Admitted: Stanford, Yale, UChicago
I formed a theory of mind when I was three or four, recognizing that others have mental states different from my own. But it took me sixteen years to realize that everyone has different ears. Up to that point I had assumed all ears looked pretty much the same, and therefore used my own – from photos – as reference when drawing those of other people. (It’s always easier to use yourself – the one model that will never complain.)
It wasn’t until I took an interest in photorealism and began to practice it, paying attention to every detail in a photo, that I realized that this had been a mistake. Ears are as unique and diverse as fingerprints. Free and attached lobes are just the beginning – the curvature of the outer helix is different for everyone, as well as the degree to which it is folded inwards. The thicknesses of the lobes are unique. The protrusion of skin into the ear from the temple, called the tragus, varies in each individual. So does the depth of the hollow next to the ear canal (called the concha – and I find Caucasians tend to have deeper conchae than do Asians). Trying to accurately draw other people’s ears after only drawing my own was trying to speak a Seoul dialect in Kyungsangdo – communication was possible but difficult.
But people don’t look at ears. Cartoonists get away with drawing ears as little ‘c’s while depicting other features more or less accurately, within the margins of error of caricature. People note the slant of the eyes and the creases around them, the width and arch of the eyebrows, the contours of the lips and nose. More subtly, cheekbones. Significantly, jawlines. And the slow, delightfully challenging sag of the features that comes with age. These are things people look at: the important things, the features that matter – the ones that are noted, quantified, and judged. So there was no urgent reason for me – for whom portraits are just a hobby – to perfect drawing ears. The ear is a visual addendum, tucked away at the sides of the face and omitted from the evaluation process. I could draw an otherwise accurate profile of a classmate but give her the Pope’s ears and no one would blink.
Nevertheless, I do take pleasure in getting the ears right. Firstly, it’s personal, perfectionist concession – I didn’t fudge any details, I made it as accurate as my skill would allow. A complex landscape of skin concentrated in a small space – what a delight to perfect.
Secondly, ears are beautiful. True, they don’t have the density of expression or visible diversity that eyes do. They don’t have the range of emotion of the lips. They don’t have the subtlety and difficulty of cheekbones. What they do have is a certain placid idiosyncrasy – the ears are the place for idiosyncrasy – all those whimsical curves and troughs that are impossible to simplify. There are few unusual ears, because there are no usual ones. Although they’re easy to overlook, each one is new and startling, and an exquisite pleasure to draw.