Facial Expression as Key to Narrative Portraiture


Faces are one of the earliest recognizable symbols we create as children first teaching ourselves to draw and design. Children are so intrigued by what the facial expressions of their parents and mentors visually communicate, they habitually draw their first portraits over and over again, emphasizing faces over bodies and, especially, the eyes within these faces.[i]

Source: www.mykidsart.com/au

We even use linguistic metaphors that demonstrate how we view faces and eyes as “containers for emotion,” such as “his face was full of fear” or “her eyes welled with sadness.”[ii] The communication young children receive from learning to read their caretakers’ facial expressions is essential to teaching them some of the most important lessons they will learn in early childhood, such as empathy and social cues.[iii] Before children learn to read words, they have already developed a vast vocabulary of visual cues that allows them to read faces. Prior to constructing landscapes and narrative compositions, children use facial features and expressions as early explorations into communicating through imagery, demonstrating a working vocabulary of universally recognized emotions such as anger, happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, and disgust.[iv] Portraits and the facial expressions they contain are one of our first methods of communicating and understanding stories.

Portraiture possesses the ability to communicate all types of stories: fiction and non-fiction, biography and autobiography, tragedy and comedy. When we verbally communicate or write down stories, we include an underlying organizational structure that frames the main idea or purpose of the story and the events that contribute to that main idea. Likewise, when we tell a story with pictures, we include this same underlying organizational structure, which we call design. The structure or design of a composition demonstrates information about characters and their characteristics, the general mood or tone of the story, time and movement, plot and drama, and connections and associations. The design and organizational structure of portraiture, faces, and facial expressions similarly convey these ideas. The goal of this paper is to examine the design methods portraiture uses to communicate these stories and narratives.

Seeing Ourselves in Portraits

In his book The Portrait of the Lover, Maurizio Bettini tells the story of the daughter of Butades. The girl, on the eve of her lover’s departure, traces his sleeping silhouette onto a wall, an image that Butades uses to create the first example of plastice, or sculpture.[v] When Butades’ daughter “stole that silhouette” (or eidolon), she was not merely making a record of reality, but hoped to capture her lover’s soul, or psyche, in the portrait.[vi] Bettini writes that, in accordance with ancient cultural beliefs, “the shadow was not only attached to the person: it was also considered to be an expression of that person’s most vital and significant characteristics.”[vii] Likewise, a portrait is more than just recording the features of a face; it captures the personality of an individual. A good portrait will not simply communicate the likeness of a person, but will tell a familiar story to the viewer, enough that, regardless of the subject, the viewer will come to “know” the portrait. Bettini refers to this empathetic response as sympatheia.[viii]

Our innate inclination towards storytelling is connected to our ability to “understand, intellectually and emotionally, the mind of another,” an ability that “emerges in children around the age of two and is normally fully developed by the age of five.”[ix] This ability is called “theory of mind,” and its language can be metaphorically applied to how we think of portraiture. Theory of mind is the scientific term for sympatheia, the ability to see ourselves in another and experience what they experience: an ability that is accessed while examining portraiture. We seek this recognition of ourselves, this sympatheia, in one another throughout our lives and across our environments, even transforming abstract shapes, shadows, and clouds into narrative facial imagery. Humans have a tendency to recognize faces in everyday objects where they may not actually exist.

This visual and perceptual phenomenon is called pareidolia, a concept related to the idea of apophenia, the human tendency to interpret meaningful patterns and connections from seemingly random or meaningless data. Our ability to see humanity and discover empathy in even the most seemingly mundane objects informs how we interpret visual cues in our environment as storytelling and narrative. We recognize aspects of ourselves, of our own emotions, of our own stories, through another human being’s face.

An illustrator named Hanoch Piven taps into this human tendency for pareidolia leading to storytelling through his clever portrait concepts in which he integrates random objects from his studio collection to form the facial features of celebrities or famous world figures.[x]

Barbra Streisand & Steve Jobs by Hanoch Piven

These objects often have a second layer of meaning as they connect to the stories behind the celebrity, such as an upside-down microphone replacing the prominent nose of Barbra Streisand or an Apple power cord imitating Steve Jobs’ famous smirk. These physical storytelling tools, accompanied by our urge to “figure out” the story and the identification of the celebrity, make Piven’s illustrations a game and mystery to be solved, with a satisfying sense of recognition upon successfully identifying the portrait.

Christoph Niemann is another illustrator who has experimented with the idea of facial recognition through the most abstract and simplified forms possible in his “Pixel Portraits.”[xi]

Janet Froelich & Thomas Fuchs by Christoph Niemann

In this short series of portraits of famous figures in design and media, Niemann uses the fewest number of pixels possible in order to first create an image that is recognizable as a face and then as an actual likeness. Much of Niemann’s work consists of telling stories through the most simplified means possible, including playing with pixels and pixel substitutions, such as the Legos he used in his “I Lego NY” series identifying icons of New York City.[xii]

Christoph Niemann. I Lego NY.

Both Piven and Niemann tap into their innate instincts for telling stories through portraiture by breaking down visual elements into the most basic art and design principles.

Storytelling Through Design

In order to convey stories visually, we can turn to the principles of design and how they are used to communicate narratives in all types of art. An excellent illustration of this process is Molly Bang’s book Picture This, which describes how the abstract principles of design can be used in order to create human narratives within art.

From Picture This by Molly Bang.

Psychologist Rudolf Arnheim describes Bang’s book as using “geometrical shapes… entirely as dynamic expression,” demonstrating how the principles of perceptual psychology inform our principles of design and how these work in concert to affect our emotions.[xiii] The effectiveness of Picture This also comes from Bang’s ability to translate the human experience of the physical world into the experience of the pictorial world through enlightening verbal and visual metaphors. These same principles of design can be applied to portraiture. Portrait artists leverage the underlying perceptual psychology of design to inform our interpretation of facial expressions, mood, and narrative within a portrait.

In Picture This, Bang demonstrates the difference in our emotional perception of horizontal and vertical compositions. Horizontal formats can communicate feelings of stability

Horizontal Images, Source: Picture This

and vertical formats can indicate activity and energy, based on our experiences of physical orientation.[xiv]

Vertical Images, Source: Picture This

Portraiture often tends to be vertical, so much so that a vertical format is frequently referred to as a “portrait” format. However, limiting portraits to a vertical format can constrain their storytelling capability. While a vertical portrait can engage a viewer by capturing the “spark” or energy of a person,

James Brown by Tim O’Brien

by changing the format to horizontal, an artist can contrarily communicate the more peaceful or contemplative side of human nature, giving the head and shoulders of a portrait space in which to wander and wonder.

Fruitgatherer by Fernando Armosolo

Diagonal lines in a composition may indicate motion and tension, demonstrated in portraiture through a diagonal gaze of the subject or through the features of the face itself.

Digital Lines, Source: Picture This

The diagonal of a furrowed brow or eyebrows raised in surprise or excitement can indicate both tension and activity.

Self Portrait as a Young Man by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Therefore, the principles of design can also be used to explain how facial expressions and features communicate certain feelings to us. We view pointed objects as threatening because they activate part of our brain called the amygdala, which is utilized in fear response.[xv]

Jagged Edges, Source: Picture This

Linguistically, this concept is conveyed through phrases such as a “sharp” pain or a “cutting” insult. Negativity, fear, and violence are often associated with this idea of “sharpness.” Ergo, if we are viewing portraits of villains, especially in cartoons and popular culture, they are full of pointed, aggressive angles, especially in their facial features. A well-known example of this concept in cultural imagery is the pointed form of an evil witch’s hat.

Maleficent, Disney Corporation

Alternatively, we tend to view curved objects as being soothing and protective.[xvi]

Curved Objects, Source: Picture This

When we see rounded bodies and facial features, these portraits make us feel safe, calm, and protected. This theme appears in Auguste Renoir’s later paintings, in which he sought to create comforting images, contrasting the sharp, arthritic pains he experienced in his later life.[xvii]

The Concert by Auguste Renoir

Pointed, narrowed eyes and mouths can indicate suspicion, evil intent, or disgust in a portrait,

Clint Eastwood by Roberto Parada

as compared to wide, rounded features that can indicate receptivity, such as an “open” smile.

Mark by Chuck Close

This association with sharpness and pain can be applied to extreme positive emotions as well, such as someone looking “painfully” happy because their eyes have been so crinkled with joy. Visual sharpness can also be associated with positivity or cleverness such as a “sharp wit” or a “sharp tongue.”

Jack Nicholson by C.F. Payne

Forms can appear to rest stably in a composition, giving a sense of being grounded and secure,

Stable Figure, Source: Picture This

or unstably, giving a sense of danger or unpredictability.[xviii]

Unstable Figure, Source: Picture This

In portraiture, we can further this metaphor by portraying the subject as mentally or emotionally unstable depending on the position of its head or body, or, less dramatically, as being merely in a state of confusion or indecision, as demonstrated when we tilt our heads. Likewise we shrug our shoulders, moving them from their usual square, stable state when we are unsure of something.

The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso

An off-balance head or askew shoulders could indicate instability, insanity, or, alternatively, being in a dreamy, thoughtful state, such as being “swept off your feet” in love, floating above the earth instead of resting stably on it.

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

Unstable, off-center, sideward glances can likewise indicate dishonesty, guilt, or indecision.

Beth by Catherine A. Moore

How a figure is oriented or balanced on a page and the orientation of its gaze can also indicate a narrative in portraiture. When an object is placed higher in a composition, it can indicate a sense of “freedom, happiness, triumph, or spirituality,”

Source: Picture This

while an object placed lower in the composition can indicate a sense of being “threatened” or being “heavier, sadder, constrained, or grounded.”[xix]

Source: Picture This

Likewise, when the subject of a portrait gazes in the direction of the upper half of a composition, they are also perceived as being free, happy, triumphant or spiritual.

David Cross by Catherine A. Moore

When they gaze down, they can appear to be threatened, sad, or trapped.

John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler

When the focal point of a portrait is placed directly in the center of the page, a figure can appear almost regal or meditative,

White-robed Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion by Kano Motonobu

but if the artist offsets the focal point from the center of the page, they create more dynamic forces within the image.

Sea Dog by Andrew Wyeth

This placement generates a more complicated composition, and, therefore, a more complicated story about the portrayed subject.

This concept of asymmetrical balance also applies to the direction of gaze. If the subject of a portrait is staring directly at you, their face in perfect symmetry, your focus is centered, which can provide for a dramatic and striking portrait.

Self-Portrait by Albrecht Duerer

However, if the person’s gaze is off-center, leading to another part of the page, our eyes follow this path, creating an increasingly active composition and story.

Portrait of the Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao, Qing Dynasty

If we place any object in a composition towards an edge or a corner, this tangent creates visual tension in the image. When applying this concept to portraiture, a face placed in the corner of the page can appear to feel trapped or, literally, cornered. A face near the edge of the page can appear to feel tense or “on edge.”

The size of elements within a composition can respectively attract or defer our attention. When creating portraits, many beginning drawers tend to exaggerate the size of faces on a head, and eyes within that face.

Source: thevirtualinstructor.com

In design, we can likewise exaggerate size to communicate that one element of a picture is more important than another. This is demonstrated in the hierarchical scale prevalent in early Greek, Egyptian, and Medieval art.[xx]

Tomb of Nebamun, Egypt

Beginning drawers see faces and eyes as the most important physical characteristic of a person because these features are communicating the most information. In other words, they are telling the most important elements of the story. The largest facial feature can communicate the most information about a portrait, such as “wide eyes,” a “big smile,” or “flared nostrils,” which shows the significance of the element of size.

Space and depth are other principles that, along with size, can be used to communicate narratives through portraiture. Space can imply a sense of time in a composition. Objects very close to one another create tension

Source: Picture This

but, when moved apart, allow time for a greater possibility of events to happen.[xxi]

Source: Picture This

In these portraits of two of my teenage cousins, I introduced the element of space into both portraits as an element of metaphorical time.[xxii] [xxiii] This visual timespace shows the vast possibility before each subject; you could say the young subjects are “gazing into their futures” through the negative space placed before them.

Madeleine by Catherine A. Moore
Peter by Catherine A. Moore

By placing the subject of a portrait further away from the viewer in the composition, an artist can create a sense of emotional distance instead of just physical distance. Moving a subject so close in an image that it breaks the border of the page can create almost an uncomfortable closeness to the viewer.

Value contrast can also play a narrative role in both composition and portraiture. Lightness and light backgrounds convey a sense of levity, hope, and safety,

Light Background, Source: Picture This

while darkness and dark backgrounds induce a sense of fear and the unknown.[xxiv]

Dark Background, Source: Picture This

A portrait full of light can likewise indicate these feelings of joy and levity,

The Jester by Judith Leyster

while a portrait full of shadows can fill us with a sense of mystery and fear.

Beth by Travis Brown

An area of light on a particular section of a subject’s face can bring focus to that portion of their facial expression. We use linguistic phrases like his face “lit up” or a “dark expression,” and these can be communicated literally through visuals. Using strong value contrast in a portrait can be used to metaphorically communicate the light and dark aspects of a person.

Signora Massimino by Umberto Boccioni

One of the most powerful elements of art that can affect design and composition is that of color, which affects our perceptions of portraiture as well. We associate objects through color more than shape or any other art element, and therefore can use color to lead our eye throughout a composition. Color is also common in much of our language about portraiture. We turn red when we blush with embarrassment, and pink can be a sign of health. A portrait artist can literally make someone’s face green with envy. A blue tinge to a face can show sadness, a yellow tinge sickness. We can turn white with fear. Therefore, colors are not simply connecting us with different elements of a composition, but also connecting us with our emotional associations with color.

by Zina Saunders

A specific example of how a portrait’s story can be communicated through these principles of design, including format, shape, balance, size, space, and value, is demonstrated through another one of my portraits: an untitled commission of a client’s grandfather.[xxv]

by Catherine A. Moore

The first impression we get of this portrait is of an energetic, joyful, laughing man, who, while young, appears to have lines of experience etched into his face. This portrait is oriented vertically, adding to the sense of energy the subject seems to possess. The off-centered orientation of the subject and the diagonal line of his shoulder give him the sense of forward movement, while he is still solidly grounded at the base of the page. The subject’s gaze is directed at the viewer, indicating openness and receptivity, and the angles in his face indicate the positive side of “sharpness,” as he appears to be keen and witty. The subject’s white sailor’s cap almost frames his head like a halo, giving the subject a sense of goodness, purity, and kindness. The strong contrast in his face indicates a man who has seen both sides of life but is washed in a bright lightheartedness, enhanced by his wide smile.

This portrait was completed as a gift for my client’s grandmother. After a happy marriage of many years, her husband passed away. Tragically, a fire at her home consumed almost all the photos she had of her late husband, except one in his naval uniform, the reference for this artwork. So much of the personality and story of her late husband can be told through his portrait, using the principles of design.


In Picture This, Molly Bang illustrates that the principles of design can activate our psychological impulses that contribute to our ability to read a story through a composition, and her theories similarly apply to the art of portraiture. In the conclusion of Picture This, Bang suggests a number of creative projects students can experiment with to build connections between design principles and storytelling. One of these projects consists of constructing scenes using cut paper in order to simplify the scene into its basic visual elements. When studying how to communicate narratives through portraiture, students could learn these valuable concepts as they break down a portrait into its most basic visual elements. Hanoch Piven and Christoph Niemann’s portraiture techniques could also be used as inspiration for student activities in simplification and storytelling through portraiture.

Through both abstract and realistic portraiture, facial expression and composition can be reduced to abstract design elements to communicate a story or narrative. Studying these principles of design reminds us that portraiture is much more than the features on a person’s face; it reveals a personality or a soul with which we can relate to and communicate. This sympatheia of psyches is the ultimate goal of storytelling.


Bang, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.

Bettini, Maurizio. The Portrait of the Lover. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.

Edwards, Betty. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1999.

Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed. New York: Owl Books, 2003.

Frank, Patrick. Prebles’ Artforms. Ninth Edition. Pearson Education: 2009.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

“Late Renoir.” Philadelphia Museum of Art. 22 June 2010–6 September 2010.

Lidwell, William, Holden, Kritina, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design. Minneapolis: Rockport Publishers, 2010.


[i] Betty Edwards, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1999), 71.

[ii] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 50.

[iii] Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed (New York: Owl Books, 2003), 34.

[iv] Ibid., 6–10.

[v] Maurizio Bettini, The Portrait of the Lover (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 7.

[vi] Ibid., 11.

[vii] Ibid., 43.

[viii] Ibid., 45.

[ix] Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 119.

[x] Figure 1. Hanoch Piven. Steve Jobs. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.pivenworld.com/steve-jobs/illustration

[xi] Figure 2. Christoph Niemann. Janet Froelich. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.christophniemann.com/index.php/portfolio/details/pixel_portraits

[xii] Figure 3. Christoph Niemann. I Lego NY. Accessed September 23, 2013. http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/02/i-lego-ny/

[xiii] Molly Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000), 7.

[xiv] Ibid., 42–44.

[xv] William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design (Minneapolis: Rockport Publishers, 2010), 62.

[xvi] Lidwell, Holden, and Butler, Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design, 62.

[xvii] “Late Renoir.” Philadelphia Museum of Art. 22 June 2010–6 September 2010.

[xviii] Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work, 50–51.

[xix] Ibid., 54–56.

[xx] Patrick Frank, Prebles’ Artforms, 9th ed. (Pearson Education, 2009), 89.

[xxi] Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work, 88–89.

[xxii] Figure 4. Catherine A. Moore. Madeline. 2012. Graphite on paper. Collection of the Artist.

[xxiii] Figure 5. Catherine A. Moore. Peter. 2012. Graphite on paper. Collection of the Artist.

[xxiv] Ibid., 68–69.

[xxv] Figure 6. Catherine A. Moore. Untitled. 2009. Graphite on paper. Private Collector.