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A critical examination of facial expression

Article-A critical examination of facial expression

Mr. Faigin 

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.

Tense Smile: A natural smile is a bow-shaped, with mostly the upper teeth displayed. This smile, perceived by most viewers as more tense than joyous, includes sideways stretching of the lower lip and both rows of teeth, two details which make it look insincere.

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.

Sincere Full Smile: This is the most endearing and universally recognized smile, engaging the lower eyelid, mouth and nasolabial fold, and perceived by everyone as warm and welcoming. Note the bow shape of the mouth opening, and the display of upper teeth only. The tissue around the lower lips is relaxed, an important part of the pattern. 

“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%.

NEXT: Mission Critical Expression Zones


Mission Critical Expression Zones

Cosmetic surgeons, whether they inject Botox, fillers or perform surgery, will likely impact parts of the face considered crucial for natural expression.

“For better or for worse, there is 36 square inches of territory that is absolutely critical for our perception of expression in the face — 85% of the emotional content is communicated just by this region,” Faigin says.

Bittersweet Smile: The expression of a woman reunited with a son long-thought dead. The intense combination of grief and joy that arouses our sympathy is not possible if the muscle movement in the inner brow (note the kink in the eyebrows) is missing. 

For the upper face, the mission critical expression zone is what might be covered if a person were to wear a traditional eye mask to sleep. It’s the lower medial part of the brow, the area that includes the upper and lower eyelids and the area between the eyelids and brow ridge, according to Faigin.

On the lower face, expressions emit from an oval area, which includes the mouth. It’s the region occupied by the orbicularis oris muscle, which extends out to the nasolabial folds and down to the mid chin.

“The rest of the face can just take a hike. We don’t really register what’s going on in the mid-cheek region. The nose is only deployed effectively in one expression, which nobody cares about, which is disgust. When I work with designers, often they won’t even bother to animate the nose,” he says. “But, within these 36 square inches, you cannot overestimate how sensitive we are to the tiniest deflection from the norm.”

Ingratiating Smile: Looking up with a "distress" pattern in the forehead and brows gives this smile a "Will you Forgive Me Now?" appearance. 

For example, today’s number one nonsurgical option for patients, Botox and other neuromodulators, can be a big problem for empathetic communication.

“Botox primarily paralyzes the muscles in the middle of the forehead that are critical in expressing sadness, thoughtfulness or distress. We’re incredibly sensitive to those signals, evolution’s way of insuring that we comfort the afflicted; that’s not going to happen with Botox,” Faigin says.

Wistful Smile: A slight, asymmetrical smile is combined with extremely subtle kinking in the inner eyebrows, giving this expression a wistful, longing appearance. 

Slight facial changes, from a treatment like Botox, can impact how people are able to communicate, he says.

“If you look around in a café and watch people converse, it’s interesting how often they will frown or lift up their eyebrows--either in an intermediate way, using corrugator and medial frontalis or the frontalis, only,” he says.

These conversational gestures help acknowledge what another has said, according to Faigin.

“It’s interpersonal communication—the fluency of our gestures,” he says. “And it’s very disturbing when you’re talking to somebody, and you can’t tell how they’re responding to you.”

NEXT: Beware the Uncanny Valley


Beware the Uncanny Valley

There’s a well-known term used in animation and robotics: the “uncanny valley.” This phenomenon has to do with uncanny human resemblance of a robot or other creature that isn’t human. There’s a point when the resemblance becomes so human, that it becomes creepy to the viewer.

“In Avatar, the aliens were purposely stylized so that when they smiled and frowned, we wouldn’t be applying human criteria to them. The uncanny valley is when we assume a face is human but it’s not responding in the natural human way. We find that creepy,” Faigin says.

Along those lines, a human, whose facial expressions don’t quite match up to what people see as natural, might elicit an uncomfortable response. Faigin has learned by manipulating images on the computer that it’s easy to change a smile from natural and comforting to one that appears strained or stressed and not normal or natural.

All illustrations for this article were drawn by Gary Faigin for his book, “The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression,” 1990. For more information about Faigin and his work, go to, which includes his monthly Face Blog.

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