Facial Nonrecognition

Remember the days before apps? How did we amuse ourselves? How did we occupy our free time? How? How, dammit! 😆 The apps keep on coming. Perhaps we should amend Benjamin Franklin’s famous aphorism about the only certainties in life to be “death, taxes, and apps”.

Recently, a new feature on the Google Arts and Culture phone app has gone viral. I noticed it when I saw some friends posting about it on social media. It’s a selfie app that uses facial recognition to match your picture with your doppelgänger from a work of art. In some postings I saw, people added incredulous comments to their results like, “Huh?” and “Seriously?” with a string of laughing emojis. Let’s just say that some of the matches seemed a bit off.

So naturally I couldn’t resist trying the damn thing myself. There’s really nothing to it. You just take a terrible selfie with the app and swipe to see the results. Here’s what I got, my dear readers. Decide for yourselves:

Well …. I don’t know what to say. I like the portraits on their own, but as ‘matches’? Maybe the Zabaleta came up because of the eyes and eyebrows? But Paolini’s ‘Fortune Teller’? Not seeing it at all. I had anticipated a cubist Picasso with giant eyes and distorted features. Then again, my selfie looks like shit so I suppose should just be happy with anything halfway decent. Sorry Pablo. Maybe next time 😉

But this selfie app experiment did get me thinking about ‘likenesses’. I’ve been around the topic a great deal in my 13 years of art modeling. Capturing a likeness of model is a challenging task to be sure. I have observed that some artists who make painstaking, methodical efforts to capture a likeness often miss the mark somehow, while some loose, freely executed works manage to catch it. I tend to believe that the overall ‘look’ of a person matters more than particular details; their ‘mien’, if you will. And abstraction can absolutely achieve it when done well. I’ve recognized myself instantly in some artists’ works not because they were perfectly representational, but because they communicated my presence and my look, just like every model has their own look, their own movement, their own gestural presence, their own attitudinal bearing. The Google Arts and Culture selfie app and its algorithmic calculations would recognize none of those things, because those things are perceived solely through life. We’re called ‘life models’ for a reason.

As for selfies, I blogged about them back in 2015 and we had a lot of fun delving into the topic. If anyone would like to revisit that post, it’s here –> Know Thyselfie

11 thoughts on “Facial Nonrecognition

  1. artmodelandrew says:

    Technology overload is unappetizing. We can’t live without it, but the ubiquity of it makes life drawing sessions and hikes in nature (out of cell tower range) all the more appealing.

  2. ksbeth says:

    it all draws us in like a drug and it’s hard to pull away

  3. Bill says:

    Naw, they don’t look like you.

    I think that the best likenesses are frequently the caricatures — simply because a caricature takes that which is distinctive about a person and exaggerates it to hell.

    For anyone who remembers Johnny Carson, this is my favorite “likeness” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oghxf-HS6go

    • artmodel says:


      Haha! Tommy Smothers does have a resemblance to Johnny, but as far as actual impressions go, no one tops Rich Little’s Johnny. Mannerisms, cadence, the whole package.

      Thanks for the link and your comments!


  4. Dave says:

    Having tried that app, I can say that your historical painting doppelgangers don’t look much like you, but they are far closer to you than mine are to me. But this begs the question: how much does the painting look like the model anyway?

    I’ve recently become very interested in how the finished work of art often looks very little like the model. I did a 5.5 hour pose last year in front of art majors at a major university, and yet my friends and family were only able to recognize me as the model in one or two of the ten finished drawings I showed them. Some of them looked nothing like me at all. And I’ve seen this over and over: talented artists produce beautiful drawings of me, but they are still not recognizably me to those who know me.

    So this makes me wonder: if talented artists find it so difficult to produce a recognizable rendering of a model who remains still for hours in perfect lighting conditions, how can a police sketch artist possibly produce a recognizable drawing of a perpetrator that she didn’t see at all, relying on a description from a witness who may have seen the person for just a few seconds or minutes in less-than-perfect lighting during a highly stressful and dynamic interaction? In fact, they often can’t–there have now been scores of people who have been exonerated after they were wrongfully convicted based on an identification resulting from a police artist’s sketch.

    It’s interesting how my drawing and modeling has informed my day job.

    Thanks, Claudia, for an entertaining and education post, as always.

    • artmodel says:


      You raise such a fascinating point. Police sketch renderings have often been an ‘sketchy’ law enforcement tool (couldn’t resist the pun!). Not always reliable. Remember the Unabomber sketch? I believe that was based on an ‘eyewitness’ who caught a glimpse of the suspect for just a few seconds.

      I totally relate to your experiences with drawings of you and likenesses. It’s made me better understand just how difficult drawing is, particularly portraiture. Generally, artists do a better job of capturing my figure than they do of my face. Everyone ‘observes’ differently I guess, and painting and drawing are all about observation. If the great artists have one common denominator I’d say it’s their sharply honed observational skills.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, and for sharing the interesting junction of your modeling with your day job. Great stuff!


  5. scultore says:

    I think a lot about this as well, trying to draw faces that first look human… but I have always admired a friend who, although his drawings tend to be “primitive” , would always produce an image that was instanly recognizable. The mystery of what it is that people project that makes them individuals instead of data points is
    what makes us humans and artists.

    • artmodel says:


      “The mystery of what it is that people project that makes them individuals instead of data points is what makes us humans and artists”. Exactly! I couldn't say it better. And that is precisely the issue with the Google app.

      Thanks for your comments!


  6. derek says:

    very nice posting you look finre

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