The Human Face

by F.

I find the human face to be the most interesting thing in the universe. In this, I’m not alone. I suspect most non-autistic people feel this way, whether they know it or not. Witness how many faces we see on magazines, books, billboards and so on. Drawing faces is a great challenge because we are so good at picking out flaws in them. Certain faces look right, others don’t.


Recently I watched a wonderful short called Terminal Bar by Stefan Nadelman. Info on it can be found here, including where to get a copy. Netflix has in its library a compilation of shorts from Resfest called “The Best of Resfest Volume 3” and Terminal Bar is in there.

The film tells the story of a bar in Manhattan, but that’s not what interested me about it. Rather, it was that the movie consists largely of a successive presentation, through very cool flash animation, of faces—patrons of the terminal bar over the years. The bartender habitually photographed the patrons, and we see maybe 500 faces over the course of the film. (I didn’t count. It’s a lot of faces).

And even though this film has, essentially, no plot, no single character whom we follow, and so on, it is completely gripping. Largely, I think this is because it’s fun to look at face after face after face. And these are some interesting faces. Drunks. Down-and-outers. Ruffians. These are faces that make the old visage of W.H. Auden look like young Brad Pitt. These faces have some wear on them.

But what makes a good face?

This topic is discussed in John Cleese’s The Human Face. Among those interviewed in this series (produced for the BBC) is Dr. Stephen Marquardt, who has developed what he believes is an archetypal face. This archetypal face is based on phi (1:1.618…). Here’s a profile mask of the archetypal face:


It appears that this idea doesn’t have a lot of academic support. But who knows. The real question is, as a guide, is his approach better that the best available alternative?

Artists have used other canons of proportion for centuries, and there’s no reason to think those are more correct than Marquardt’s. So, even though he may be wrong, his archetypes may be an improvement over classical canons.

And, I think it’s also important to keep in mind the purpose of Marquardt’s mask. He is (or was) a maxillofacial surgeon. He puts faces together. Given this, he obviously needed a template from which to work. Which is better, his “archetypal” mask, or his gut intuition? Were I under his knife—or that of any other maxillofacial surgeon—I would prefer the mask was used as a guide.