Why Painted Portraits Should Not Have Big Smiles

by Rita Romero on September 3, 2010

As a portrait artist, I am constantly faced with being asked to work from a photo where the subject has a wide toothy smile, or my customer wants the subject painted with a big smile. If there is no other reference material available or I can’t do it from life, I may have no choice. (ultimately the “customer is always right”) But I do try to educate people about the reasons why a subject is best captured in a painted portrait – whether in pastel or oils – without a subtle or no smile, rather than a big toothy grin.

If you have ever seen the daguerreotypes of early photographs from the 1800s, you will notice that photographers used a classical closed-mouth portraiture approach with their subjects. People then were used to seeing classical oil paintings and photographers simply used the camera to mimic classic portrait poses. While there are some old master paintings that feature smiling people, most portraits were painted with closed-mouth grins or subtle smiles at the most. The Mona Lisa is probably the best example of this. But over the last century people have become used to having a big smile in snapshots as well as portrait photography.

 Why didn’t traditional portraits feature big smiles? Did the artists hate to paint teeth?  Well, it must be said that back in the old days people’s teeth did not hold up as well as more modern times. Certainly, if a person’s teeth were yellowed, crooked or missing, they would not make for a flattering smiling image. As the old saying goes, “The eyes are the mirror of the soul”. The Old Masters knew this, and they wanted the subject’s eyes to show as much as possible to engage the viewer. When a person smiles, the eyes tend to narrow into slits – some people more than others – and crinkles around the eyes appear to make them look older. There is also a distortion of the face that happens when a person smiles. So, unless someone goes around laughing and grinning all of the time, it is difficult to get a good recognizable likeness of a person with a broad toothy smile. Yes, this is the main reason that “mug shots” are taken with a closed mouth. Remember your yearbook photos? The photographer usually did not want a big toothy smile either. People can recognize someone more readily when we can see their features without a smile.

Another consideration is the lighting. Usually a single light source is best when painting a portrait. Photographers may use several light sources and/or a reflector to bounce light back into the face, smoothing out the shadows and features. So if the subject is smiling, the lighting helps to make them look more smooth or glamorous in an unrealistic way. This may work for photography, but it is not the best way to paint a subject. When using classical lighting for a portrait painting, if the subject has a broad toothy grin, the shadows can distort the features and it will not be flattering or a good likeness. The best argument I can make to clients is to pull out some old black and white “glamour shots” of movie stars where they have closed mouths or a slight grin. Those Hollywood photographers knew that using the classical closed-mouth poses of the Old Masters would provide a good likeness (as well as make the subject look sexy or glamorous). 

When I paint from a live sitting, the subject is usually aware that this is a “formal” process, unlike a snapshot, and usually does not try to smile too much. This is also true because they get tired of trying to hold a smile and they just relax, which usually provides the best likeness. But it is difficult to do a photo shoot (for reference) of a subject because we have all been conditioned from childhood to smile or “mug” for the camera. We all tend to grin when we see a camera pointed at us. 

 So, I hope this little essay will help people to understand why the best portraits are painted with a slight or no smile. Some people may argue that it makes the subject look too stern. But an experienced artist (or photographer) knows how to pose and light a subject properly to get a pleasant and recognizable likeness.  That is, of course, unless you are trying to paint a portrait of Bozo the clown.

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