Putting teeth into the picture

If the Mona Lisa had shown her teeth when she smiled, her picture would be hanging at Walmart instead of the Louvre.


When I started on my recent binge of portrait painting, I wish I’d remembered that the great masters always painted their subjects with their lips firmly closed.

The Genti Cognoscenti will tell you it’s because their models lived in a time when dental health was unknown, but I have my own theory now.

I think it’s because teeth are a bitch to paint.

In the past two weeks, I’ve painted my children and their loves, and each one is flashing a toothy grin that’s attractive, distinctive, and devilishly difficult to copy.

I expected to have a hard time with Derek and Ben, and I did, but this was easily excusable. I’ve known each of those handsome devils for less than two years, and while their smiles are delightfully familiar, they’re not part of my DNA.

I was a bit more surprised to have a hard time with Alex. He has my husband’s old teeth. His upper left incisor overlaps its partner, trying to push it out of the way.

I felt guilty about disregarding our dentist’s suggestion to have Alex’s smile “fixed” by an unaffordable orthodontist until my husband’s teeth were replaced by perfectly straight dentures. They’re flawless, but they don’t have the charm of the crooked originals, and I’m glad we let Alex continue sporting them… at least until I tried to paint them.

First I painted them too big. They looked like battling Chiclets. Then I made them smaller, and he looked like his teeth had been filed for veneers. I lengthened them slightly, but widened his lower lip a bit so they’d look less prominent. He looked like an Italian starlet. Finally, in frustration, I took a big wide brush and pulled it across his mouth, making everything less defined. Guess what? That did the trick.

Vague is better.

In his case, anyway.

Then I tried to paint Amanda.

I did not expect to have any difficulty painting my daughter. She looks like me. Everyone agrees she looks like me. I know her face like I know my own.

Painting Amanda should be easy, right?


She may give you the impression that she looks like me, but it’s amazing how many of our relatives are hiding in that kid’s visage.

First I painted her eyes. Actually, I painted my eyes and they were too big. I shrunk them down a bit, then I realized Amanda has greater distance between her eyes and her eyebrows… which are my husband’s, though they have been thankfully waxed to a pleasingly feminine contour.

We don’t do Frida Kahlo, ya know?

Then I painted her nose. I knew that wasn’t mine; it’s not a proboscis God ever placed on a full-blood shiksa. It’s not as big as those featured by my husband’s paternal family, nor as hooked as some noses from his maternal lineage, but it’s certainly not the Rodriguez button my mother, grandmother and I have all had.

My beloved great-aunt Quelita would have been thrilled. She had what she called the Valdes Roman nose, which she felt was much more dignified than the Rodriguez button. In fact, I remember she put a clothespin on my nose once, and told me she wanted to see if it could be trained into a more classic shape.

It didn’t work on me.

Amanda never needed such correction.

Her nose is small and straight, with just a whisper of a downturn at the tip.

Could this have been what my husband’s nose looked like before he broke it eight times?

I’ll never know.

Painting Amanda’s well-defined cheekbones and big full cheeks was a pleasure; I’ve always envied the contours of her face, and thanked God she doesn’t have my silly flat moon face.

And then, it was time to paint her smile.

Dammit, I’ve never had so much trouble trying to capture anything!

My first attempt wasn’t bad… it really looked like her lips and teeth… but when I stepped back from the painting, I realized I had her nose and eyes tilting right to left, and her mouth tilting left to right.

Could I call it a smirk and let it go?

For hours, I fought the urge to go and fix the picture, but I knew I had to try.

I started by adjusting the lip line so it tilted in the proper direction. This necessitated a complete refashioning of the lips… which I realized had to stretch wider. This made it imperative to broaden the smile and add more teeth… after which the front teeth had to be fixed.

Now, Amanda’s teeth really are shaped just like mine, but she has a slight and totally adorable gap between the two in the front.

Put a pixel too much paint between the kid’s front teeth and she looks like Terry Thomas. Cover that pixel with white paint, and you produce Mayim Bialik.

For an hour and a half I sat there, holding two impossibly fine-pointed paint brushes, one loaded with white paint, the other with gum-colored rose. Add a pixel, cover a pixel. Add a different pixel, cover it up.

Suddenly, I was overcome with love and recognition. I was staring into Quelita’s smile… and Amanda’s.

I washed off the two brushes immediately, so I wouldn’t be tempted to poke those teeth again and mess them up.

In no time at all, I capped off Amanda’s face with my sister in law’s hair, and put her into a flowered blouse my mother would have adored.

The person staring at me from the canvas could only have been my daughter.

Will I ever paint her again? Probably. I’ll probably paint her brother again too. But from now on, I am going to have one firm rule for them and any other model I might paint.

No teeth.

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