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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Classic Facial Beauty

Yesterday, a friend and I were discussing the criteria defining beauty in the human face. Both of us, having some experience in portraiture, also professed some expertise in assessing this very transient and highly subjective subject. We fell to discussing the symmetrical versus the asymmetrical face, as well as the different cultural definitions of facial beauty, and the effects of age, race, sex, and nationality. All these things we readily agreed were factors, neither positive nor negative, but nonetheless critically important. Eventually, we decided that if we were going to get anywhere we'd have to limit ourselves to the media model of youthful, adult "classical" beauty from a Western point of view. Within those limitations, some general "rules" emerge.

Vivien Leigh. One distinctive,
asymetrical feature adds
character to great beauty.
I recall reading somewhere that in general, people tend to consider the symmetrical face more attractive than the asymmetrical one, though I can think of countless exceptions, the beautiful actress, Vivien Leigh for example. Her highly arched right eyebrow still turns me on. Beyond that however, a number of other features play a part. Here are some western guidelines to beauty that seem to prevail regardless of age or sex. The most important features are the eyes (large and colorful seems to be the rule). The nose is probably the least attractive part of the face, (bigger is not better). It goes without saying that sparkling, even, average-sized teeth are a plus. A flawless complexion is also a must.  The mouth and lips are less important provided they are not abnormally large, thick, or thin. Oval seems to be the most attractive shape for the face. Hair length, style, and its color (despite the amount of time people of both sexes spend playing with it) seems to make little difference so long as it is clean and well-kept. (The quantity of it is a factor, however.) Eyebrows should be strong and arched for classic beauty to prevail. The ears and forehead don't matter much so long as they are not exceptional in any way. Youthful beauty demands a strong, smooth jaw line, and it is this one feature which defines age more than any other. A classically beautiful face does not necessarily demand all these assets be perfect, but usually there is no more than one of them to be found lacking.

The same face (Vivien Leigh),
20 years later is no less
beautiful as it matures.
It's important to keep in mind that a face is a work of art constantly "in progress." It might be called the very definition of metamorphosis. As it changes, we unconsciously change our criteria in defining its beauty. The image of a beautiful baby in no way resembles that of a young bride, nor that of our lovely, aged grandmothers. There are some constants though. An angelic little girl seldom grows up to be anything other than a lovely young woman, then an attractive matron, and finally a sweet little old lady. Classic beauty survives very nicely this transition. On the other side of the coin, let's "face" it, fat, lines, wrinkles, dry skin, sags and bags, warts and liver spots all rob a face of its classic beauty. Fortunately, this is where the painters art comes into play. We try first to make improvements by painting the face itself. Beyond that, the only other alternative is our clever, discreetly flattering artistic expression of that face on canvas. It is in this endeavor that the artist must be acutely aware of the building blocks of classic beauty and the outside influences coming to bear upon them.

Though she failed to survive
into what we would, today,
term "old age" (she died at
age 54), Vivien Leigh in later
years retained all the hallmarks
of great facial beauty. At every
point in her life, the work of
artists played a part in that.

On the male side of the ledger, we can also see in the face of English actor, Roddy McDowall, the risidual traits of classic "beauty" despite the effects of maturity and inevitable aging. In this case the work of the makeup artist is not a major factor.

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