Armitage anatomy: Till you see the whites of his eyes

I did some aimless reading about the Battle of Bunker Hill this afternoon. I was trying to figure out something about early modern military tactics, specifically regarding the employment of artillery, and that phrase kept coming up in my mind: “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” If you remember the U.S. Bicentennial, you probably also remember my main association with it, a piece of Schoolhouse Rock! written specifically for those celebrations called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” — Bunker Hill begins at about 1:00, and there, it’s attributed to Prescott, who was not yet a general at that battle, though; the phrase has been attributed to other officers there; and / except that the phrase is apparently older and has been attributed to various other generals in the half-century previous.

So that battle has absolutely nothing to do with Richard Armitage, except, I suppose, in the sense that because he’s British, it’s part of his country’s history, too, but in line with getting back on track, it’s time for an Armitage anatomy!. Hmm. Need a rhetorical transition here. Maybe it’s that fortunately, modern photographic technology allows all of us, even those who will never meet him, to get close enough to Richard Armitage to see the whites of his eyes. So, while I put on my professorial voice, let us refresh our memories as to the physical features of Mr. Armitage’s eyes via the previous overview. Mmmm.



Okay, so something I neglected to examine closely in that very detailed splurge of cheap anatomical diagramming was the sclera, or “white” of the eye. I’ve corrected that above in this very obtrusively blue annotation of my earlier annotation. This is the kind of thing that many professors totally get off on. If we could write footnotes to our footnotes, most of us certainly would.

But I digress. Two interesting facts about the sclera.

First interesting fact: humans have the most visible sclera of any species in the animal kingdom. The human iris is small in relative terms, leaving more room for a visible sclera in the surface of the eye.

So Mr. Armitage looks most the animal when we see the least of his sclera? For example:

A particularly cat-like Richard Armitage? Promotional photo from 2009. Source:

Or here, although it also has something to do with the color his eyes appear in this photo as well:

Another shot with relatively little visible sclera: Richard Armitage as John Porter in Strike Back 1.6. Source:

Second interesting fact: the white quality of the human sclera is one of its more striking features. A healthy child’s sclera is so white it appears to be almost blue, while an elderly person’s sclera may take on a slightly yellow cast. Some biologists believe that the starkly white human sclera is an evolutionary adaptation to increase the effectiveness of the human eye as a tool of non-verbal communication of various kinds. The contrast of the sclera to the iris makes it easier for humans to see where other humans are looking. (This theory is called the cooperative eye hypothesis.) In comparison to other primates, for instance, humans have a much whiter sclera. In fact, dogs apparently look into human eyes for nonverbal communicative clues.

I found the cooperative eye hypothesis was interesting for our purposes on two levels.

One piece of it is that Armitage has a beautifully visible sclera — when he wants to. He certainly uses it for all kinds of nonverbal communication. Inter alia, of course, it makes a nice background for his eyelashes — it makes them more visible, and it’s a frequent Armitage acting strategy to blink rapidly a few times to show strong emotion.

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) reacts to Margaret’s defense of the strikers in episode 2 of North & South. Source:

It’s complex, of course, because he’s also typically using corrugator supercilii very forcefully when his characters are in anguish. Witness Thornton’s insistence that he wishes to marry Margaret because he loves her:

Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) reacting to Margaret’s rather cool statement that she is a thing he wishes to possess, in episode 2 of North & South. Source:

The best (in the sense of most effective) combination is probably lowered corrugator supercilii in combination with visible sclera, as toward the end of the same shot:

Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in episode 2 of North & South. Source:

Speaking of proposals, the sclera is always the feature of Armitage’s eyes that I notice most closely in Guy of Gisborne’s second, unsuccessful proposal to Marian:

Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) proposes to Marian (Lucy Griffiths) in Robin Hood 2.10. Source:

Some characters — or maybe productions — utilize this feature more subtly than others. At several moments in Strike Back, for instance, Armitage’s eyes suddenly widen very noticeably to show more of the sclera, and I have always wondered whether that’s his own signal that John Porter has a superficially less complicated intellectual-emotional landscape than someone like Lucas North, who doesn’t do that, or whether a director simply said to him, “we need to see more.”

Beautiful sclera, but frankly, one of those more obvious moments: John Porter (Richard Armitage) glimpses a potential terrorist leaving the Basra apartment where his friends were killed seven years earlier, in Strike Back 1.2. Source:

I’m going to leave a closer examination of that question alone until I finish a planned post on the muscles he uses to close his eyes, because we can find plenty of easily visible examples in Strike Back. However, I will say that I tend to read Porter as an anomaly in this regard, which tends to make me think that a director interfered here, not least because of Armitage’s own remark that television acting involves stripping away more obvious signals rather than layering them on. In contrast to Strike Back, in much of his work, I tend to read the suddenly largely visible sclera as a preliminary sign that something’s coming which is, then, in turn, signaled in a different, often slightly subtler way. It’s a very emotional tell that alerts us to a more compressed expression of the thing that’s actually generating the emotion — a sort of signal that gets our attention to look at the actual, more subtle thing he wants to tell us, but which we’ve then relegated to the subconscious by the time we get to what to viewing he’s actually saying.

To wit: Look at Standring’s sclera, as he turns to ask Carol if she’s planning to do anything that night:

Richard Armitage as John Standring in episode 1 of Sparkhouse. Source:

Followed a split second later by a less open view, as he proposes that he himself was planning to The Fleece that night:

Richard Armitage as John Standring in episode 1 of Sparkhouse. Source:

That he can do this with his sclera is really useful to him as an actor, of course, because it means that even at points where his very prominent supraorbital ridge dominates a facial expression — due in part, of course to lighting — he can still indicate an emotion. Why were the whites of the eyes of the other troops visible, after all? Because of the strong emotion involved in marching in formation to battle.

You’ll have to enlarge this fully to see the evidence for my point, but we can still understand his facial expression in a situation where most of his eyes are obscured by his eyebrows because of the visible sclera beneath the iris. Richard Armitage as John Porter in Strike Back “viral video.” Source:

The first Hobbit publicity photo also took advantage of this architectural feature of his face:

Richard Armitage as Thorin in a publicity still for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Source:

I think that this strategy works for him because he doesn’t have incredibly pronounced cheekbones, so in normal or even low lighting, it’s easier for us to see when his lower eyelid is widening than it might be in other circumstances:

The angle of the light reveals the relative flatness of his cheekbones: Lucas North (Richard Armitage) tries to convince Sarah Caulfield that she’s not responsible for Walker’s death in Spooks 8.5. Source:

Though this is my favorite shot of the light falling at that angle on his cheekbones, I think, and potentially always will be.

Guy of Gisborne (Richard Armitage) responds to the Sheriff’s information that King Richard is in fact not returning to England, in Robin Hood 1.13. My cap.

Sorry, just had to interject that cheekbone view, even though it doesn’t demonstrate my point about the sclera.

Anyway, he must realize that he needs to be a little careful with the way he shows his sclera. It’s the sclera, for instance, that indicates his suppressed rage toward Harry Pearce to the viewer near the end of Spooks 9.2.

Richard Armitage as Lucas North / John Bateman in Spooks 9.2. Source:

The sclera makes an Armitage eye-roll a potentially earth-shattering moment, I think. And this incident is one of the only times when I’ve ever heard fans of Armitage express concern about potential overacting. Again, you have to wonder whether this was Armitage indicating the (re-)emergence of John Bateman, or a stage direction (“give us a visible ‘tell’ that all is not well between Lucas and Harry!”).

The second thing that I think is an interesting potential interpretive implication of the cooperative eye hypothesis in our context is the extent to which it explains how or whether we can read Armitage’s eyes when he appears in public. I’ve been trying for a long time to undermine the notion that there’s a “real” Armitage that we see in his public appearances, and this point is a potential elaboration of that idea. Put simply, I think that when his eyes are wider in any given publicity complex, he’s trying harder. In a sense, wide eyes can be put in a sort of similar position as what I termed Armitage equilibrium, although not for the same purposes — I argued that Armitage equilibrium is about sincerity, and this is slightly different — it’s more about expression. (And: please don’t assume the negation of that hypothesis here, though: I am not saying that when his eyes are narrower, he isn’t trying.)

I don’t want to make this absolute, but there’s a generalizable, noticeable contrast between the amount of sclera visible in still photos and what we can see screencaps, for example, that indicates that these are different communicative situations for him. There are many promotional photos of him where his sclera are almost invisible, and you almost never see that in a screencap of an interview. I don’t want to overstate this suggestion, however, not least because of lighting situations.

Richard Armitage, AP Interview for Captain America: The First Avenger, July 19, 2011. Source:

In a setting like the one above (direct late afternoon / early evening sunlight in southern California), for instance, nobody is going to show more of his sclera than absolutely necessary.

~ by Servetus on April 15, 2012.

21 Responses to “Armitage anatomy: Till you see the whites of his eyes”

  1. Yay for Schoolhouse Rock! Yahoo!!! My favorite song is probably still “I’m just a bill”. I just love the melancholy melody of it.

    Funny sneaking in of that cheekbone picture! I saw it and thought, ‘Whaaaa? I can’t even see his left eyeball in this photo!’

    And I would agree with the CA sunlight. Every time I’m there, I’m always amazed by how BRIGHT it really is there and am forever looking for my baseball cap as a sort of refuge from the sun. 😉


  2. What fascinates me so much about RA’s scleras is, that he often shows so much of them below his irises. I find that quite unusual, especially as he has quite large irises. In his roles he uses this effect so naturally and the whole process appears so convincing and takes my whole attention, when he does it.
    Thank you vers much, for this deep and enlightening analysis, Servetus!


    • To be very honest, and I hope I don’t offend anyone, but that is precisely the habit that annoys me most of his acting. Especially in Spooks 8 he did the “rolling his eyes upwards” thing it all the time, much more often than it would be becoming.


      • Hello Jane ;o)
        In Spooks 8 it now is recognizable for me too (just watching Spooks 8 again), as I see it with the expectations created by Spooks 9.
        The lot of sclera visible, gives him an appearance of being astonished and not master of his fate in Spooks 8 and that is something I would have liked the scriptwriters to have handled in a different way. But in my opinion, he played the part of having to adjust to difficult and unexpected situations quite excellently and I would not put the blame upon him ;o)
        He had to express far too much by expressions only, which was not made clear by the script, so I don’t think he had much choice to get any sense into the Sarah Caulfield storyline. Most fans already see it as a very weak love story and only his reactions show that it should be a deep love story, as it affects his judgement as Lucas North.


        • I felt that in Spooks 8 it was the forehead more than the eyes — I felt like Bateman relied more on his eyes.


          • I agree insofar with you, as Bateman immediately is recognizable by the expression of/in his eyes. He sometimes even looks distracted from the current situation and completely immersed (?) in another story / time.
            With the eye rolling and sclera, I only now, after repeated watching see it in Spooks 8 (so I could not detect it as being too much). I just watched 8.6 again and here it often is due to LN being placed in a sitting position, whereas his partners in a scene are standing.
            So I only partially see it as a clear acting method, whereas sitting also implies him ‘looking up’ to either Ros and Harry or being inferior in a dialogue, so in a subtle way it shows the rank he holds on the grid.
            Might be absolutely over-interpreting the situation, especially now that I know he will break in Spooks 9.


      • I forgot to mention that the storyline of mistrust between Lucas North and Harry Pierce mostly relies on RA’s showing of his sclera as well ;o)


      • When I saw it first I thought, this isn’t Lucas North. Later I thought he was trying to indicate the reemergence of the much more emotional John Bateman.

        He probably has to watch it with friends. Eye rolling is such a reflex but in his case it looks like it would indicate severe displeasure.


    • I think part of it is the cheekbone — it makes it easier for us to see the sclera below the iris (and the fact of the fat around his supraorbital ridge means that the top of his eyes are less visible anyway) — and part of it is him. He has a fairly subtle way of widening his eyes, when he wants to, that is.


      • I must admit I associate it a bit with giving full attention or deeply looking into one’s eyes. In some situations I also interpret it as innocence, but to my surprise once now in 8.6 even interpreted it as hiding his emotions by not showing all of his iris. So a widespread range of effects he reaches with that gesture and I can’t really say what I mostly see in it, except that he gets my full attention whenever he does it.


  3. One of my favorite images of Guy is when he’s in the cell next to Meg telling her how to suck on the stone to relieve her thirst. Several of the shots show RA setting next the bars, its dark all around and his face and eyes are all you can see.. He always reminded me of a panther in those scenes and now I now why – there’s less sclera.


  4. […] have a lot of grading to do before tomorrow, so I’m following up with some caps to illustrate Sloan’s comment about Robin Hood 3.9 and Guy’s sclera. Maybe part of it is that he can get his irises right to the limits of the […]


  5. I thought about it and I think it annoys me because a) it is so obvious and b) it is a tool he uses for different characters (I first noticed it with Thornton). Less of it please, would come across much more subtle and natural.


  6. […] His eyes, being so wideopenable, with such striking white scleras, were similarly visually effective. I suspect this effect will be repeated in The Hobbit — […]


  7. […] partially that we see his teeth more fully in such situations, and that they work visually like the sclera do, enhancing emotion by providing us a contrasting background against which to view something […]


  8. […] The contrast of sclera and very white teeth (somehow not so bothersome here as I found them in Lucas North during Spooks 7 […]


  9. […] by Heirs of Durin. Despite those built up eyebrows, he definitely gets the full payoff from the Richard Armitage sclera there! It strikes me that this scroll (along with the new poster that appeared this week) are […]


  10. […] which Guylty then added this. I think they have similarly large sclera. And there’s a real resemblance around the tip of the nose. Too bad Gonzo isn’t taller. […]


  11. […] for instance, that the moment in this cap gets a lot of mileage from Armitage’s very marked sclera, particularly as they’re set here against darkened eyelashes (Guyliner!), that Guy, like […]


  12. […] 1: Yes, I know, and fans like that too, they love the whites of your eyes. Though we could revisit our discussion about […]


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