I could choose many different focus points for week 14’s Fine Arts lesson, cycle 3, on iconic illustrator Norman Rockwell for Classical Conversations, but in the end, a good lesson can really handle only one. I created this lesson three years ago for my class of 10-13-year-olds, and I chose to make the lesson about facial expressions, just one of Rockwell’s ingredients to make his magic.
Ever since at least tenth grade, I’ve loved normal Rockwell. I chose to do my English research paper on him. Did I love his work, as many do, for the nostalgia his work generates? For its humor? For its optimism and affection for humanity evident in how he portrays people? All those things were probably all part of the mix that drew me to his work.
Discovering Great Artists, the text recommended for CC tutors, gives a tiny autobiographical snapshot of this member of “the Greatest Generation,” this underweight boy who gorged himself on bananas before he weighed in again at the recruiter’s office in an attempt to join the services during WWII. His life read much like his created scenes in illustration–pretty typical, not glamorous, but humorous.
The project: Facial Expressions in Rockwell
Step #1. This step happened before class, both to students and to parents in email: I asked students to bring in a photo (of anyone, even from a magazine) of a very definite facial expression showing an emotion. Be it from elation, anger, horror, sadness–it just had to be a strong emotion. (For those who forgot, they could use my Rockwell examples brought in.)
Step #2. I shared a bit about who Normal Rockwell was while passing around my print outs of some of his Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations. I asked students to tell the class what story they saw being told by one picture.
Step #3. Observation. If students don’t take time to observe closely/accurately, they will be at a loss in trying to draw expressions.
I asked students, if we didn’t see the facial expressions, could that story have come across well? I ask the students, What the ingredients to a face? First, students answer about eyes, noses, mouths, etc. I ask them to look at the mouths and eyes of the illustrations I passed out and asked them to describe them–to get them to observe that everything is big and wide open for surprise in the top one, but for the tackling boy in the football picture below, eyes and mouth are scrunched tight–you literally cannot see any lips or eyes. What about the shape of the boy’s mouth who is getting the wind knocked out of him in the tackle?
Then I asked, What else does a face need? What about wrinkles in the forehead for the apologizing boy at the dance down below? The wrinkles and bunches in the tackling boy’s face? The red in the cheeks for the boy getting tackled? The knot between the eyebrows on the girl whose foot got stepped on during the dance? Expressions are about the shape of not just the features–eyes, nose, mouth, eyebrows–but also the shape of the skin between them!
Step #4. Then I ask them to look at the photo brought in from home–to look for the ingredients that make up that expression. (For simplicity, focus on one face. Encourage them they can add others from a scene at home, but for class, we’ll walk through one together.)
Step #5: I share my photo from home to my students: two of my children in one of my favorite photos ever. I point out what I notice in the photo and need in my drawing: for the baby, eyebrows high on the forehead, high above eyes, eye big and round in surprise. On the other hand, for my son, the key to getting across his laughter was the details around the eyes as the skin crinkled and how the smile is not the wide–as in a portrait–a smile in laughter shows teeth, and takes a different shape as it stretches all the way around the gums. Perhaps this is the hardest/most key part of doing expressive faces well–applying earlier lessons I taught them at the beginning of the year–what shape is that really? (Basic Shapes Drawing Lesson, Week 1, Classical Conversations and Upside-Down Drawing, Week 3) It’s all too easy for any student of drawing to think, “I have to draw a smile,” and they will draw a smile, but not the shape of the smile they are trying to capture.
Step #6: While we couldn’t trace over the shapes we find on these photos, as we traced over black-lined drawings earlier in the year, I do encourage tracing, in the air, over the shapes they see in the photo of the body they plan to draw.
Step #7: I gave students blank paper for sketching. I encourage mapping the general lines of the whole body first, leaving details of the face til later.
I showed my sketch, pointing out how I broke the limbs down into long ovals and to get proportion and spacing right, how I measured with pencil part or finger parts (as taught in Mirror-Image Drawing, Week 2, Classical Conversations, Native American)
Step #8. The face. I referred them to the drawing of the face of the Native American in week 2 as we closely observe the shapes AND sizes of not just the eyes, nose, and mouth, but even the skin between them! The size and shape of the skin portions between the features are just as important! And is that skin flat, wrinkled, pouchy or featuring lines or a different color to get across emotion? (In the case of color, we’ll deal with that later, but it’s good to note now.)
As they draw, I circualte aroudn the room, assisting as needed, encouraging, sometimes even drawing part of their subject on MY piece of scrap paper so they can see how I break down the task.
Facial expression is arguably one of the hardest drawing tasks, so I encourage my students that success in this lesson is in noticing something they hadn’t before and/or trying to faithfully record that surprising shape or size of that facial feature. Students may not get to coloring at all in class, or even finish sketching the face–but in the time constraints we have, I defined the goal as learning to observe what the key ingredients are to that facial expression, so I praise the students not for completion or perfection, but for every gain they have made in observation and recording. My son’s smile is no crescent moon–the top lip has a unique double curve. It’s truly an amazing gift if a student has an epiphany in drawing, even if the product does not look impressive . This is about learning, not polishing.
Step #10 I encourage students to finish at home if they wish and show us their progress next week! Here is where I show my colored version:
I put more work into this project than any other because they are my kids, and I wanted to finish it–and I encourage my students to do the same: to work at home, especially for anything they really like or enjoy! (I look at this now and still wish I had time to work on it more! There is always room to grow in these skills. While this may look really good to some people, there are aspects of this I’d like to improve on.)
Also, I pointed out one thing–that I exaggerated my daughter’s expression by making her facial features larger. (Comparing my first sketch to my final version shows this change.) Rockwell did a fair amount of exaggerating, especially to increase the comic effect.
Note: Some of my students drew people that were very cartoony, not attempts at realism. That is okay! The focus is on the facial expressions, and if a cartoon kind of face is the place where they can begin exploring, that is fine.
How did this lesson go for you, fellow tutors? Any observations or tips? Please share!