Written as part of a thread in the Origami Forum, this was my attempt to answer a question about the difficulty of folding minimally acceptable realistic 3D female faces using origami methods.  I describe my own efforts in this direction.


There are at least three main problems for using origami for sculpting female faces. First, women's faces are 'neotonous' or more childlike as adults; and youthful faces are ALSO harder to make from folded paper (why?). Second, being the fairer sex means--just as it does by the way for male birds--that there is greater reliance on strong contrasts of color or texture: e.g. dark hair, eyebrows, and lips, set off by regions of skin that must be quite smooth or differently colored for contrast. Flashing eyes and eyelashes too are desirable, as perhaps are white teeth. (As with many bird species and for quite similar reasons there are exactly TWO dominant contrasting colors, plus a third and/or fourth color of softer contrast.) All this is harder to achieve in origami without color changes and those bring in problems of their own—leaving aside even the fact that there is only one color for each side of the paper. (Contrast is likewise a problem for traditional sculpture that uses single-colored materials, but the tradition has had 30,000 years to work out its rather narrow band of solutions. The tradition for instance has few happy answers to the problem of the eye's colored iris.)  Finally, the most intuitive way of making faces is the 'transverse-line' method: a pleat across the sheet from which each protruding feature is pulled. But female faces turn out to be VERY sensitive to those extra lines about the nose and mouth, or to the slightest hint of roughness of texture between the two.


My first experiments with human faces were made in about 1987. I then used the transverse-line method without much thought. But as that work was not in paper but in metal foil--aluminum at first, copper later on--the lines were hidden among the foil crumples. (Much of the paper mask-work of today does something similar, hiding the unnatural lines in a larger lattice of lines.) Back in the 1980s and early 90s, my faces were almost all male. They were also mostly bearded, to avoid having to deal with the problem of properly  forming a chin.


Hyde Park show, 1990  1


It is my impression that the various people around the world who worked on sculptural faces over the past 15 years have likewise independently begun from transverse  lines---and that male (and even bearded) figures are disproportionately represented.


When I came back to paper-folding in 2004, transverse lines seemed too limiting; and in any case I went through a minimalist phase, trying to see how few hard folds really were needed to make familiar objects. I spent two full months on noses alone….  In other months I built up a repertoire of eyes, chins, hairlines, hair styles, hats, necks, shoulders, chests; I'm still struggling to expand an expressive range that is horribly limited. Anyway, ONE minimalist way of making the pyramid of the nose leaves a single, vertical line descending through the base of the nose and through the chin. It turns out that this line, though entirely unnatural, is not visually bothersome; even better, it solves one of the problems of making female faces. For there are no longer distracting horizontal folds around the nose or mouth to suggest wrinkles or a mustache.


Strangely, Modigliani---who doesn't NEED such a line---introduces one! in a few of his sculptures and paintings of women's heads:


There is a certain comfort to this, Modigliani being the artist who knows the most about women (women's skin, especially).


So that was one hurdle over with. Another was hair. In an earlier post BShuval suggested there was a difficulty in making hair from folded paper; I replied that it isn't that there are no good solutions--in fact there are many--but it takes time to think of them, to simplify them. It may be worth expanding on this a little.


Hair has been a problem for traditional, solid sculpture as well; and many elegant solutions have accumulated by now. But very few of these, one observes, represent hair as flat, which is how it is on many  (most?) people's heads; that's because "curls" or at least a thick texture is about the only way to represent the color-change of hair without using color.


In origami, a natural sequence of design-thinking is this: One starts with a freeform rounded crumple; moves past it either to a controlled crumple, that is to drawn lines; or to systematic rounded forms, which for a while I thought was limited to pleats:




Pleat folding, of the sort made famous by Paul Jackson, gives a means of curving paper in two directions at once--which is exactly what one wants for the top of a head--while giving that dome a regular or continuously-changing shadowy texture.


Pleats are an interesting solution but I immediately wanted to know if there were others. (Pleats give to human heads a familiar origami look that one may at times want  get away from.) It nevertheless took me over a year to come up with anything else; and that happened only in the context of thinking systematically about tessellations and curvature.  I've written about this at length elsewhere, so will say here only that there is a certain amount of fun you can have with curving tessellations.



The first full, artistic result of this line of thought was Ernestine.  She also has a less illustrious younger sister, Molly.


But one ought not conclude from all this that a textured head is the only or even the best way to represent hair in origami.  The truth is that one can do more or less what one wants—from simple fan pleating to more exotic treatments.



Besides hair---there are, of course, a host of tiny details that go into making a female face, that one isn't aware of until one tries one's hand. Eye-slits, for instance--it is my impression that these have to be aligned on a flatter frontal plane than is the case with men.  The eyes themselves are best made sinuous rather than oval. A more triangular head often is better than a more rectangular or even a round one. But there are no firm rules here; and the details really are quite subtle. When I keep in mind that a woman though already equipped with what God has given her may still spend hours in front of a mirror before going out just to get her looks 'feminine' enough---I don't get too discouraged when it doesn't go easily for me either.


It's an interesting fact (suggested I believe by mleonard) that when a sculpture of a woman's face comes off badly, the result, especially in origami, is variously described as 'more masculine' and as 'older'.  I suppose this has to do with the neotony mentioned above.  But it's worth reviewing what age does to a face. Skin quality alters. Hair turns grey or loses luster and hairlines recede. The shine in the eye disappears. Jowls tend to fill out—sculpting with origami makes this quite clear, since unlike solid sculpture it is easy enough to twist a surface and loosen or tighten a jaw-line---adding or taking off years with a flex. Then there's the issue of soft shadows, noted in another thread: those in the hollow of the cheek, or just above or to the side of the eyes (making them 'smoky'). Even on women who keep their beauty these very slight concavities either sharpen and become haggard with age or fill with flesh and get lost. Here for instance, modeling those shadows as much as the Tiffany's jewelry she's holding, and still very much in her prime, is the lovely and talented Scarlett Johansen.


But the most crucial youth/age difference is the one I mentioned at the outset, and  it has very much of a bearing on origami: In youth, each of the prominent features (eyes, eyebrows, nostrils, lips)appears as a small island of strong color surrounded by a sea of smooth, differently colored or differently textured skin. In age, these islands get linked by furrows—that is, by fold lines. Now, it is usually rather difficult to make protruding features in origami without putting in lines that cut all the way across a surface; but this is just what we're being asked to do here! The call for simplicity in paperfolding—for the absolute minimum number of clean folds—which is ever present if rarely heeded in the work done today, becomes an  acute necessity for the task of making a beautiful face. Such faces are rare in our world. It seems that by some odd conjunction, the difficulty posed for us in origami is being matched by a difficulty confronting nature herself.



Saadya Sternberg

December, 2005

Beersheva, Israel




The line-up at present