top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Gorman

The Six Universal Facial Expressions

Updated: May 21, 2022

Basking in the sun amongst chirping birds, a granddaughter and grandmother radiate genuine smiles whilst recalling a story. Their lips stretch sideways and upwards, displaying their open-mouthed laughter, and their crab-apple cheeks gently push their lower eyelids upwards. Crows feet line the outer corners of the eyes and fold runs from the nose wing to the chin on either side of the mouth. These authentic smiles demonstrate the emotion of joy, one of the six universal facial expressions in the world.

What are facial expressions?

Facial expressions are the contortion of facial muscles of the lip, cheeks, eyes, and brow which convey emotion. There are twenty six facial muscles, but only eleven move the face to create emotions (Faigin 63).

These muscles contractions shape the face to create smiles, frowns, wide eyes, furrowed brows, and so much more. And somehow, these little contractions convey emotions which, as humans, we instinctively understand.

Even from the moment one is born, a baby's first emotion is sadness. Babies cry first- as this is the only way for them to communicate discomfort- then laugh second. Every parent around the world can recognize when a baby is sad, and subsequently when another person is sad as well.

Watercolor and graphite, 5.5 x 8 on paper

What are the six universal emotions?

Research has shown that there are expressions which are universally read around the world. They fall into these six categories: joy, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. There are also physical states, such as sleepiness or pain, which don't fall into the category of emotions because they are more ambiguous (Faigin 126).

How does this correlate to being an artist?

It's important to understand the six universal emotions and study the facial muscles in order to incorporate this into one's artwork. Emotions are a powerful vehicle in which one can push their artwork. Emotions create differing moods and allow a viewer experience an artwork, as they can empathize with an emotion.


Gary Faigin's The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression, 1990.

20 views0 comments


bottom of page