Thursday, January 8, 2009


Elvis didn't invent "cool."

“Sprezzatura” is a term coined by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528 in The Book of the Courtier. It describes the cool, confident attitude often expressed in the portraiture of the time. The classic example is Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione himself.

Illustrator Shirley Hughes, in her memoir A Life Drawing suggests that discoveries of serious-looking Roman busts during the Renaissance led to a taste for the "devil may care" look in portraiture.

The word is related to the Italian “sprezzante,” meaning contemptuous or scornful, used here in the sense of disdaining effort. The goal is a certain nonchalance or carelessness, as if one’s mastery arrived almost by accident, and certainly not through any struggle.

At various times in history, artists have tried to capture this particular attitude, both in the disposition of their subjects and in their handling of paint. Sargent accomplished it in his portrait of his teacher Carolus Duran.


Erik Bongers said...

To be honest...I think the 'cool' expression is the easiest.
In real life it's very close to a face with relaxed muscles.

My experience is that once you start to add explicit expression that it's very difficult to achieve exactly what you want.
The minute you start 'pulling' those facial muscles to show surprise, fear, etc., you easily end up with a caricatural expression.
And if you try to 'underdo' it, you often end up with an expression that isn't cleary recognizable to the viewer.
In the worst case your subtle expression is viewed by most people as something completely different.

E.g. a very sublte evil smile...might be seen as a peacefull smile or vice versa.

So...I stick to the 'cool' look as much as I can.

So, do expressionless faces work in a story?
Read about the Kuleshof effect

Still don't believe it?
Watch 'Lassie' or 'L'Ours' (The Bear)

Susan's Scribbles said...

Maybe Elvis didn't invent it, but he sure was good at it!

JP said...

I can't help but notice the striking similarity of Castiglione to Paul Giamatti.

James Gurney said...

Never heard of the Kuleshov Effect before. Thanks. That explains a lot about a film editor's job--and an actor's job, I guess.

I also notice that comic artists often draw the mouth closed when a character is talking. What's the thinking behind that?

Erik Bongers said...

I do that to!
And I have a very carfully though over philosophy about it.
It goes like this:
"Others do why don't I just do it too...".

Hmmm...I just went to check my drawing board.
The page I'm currently working on (of a story for the european commission for humanitarian aid)has 5 close-ups of speaking persons, and all of them have their mouths open.

Let's suppose I have to do a devil like person (the joker, but more realistic - heath ledger without the makeup)...
You can easily picture him in your mind, head slightly bend down, looking straight at you from under his eyebrows and with an evil grin on his face.
Let's say there's a text balloon in that frame.
In such a case I would probably give the face a closed mouth because the grin is much stronger with the lips sealed!

Actually...I think I always will draw a closed mouth when drawing a smiling face together with a bit of dialogue.

But it's an intuitive thing. A choice of the moment.

I can imagine that some people find this strange...but it never has bothered me in any comic book.

Erik Bongers said...

I just checked out someone elses work (Moebius, who else)...

Most of the time mouths open.
The one frame I found (I didn't check the whole book) with a closed but talking mouth was where TWO persons where talking in ONE frame.
The first person has a closed mouth the second person an open mouth.
Intuitevely the viewer identifies the moment of the 'snapshot' as the moment when the 2nd person is speaking, and thus the closed mouth of the first person appears quite natural!

Dan Gurney said...

I had never heard of the Kuleshof effect either. Very interesting. As a teacher over the years I've learned to adopt a more and more neutral face when talking to my students and use only subtle facial expressions, especially when listening to students.

Doing this seems to build connection, probably because the students read into my face exactly the expression they're hoping/expecting to see.

Thanks for this post and Erik, thanks for the comment.