THE KEY CONCEPT : Realistic smiles are hard to pull off; stylized smiles are easy.
The resulting youthful portrait (Figure 3) is successful by most standards. However, Martha’s smile has a cool, slightly “off” quality, the result of Cotton’s misinterpretation of certain details in his source photograph (similar to Figure 1). My corrections, shown in Figures 5 and 6, improve the warmth and realism of Martha's smile by applying very subtle changes to the eyes and cheeks.
Cartoon characters, on the other hand, get a pass from the strict criteria we apply to literal renderings. Once an observer determines that a face is humanoid rather than human, we are completely forgiving of distortions or non-anatomical elements that would be otherwise rejected.
Take the case of the smile. One of the reasons professional portrait artists so rarely portray smiles is the minefield this expression can present. To say that viewers can be hyper-critical of a painted smile is an understatement; we can detect if it is insincere, lopsided, or just wrong looking, and better no expression than a smile badly rendered. Cartoon characters like Sponge Bob, Anna, and Woody, by contrast, get a pass as long as their smiles are simply recognizable, and the more stylized the character gets, the looser our criteria for recognition. At the outer limits of exaggeration and distortion, any mouth that is vaguely trapezoidal and wider at the top than the bottom will read as happy, and artists take full advantage of that creative freedom.
I present here a gallery of smiles, starting with the very slightly flawed portrait of Martha Stewart, as shown above, to animated and cartoon characters from a bit stylized to radically reinvented.
Figure 7. Elsa has a Slightly Stylized Smile. This image is a fan’s version of Disney’s Elsa and it works, although the portrait includes several details which would ruin a more realistic smile. The mouth isn’t open wide enough, the eyelids are in their neutral, rather than smiling, position, and the cheeks have no bulging or creasing at all. Luckily for the animators, Elsa is in the “humanoid” category, where our usual standards are suspended.
Figure 9 (right). Martha looks demented with Woody's Smile! I’ve re-done Martha's smile using the elements I highlighted for Woody. The result is a train wreck of a smile for Martha, or any literal depiction of a face. Realistic smiles must play by the rules.
Figure 11. This happy creature has the Most Stylized Smile. This face has a mouth that is virtually rectangular (smiles are bows or trapezoids), but the slight bowing of the upper edge, and the slight extra width of the upper margin compared to the lower, is all that’s needed to make the expression clear. The extended and arced upper lip line is a helpful addition.
Figure 1. Photograph of Martha Stewart & Will Cotton by Mike Krautter; Figure 2. Martha Stewart Living 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition magazine cover, December 2015/January 2016; Figures 3 & 4. Close-up of Martha Stewart portrait, "Visions of Sugar," painted by Will Cotton; Figures 5, 6 & 9. Photo of Martha Stewart portrait manipulated by author; Figure 7. Elsa's portrait image from www.fanpop.com; Figure 8. Image of Woody from Toy Story, produced by Pixar Animation Studios for Walt Disney Pictures and directed by John Lasseter, 1995; Figure 10. Spongebob characters found on www.Quiztron.com ; Figure 11. Free clip art of squid smiling.