Great Hexe nightfall z book cover art by illustrator Duncan Long

I often have folks tell me that I’ve captured the emotions of a character created for a book cover perfectly. Or that I’ve created a really pretty face on a character. There are a few tricks to make such things happen. And they aren’t quite what you might think they’d be. In fact, there’s a bit counter intuitive.

I’ve found that often people “see” the features different actors in my illustrations. Sometimes that makes sense because there is a resemblance. But often different viewers actually see very different “faces” in the pictures. For example, when I get finished with a character, I may think, “Man, I hope that doesn’t look too much like” so-and-so. And then a client who sees it will say, “That’s great — I see you made her a little like” some other actor. And then my wife will come into my studio, look at the monitor, and says, “Does that look too much like” a third actor. Same face. Three different “looks” according to which person is studying it.

So often there’s to be a tendency to see what we expect or perhaps want to see sometimes.

With women’s faces, there’s another oddity: The less defined the face, the more “beautiful” it will be perceived by most people (I’m not sure if this is true with the male face — the only study I’ve seen on this used women’s faces). For example, the “prettiest” face an artist can create is just two eyes/eyebrows, nostrils, and lips. Now when you think about encountering such a person in real life, that minimum of features would be terrifying!

But most people “see” a beautiful face instead.

Hollywood took advantage of this for years by putting gauze or Vaseline on lens to “soften” female faces. (More recently the high definition has taken female actresses in a disastrous direction, showing all their skin imperfections when the camera closes in. One movie is said to cause gasps in the audience when a closeup of a gal’s face shows nose hairs. Too much detail is sometimes detrimental.)

A third psychological “mind trick” I often work with is that when people are presented with photos and look at them for an extended time, they tend to see the expression change on a face. It doesn’t change of course. But the mind perceives the face as making subtle changes. My contention (and I have no proof for this) is that the mind also tends to “shift” expressions in the direction it wants to see them go. For this reason I often make my faces as expressionless as possible so people will tend to “read” the expressions they’re wanting to see in them. I think this works — but have no proof.

For the same reason, I try to make facial expressions subtle so they can easily be “dragged” by the viewer’s mind into the configuration they want to see. At least that’s my theory.

Well… I’ll quit now before giving away all my trade secrets.

Duncan Long is a professional book cover illustrator who likes to play with people’s minds. See more of his book cover artwork — including faces with strange emotions and beauty — at: Duncan Long’s Portfolio