Degrees by Subject
Home > Resources > Degree Subject > Article
Digital Art: How Happy is Mona Lisa?

Digital Art: How Happy is Mona Lisa?

by Alex Russel
March 20, 2008

For years, digital artists and animators have used computer software to bring their characters to life. Specialized programs simulate body movements and facial expressions to turn motionless, two-dimensional figures into running, jumping, 3-D entities. But can a computer program really capture and/or measure emotion?

Maybe. Back in 2005, a group of scientists from the Netherlands created a software program to measure how the infamous Mona Lisa might have been feeling when Leonardo da Vinci committed her subtle smirk to canvass. The result? According to the study, the woman was 83% happy.

Measuring Fine Art?
The idea that a work of fine art can be measured scientifically is a bit absurd. As talented as Leonardo da Vinci was, his rendition of the smiling woman is definitely subjective to say the least. So how does the technology work?

Recreating the Human Face
According to Harro Stokman, a professor at the University of Amsterdam involved in the experiment, it's the software. The program created by Stokman and his team generates a digital representation of the subject's face, and then measures minute details such as the flare of a nostril or the depth of a wrinkle around the eyes. In essence, the program attempts to quantify facial expressions, and then equate them to a certain emotional state.

Art School Science
Strangely, this technique mimics various methods used by animators and video game designers to create digital characters. Matching a character's emotions to both their movements and the context of their environment can make all the difference. The more believable the character, the more likely the game, movie, or story will be successful. Think Toy Story, Polar Express, or Lord of the Rings.

For fine art school students, this technology may seem threatening. Drawing the human face accurately has been a goal of many fine art students interested in character representation. In fact, the precision and organic mystery of the Mona Lisa is one of the reasons Leonardo da Vinci remains appreciated to this day. Perhaps the other 17%--the happiness the software can't pick up--represents the subtle, human spirit of the portrait imperceptible to a digital sensor. Something to consider as well is that campus and online schools are using technology in new ways all the time. Who's to say that students couldn't learn more about patterns in movements and facial expressions to enhance their artistic understanding of the human form.

About the Author
Alex Russel is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Since graduating from Syracuse University he has worked at many different media companies in fields as diverse as film, TV, advertising, and journalism. He holds a dual bachelor's degree in English and History.