What’s in a face?

Can facial expressions tell others something about the overall character of a person?

What’s interesting is that when we meet someone for the first time, their facial characteristics (eg face shape, eye shape and colour, hair style and colour), and expressions, are of less importance to our brain than noting their race and gender. This is because our brain tries to process a person’s identity first, and race and gender are a strong part of identity.

Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macnik write in an article titled What’s in a Face? – The human brain is good at identifying faces, but illusions can fool our “face sense”: “Facial expressions play a key role in our everyday social interactions. Even when watching movies or looking at photographs, we spend most of our time looking at the faces they portray. Our intense focus on faces is at the expense of other potentially interesting information, however.”

“Illusions: What’s in a Face?” is a slide show in the Scientific American Mind Matters series on the neuroscience behind visual illusions. It provides illustrations that demonstrate how our face-detection neural machinery can be fooled or overloaded.

Facial expressions can provide information about a person’s mood, but do not reflect their true inner feelings. Facial expressions used in social interactions, (for example during greetings, social crises or times of appeasement), can be the easiest to read and interpret.

Psychologists have long studied why people find certain faces more attractive than others. If we think that faces with symmetrical features are more attractive than others, why do many portrait artists deliberately exaggerate asymmetrical features? Stylisation such as this appears wrong and unflattering, however it often conveys something more meaningful about the sitter’s personality, mood or character than any flattering representation could.

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920) was an Italian painter and sculptor who worked mainly in France. He is known for portraits and nudes in a modern style characterised by elongation of faces and figures. He died at age 35 in Paris of tubercular meningitis. Here are some of his portraits. They seem deceptively simple in their stylisation, and yet, for me, they express an understanding of the personalities and moods of the sitters.

Woman with Red Hair

Woman with Red Hair

Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie

Portrait of a Woman in a Black Tie

The Black Dress

The Black Dress

Portrait of Max Jacob

Portrait of Max Jacob

The Boy (detail)

The Boy (detail)

Portrait of Chaim Soutine

Portrait of Chaim Soutine

Self Portrait

Self Portrait


Attention to details

Looking at the finer details of objects provides a new perspective and appreciation of their design, colour, texture and form. Here’s a few images that have inspired me.


Storytelling from images


Retina | Day 320365. Photographer: Marius-Vieth

Image source

Images are a great way to promote creative thinking. Find a collection of interesting images relating to a theme and then ask your students to study them, choose one or more of them, and then write a short story about what they think might be happening to the characters in them.

If you have chosen interesting images to start with the students may surprise you in their interpretations. You can then use their stories to promote meaningful discussions relating to your specific subject or workplace situation.

If you are prepared to be adventurous, don’t choose images that are targeted to a specific learning outcome or skill. To get the best results choose a theme that has no evident connection with your subject. This may sound frivolous, but if you really want to engage your students in a creative way give it a go.

As an example, look at these images:  http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/street-photography

Resulting stories from these images may revolve around:

  • appearances can be deceiving
  • some things can be overlooked
  • what’s in the detail is important
  • big versus small

Your challenge would then be to direct any resulting discussion from the students’ stories/themes back to the workplace or current subject area you are dealing with.

POSTSCRIPT: the images on this url change regularly, so what you see today may not be there next week – but the new ones will be equally interesting.

Contrast or harmony?

Here’s a collection of images that can be viewed in the context of contrast or harmony.

Not everyone will agree on which of these images could be categorised as contrast or as harmony (or both), and that’s the wonderful thing about imagery – it’s so individual. Most of us will perceive and interpret images based on our personal experiences, situation, mood or circumstances. Some of you will be analytical about your categorisation, most will react spontaneously and intuitively.

Look at these images and once you’ve made a choice, try to define what the elements are that helped you to decide if the image represents contrast or harmony, or if  (and how) it can be described as both.

Images are a good way to promote discussion in a learning environment. No one sees exactly in the same way – looking, re-acting and then analysing images allows us to ‘see’ through other people’s eyes and to learn about each other’s sense of perception. Initial reactions are a start, but when you take the time to think more deeply about what an image ‘says’ to you, a new level of understanding will emerge.

As an artist, the images I have chosen have an artistic appeal to me in relation to colour, space, design and form. As an educator, you could choose any range of images to promote specific discussion related to your area of expertise.

MARIMEKKO patterned hat spring 2013felixinclusis.tumblr.com

MARIMEKKO patterned hat spring 2013

Face design images.search.yahoo.com

Face design: images.search.yahoo.com

Boy and water liliessaffron-spice.tumblr.com

Boy and water lilies

Red and Paristumblr.com

Red and Paris

Super dads3-ec.buzzfed.com

Super dad

Pink Orange Blue

Pink Orange Blue

Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely

Surma Man, Ethiopia news.nationalgeographic.com

Surma Man, Ethiopia

George Harrison & Bob Dylanrockimages.centerblog.net

George Harrison & Bob Dylan

Black and Whiteelledecor.com

Black and White

Village WindowPhotos by Tony Kearney on Flickr

Village Window
Photos by Tony Kearney on Flickr

Twigs Sculpturearthouse.oulu.net

Twigs Sculpture

Spiral stairways3.amazonaws.com

Spiral stairway

Organic highwaydesignboom.com

Organic highway



People and their shadowsffffound.com

People and their shadows





Bror Johanssonvickyveiled.tumblr.com

Bror Johansson







prickly pear frozen margaritacupcakesforbreakfast.com

prickly pear frozen margarita

Turkish artist Mehmet Ali Uysalfbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net

Turkish artist Mehmet Ali Uysal

a moment. a shiftmedia-cache6.pinterest.com

a moment. a shift

Jonathan Delafield Cook ’s drawing “Bird’s Nest, 1998”

Jonathan Delafield Cook ’s drawing “Bird’s Nest, 1998”



Orange Blueaquieterstorm.tumblr.com

Orange Blue

Explosion of colorsdesert-dreamer.tumblr.com

Explosion of colors

White Center.  Mark Rothko

White Center. Mark Rothko

The forms are similar, the patterns contrast, by Kelly Jean Ohlartfulhome.com

The forms are similar, the patterns contrast, by Kelly Jean Ohl

White Birchjeffreymurray.photoshelter.com

White Birch

San Josemaría Escrivá Church by Javier Sordo Madaleno Bringas

San Josemaría Escrivá Church by Javier Sordo Madaleno Bringas

Purple yellowmoonlightrainbow.tumblr.com

Purple yellow



H. Palleiko Designsfrom Flickr

H. Palleiko Designs
from Flickr

Botrylloides magnicoecumflickr.com

Botrylloides magnicoecum

Giuseppe Guadagnoartpropelled.tumblr.com

Giuseppe Guadagno

Contrast or harmonystylelik.eu

Contrast or harmony



all images via