KEY CONCEPT: To depict a particular facial expression, it’s all about the specific pattern of the eyes, the mouth and the brows; everything else is window dressing.
So the other day, when I saw an excellent New York Times illustration of a scared face to go with an article about fear and anxiety, I was naturally curious: do the “extras” like the sweat, the lurid colors, and the creepy/crawly surrounding lines, make any difference to our reading of the key emotion? It certainly seemed likely, on a logical level, that the horror movie effects should intensify our association with fear – how could they not? It certainly looked like a good illustration of the feeling of being in a nightmare, and fear is famously hard to sell on the basis of the face alone.
And then I began testing.
Figure 2. My version of Figure 1, with no color or other enhancements, tested slightly better than the NY Times illustration. More people thought he looked more frightened without the colors and lines.
Figure 3. My black and white line drawing of a scared-looking man tested well, but not great, for the expression of Fear.
Figure 4. I added all of the extras to my Figure 3 drawing - including color. There was virtually no difference in testers' responses with or without the enhancements.
As I suspected, it is the facial features that are are the ballgame when it comes to the Cardinal Expressions and the face. We’re so imprinted on the patterns communicated by the 16 square inches in the center of the face (see my archived blog posts on Upper Face Hot Spots and Lower Face Hot Spots), that details like color, sweat, tears, manic lines, and lurid colors don’t enter into our calculation.
In fear, the eyes are extra wide; the brows are tilted, and the mouth is stretched and tensed at the lower margin. Our brain notes the additional visual data, but it does not affect our instant “Fear or Not Fear” decision.
A great deal of effort goes into depictions of the face, but artists should be aware that when it comes to emotions, their focus needs to be on the core features.