Artist Chuck Close's self-portrait

Who is Chuck Close, you might ask? And, why should I care?  

Chuck Close is a portrait artist. In my opinion, he is one of the most creative artists alive today. But, that isn’t even half the story.


The artist who draws faces he cannot recognize

Remember Oliver Sacks’ book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? Dr. P. could not recognize his wife from her face, but he was able to recognize her by her voice. His recognition of pictures of his family and friends appeared to be based on highly specific features, such as his brother’s square jaw and big teeth. Strangely enough, Dr. Sacks, himself, suffers from prosopagnosia (prosopos=face, agnosia=not knowing, in classical Greek), but he didn’t know it until late in life. And he is a neurologist! In fact, many prosopagnosics discover that they suffer from this neurological deficit only later in life.

Chuck Close was born with this neurological deficit, and he, too, was not consciously aware of it. But ever since he started painting, he was drawn to painting faces of people he knew. Why would he do that? And how could he draw faces he couldn’t remember for even a few minutes?


The importance of face recognition

You might guess that recognizing faces must have a great survival value. After all, if you don’t recognize your foe, he may do you in before you have a chance to know what and who hit you. And if you don’t recognize the faces of the girls in your tribe, your DNA is doomed to extinction.

Faces are among the most informative stimuli we ever perceive: Even a split-second glimpse of a person’s face tells us their identity, sex, mood, age, race, and direction of attention. Indeed, this trait is so important that once we see a face, we will recognize it in en face or in profile, with makeup or without, smiling or crying, or when distorted in a painting by Picasso. Even plastic surgery cannot, in most cases, deceive our face memory.

In fact, face recognition is so important that neurological evidence strongly implicates a dedicated machinery for face processing in the human brain.


How is this remarkable feat accomplished?

The short answer is: We don’t know for sure, but there is a plausible hypothesis with a lot of empirical evidence to support it.

Face perception is first “gated” in the inferior occipital gyri (at the bottom of the visual cortex, located in the back of the head). What “gated” means is that initial facial perceptions are filtered there and allowed through, and the non-facial perceptions filtered out. This is the detection phase.

Once the decision “yeah, that’s a face” is made, the visual message is sent to an area called the fusiform gyrus, located in the right and left temporal lobes, above the ears, although fMRI evidence suggests that the right fusiform gyrus is the main locus. There, the image is processed and “recognized”. When we say “image” in still photos or videos, we recognize that it is made of units or pixels. The perception of an image in the brain is also made up of pixels, or visual units. Each unit consists of a group of neurons (around eight) that interacts with neurons making up an adjacent unit, and so on, until a complete image is built up. This is the recognition phase. This is also the phase that is deficient in prosopagnosics. In simple English, they can detect a face, but they cannot recognize it.


Art recapitulates neurobiology

So what does Chuck Close do to help him recognize faces? In a remarkable exhibit at the National Gallery in Sydney, his technique is revealed and the effect is stunning. He takes a photograph of his subject. That allows him to see the same face time and again without any variation. After all, he would not recognize it if the model changed the angle of his head, or if the lighting changed, or the facial expression changed. Close puts a grid on the photo and on the canvas and copies cell by cell, or pixel by pixel, if you wish, on a gray-scale or color.

Look at this picture. big-self-portrait

A photograph? No. It is a self-portrait with the grids filled in with shades of gray.

Typically, each square within the grid is filled with roughly executed regions of color (usually consisting of painted rings on a contrasting background) which give the cell a perceived ‘average’ hue which makes sense from a distance. To appreciate the difficulty, and the mastery involved, here is one square/pixel:
Close pixelsDoes it make any sense? Not unless you see the hundreds of squares assembled into a whole:

Chuck Close self-portrait
Chuck Close self-portrait

Here is another example, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY.

The painting on the right is of the painter Peter Samaras. The one on the left is a detail of the eye
The painting on the left is of the painter Lucas Samaras. The one on the right is a detail of the eye. Source: Wikipedia

This is exactly how the neurobiology of face recognition works: In the selection phase, anatomically located in the visual cortex, pixels are assembled to an outline suggestive of a face. It is then transmitted to the temporal fusiform gyrus to “fill it out” and invest it with human content, such as wrinkles, blemishes, mood, and expression.


Why did the painter start out with pixels?

Was he trying to overcome his face recognition deficit by resorting to the process that is embedded in the brain? He said he resorted to painting cell-by-cell to help him remember faces. On the subject, Close has said, “I was not conscious of making a decision to paint portraits because I have difficulty recognizing faces. That occurred to me twenty years after the fact when I looked at why I was still painting portraits, why that still had urgency for me. I began to realize that it has sustained me for so long because I have difficulty in recognizing faces.” But was it a conscious decision? Or was that decision made for him in his brain? Was he, unconsciously, following the dictates of neurobiology? Which leads us down the slippery slope of the question whether free will exists at all. But I digress.


The gift of dyslexia

If prosopagnosia isn’t enough of a handicap, Chuck Close suffered from dyslexia as well. You would guess that this double whammy would doom anybody to an intellectually challenged life. You would guess wrong! Some of the most creative individuals in history were dyslexic. Among them are Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Nobel Laureates Pierre Currie (Physics) and Carol Greider (molecular biologist), and Steve Jobs. You’d think Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, or Billy Bob Thornton would have trouble expressing themselves—they are dyslexic. Or some of the most successful CEOs of our time, like Henry Ford, Ted Turner, Bill Hewlett, Charles Schwab, Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines), Tommy Hilfiger, to name a few. Does dyslexia play a role in their creativity?

The answer is most likely yes. To overcome their dyslexia, they had to devise strategies to overcome their deficit. To put it in neurobiological terms, they had to employ alternative neural pathways to circumvent the non-functioning ones. Hence their predilection to finding alternative ways to expressing themselves and devising creative approaches to problem-solving.

My guess is that Chuck Close’s determination to overcome the deficit of facial recognition, however unconscious, originated from his struggles with his dyslexia. And the outcome of this struggle is art that is overwhelming in its creativity and sheer beauty.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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