail than is absolutely necessary. Find the essential details and use them sparingly as accents. Don’t overfocus on the teeth, but see them as just another element in the artwork as a whole.

A professor emeritus of art at California State University in Fullerton, James is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and of the National Watercolor Society.

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