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Creating Expression

By: Mike Watson - Updated: 20 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Expression Emotion Empathy Art Painting

Long before the Expressionists (see related article) began to consider the communication of inner feelings to be of primary importance in painting great painters have always had a knack for evoking expression in their subjects, whether they be portraits or landscapes.

J.M.W Turner (1755-1851) was an expert at evoking the sensation of being in a storm, and how that reflected on the senses, whilst Caspar David Freidrich (1744-1840) brilliantly evoked the loneliness of the landscape.

In portraiture Francisca Goya, Rembrandt and Velazquez all expertly manipulated the nuances of facial and bodily expression in order to create empathy between the viewer and the subject of the painting. This can be seen as the key to good portraiture, and is also the basis on which advertisers’ market campaigns, manipulating the expression and physicality of the model to appeal to the audience.

The evocation of expression is everywhere around us, in painting, in film, on T.V. and on the web and in print media. It is sometimes easy to forget that all these forms of expression are also readily seen in real life and that what the media offer up is a crass and simplified vision of human physicality and emotion, designed to sell products! Despite this, painting is a medium in which the nuance of expression can still be applied, and often is by artists such as Chuck Close (b.1940), John Currin (b.1962) and Stella Vine (b. 1969), albeit in way that also reflects on our slick media age (sometimes in an ironic way).

Communicating Expression

To observe and convey expression requires sensitivity on the part of the painter, together with a high degree of observation. Much expression (and perhaps the part most focused on in paintings of people) is conveyed though the face of the subject, especially on the repose on the eyes and mouth. Factors such as whether the subject is looking straight out of the picture, to the side, or straight down will tell you a lot about their personality. The pallor of the subject will also impact on how they are seen –a rosy subject will seem healthy (too rosy, and they will appear inebriated!) whilst a pale subject may appear ill or weary. There is some exception to this rule as in the Victorian age paleness signified wealth (as the wealthy spent little time out of doors).

How open the bodily pose of the subject is will also impact on how the subject is interpreted, whilst how much flesh is exposed will inevitably sexualise the image to some extent. Hand gestures can be employed in group scenes to indicate greeting (see Courbet’s (1819-1877) ‘Bonjour Monsieur Courbet’) or hostility.

In landscape expression tends to be conveyed by flat planes of colour or gestural marks that communicate how we may feel in the presence of given climates, terrains and weather conditions. Melancholy is often conveyed by a night sky, as in ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh (1853-1890), passion through a stormy sky.


Exaggeration is frequently employed to convey an expression. A simple elongation of the mouth or widening of the eyes can impact hugely on how an image is seen. Drawing attention to the eyes and mouth can be achieved simply by leaving the other areas of the face relatively sparse in expression. In either case, subtlety should be employed in order to ensure against caricature. Giacometti (1901-1966) is a good example of an artist who employed exaggeration whilst not letting his works descend into farce.

Observation is The Key

In order to adequately convey expression in a media age, and to at the same time say something pertinent to today observation is central. One cannot paint sensitively without an appreciation of people or of our times. For this reason great painting often comes with maturity, but not with age alone – dedicated study and open mindedness also contribute.

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