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Draw My Left! No, No, My Other Left! A Hidden Bias In Art History Revealed

Wednesday, May 07, 2014 - 07:00 AM

Look at this guy.

He is half-smiley, half-frowny. I drew the mouth carefully to make it equal parts sad and happy.

But when you look at him — take him in whole — would you say he's having a good day or a bad day?

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Most people would say: good day. He seems a little more smiley than not.

That's because, says science writer Sam Kean, when we look at somebody, the left side of that person's face is more emotionally powerful and "determines the overall emotional tenor."

So if his left side is happy and his right side is sad, left wins — the whole face feels happy-ish. What is equal is made unequal. It's as if when I look at you, instead of taking you in with one visual gulp, I'm scanning your face from left to right and the left side feels more dominant.

Why would that be?

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Well, when you look at someone, your right brain is doing most of the work. That's the side of your brain that specializes in faces and is extra good at reading emotions.

But — as you probably know — your right brain operates mainly through the left side of your body. So when you look at someone's face, your right brain pulls in information from the left of your visual field. Which means you will notice more, read more and remember more about the left side of that person's face. His right side matters less.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

If you were to see a photo of that person later, and cut it in half, you'd think, "Oh, this guy looks more like his left side." That's because your brain tricked you to think that way.

In his new bookThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean says this habit of "looking left" has profoundly affected the world of art — especially portrait painting.

People who sit for artists, he says, seem to have a sense that the left side of their face is going to pack more emotive power and make a bigger impression than the right side. This is almost certainly not a conscious thought, but if you look systematically at enough paintings, you'll see a clear, telltale pattern.

In portrait after portrait, you find that subjects, instead of looking dead on at the viewer ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

... they will face slightly sideways to give their left side more exposure.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Mona Lisa is a famous example. She (or was it Leonardo?) decided to turn her face ever so slightly, exposing more left cheek.

Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

How big is the "show-us-your-left" bias? Well, if sitters behaved totally randomly, you'd expect to see the three basic options equally often: 33 percent would face the audience, 33 percent would turn left, 33 percent would turn right.

But when scholars looked, that's not what they found. One study of 1,474 portraits painted in Europe from the 16th to the 20th centuries found that roughly 60 percent showed the sitter favoring the left side of the face — men 56 percent of the time, women 68 percent. Another study looked at 50,000 objects from the stone age to the present and found that after the early Greeks, there was a consistent left-profile bias. When it comes to Jesus suffering on the cross, the tilt is dramatic: Jesus' head is shown facing left more than 90 percent of the time.

The "show-us-your-left" bias, Sam writes, "held, no matter whether the artists themselves were left- or right-handed."

We don't know if the artists told their models, "I want you to look to the left," or if the sitters chose this posture to display their more expressive side. "But the bias seems universal," Sam writes. He points out that when the sitter turns, the left eye moves toward the center of the canvas, like this ...

Robert Krulwich/NPR

... which then puts most of the sitter's face on the left side, where, says Sam, "the face-hungry right hemisphere can study it."

When Doesn't This Happen?

There are exceptions, of course. Leonardo da Vinci, who painted Mona Lisa, often went the other way and produced lots of right-facing portraits.

Self-portraits, it seems, often face right. But, Sam says, "Artists tend to paint self-portraits in the mirror, which makes the left half of the face appear on the right side of the canvas. So this 'exception' might actually confirm the bias."

Curiously, Sam found that prominent scientists, at least in their official portraits for the Royal Society in England, usually face right. "Perhaps they simply preferred to seem cooler and less emotional — more the stereotypical rationalist."

Robert Krulwich/NPR

A skeptic might say this is learned behavior. You go to art school or become an apprentice — the boss turns his subjects to show more left cheek, so you pick up the habit. So that's what this is: a habit. And maybe a Western habit. Western languages, after all, read left to right. In Arabic, the language (and the faces?) might go the other way.

Sam considered this, but he found "surveys of portraits in Egypt (where texts read right to left) turned up a healthy majority of left-facing portraits as well."

What about children's drawings? Kids haven't been exposed to adult paintings, museum art, cultural cues — they just grab crayons and draw. Do they draw faces looking left?

Robert Krulwich/NPR

They do, says Sam. Most kids — especially the righties — draw people facing left. "Overall culture probably influences the direction of portraits somewhat," he wrote, "but most artists naturally highlight the left side."

This analysis left me thinking: When you imagine an artist and model sitting quietly in the studio, it looks so quiet, so ... dull. But if Sam's idea is right, the two of them are actually doing battle.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

The artist's right brain is looking at the model's left side. The model's right brain is murmuring "paint my left," but what's left to the painter is right for the model, so the two of them are pushing at each other, the model twisting to her left, giving the artist less of what the artist wants, the artist, presumably, focusing on what the model is showing less and less of. What looks so serene, is, perhaps, a ruthless tug of war, the artist saying "Give me more left!", the model saying, "I'm giving you left — but it's my left!"

Art. I always knew it was a sweaty business.

Sam Kean's new book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recoveryis a history of brain science — a chapter-by-chapter drama of how you and I learned what's in our brain, how it works, what happens when it doesn't. Mostly it's a series of short stories featuring vivid moments of discovery. Kings get lanced through the head, and the court doctor leans in for a look; presidential assassins are executed, and scientists wonder, "Why did he do that? Did his brain make him kill?" From these tales, Sam builds us our brain. (Sam, I should mention, is a regular contributor to Radiolab.)

Speaking of which (Radiolab, I mean), I will be giving a public talk Saturday night (May 10) in Woods Hole, Mass., should you be in the vicinity. It's a benefit for Atlantic Public Media — the wonderful folks who run Transom, who teach the radio arts and who pilot WCAI. I'm calling the talk "Saddam Hussein's Secret Octopus and Other Tales of Science." I'll be on stage at 7:30 p.m. at the Marine Biology Lab's Lillie Auditorium, 7 MBL St.


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Comments [27]

Rich alford from Ada, oklahoma

The article is confused. Readers are right, the article switches what it calls left. I discovered 36 years ago that those who can raise one eyebrow independently of the other overwhelmingly favor the left eyebrow. Someone mentioned smiles starting on the left side. Me too! But if the left side of the subject is more expressive, the viewer perceives it as on the right. Could the author clarify his argument?

Oct. 24 2015 09:50 AM

To Radiolab staff - please see several comments including the first one from Eddie. It would be great if you clarify this article. There is lack of consistency between the subject's left/right side of their body, the way they turn their body (their left/right), etc. and the viewer/artist's left/right and the examples you give. It's very confusing and contradictory. Thanks.

Sep. 27 2015 04:55 PM
Joel Arbic

I feel lucky to be left-handed. I have dabbled in art throughout my life and truly believe that left-handed people are more gifted in art.

Sep. 23 2015 04:00 AM

The face at the top of the article is sad. The two halves of the mouth are not equal - the right side has a wider curve than the left with makes it dominant in the image.

Sep. 06 2015 04:37 PM
MTS from Olympic Peninsula

Don't know if this is relavant or actually true, but the preponderance of left-handed students in the art classes I took was much higher than in the general population.

Aug. 19 2015 06:01 PM
erica mueller from eastern Massachusetts

I will never forget the course in Art and Visual Perception which I took at Columbia University close to 50 years ago. To illustrate the fact that the human eye reads objects from lower left to upper right, the professor showed a slide of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. As painted, Icarus's legs stick out of the water in the lower right corner. Were he not mentioned in the title, few would notice him on casual viewing. The professor reversed the slide - WHOA! He virtually jumps out at you. Find the image online and try the experiment yourself. According to the professor, this is common knowledge in the world of print advertising, to the extent that ads along that diagonal cost more than those placed elsewhere on a magazine or newspaper page, the upper right costing the most.

Aug. 08 2015 04:28 PM

yes, i agree which left ????

Aug. 07 2015 10:55 PM
Darci from Lawrence, KS

I think Tyler from Red Lodge, MT has it nailed. I even read an article to this effect quite some time ago. It said left-handed people tend to draw faces looking towards the right and righties tend to draw faces looking towards the left. As a left-handed artist, I can testify that what Tyler says is true (only in reverse). Also, flipping through my sketch books, most of my doodled heads face right.

Apr. 03 2015 05:37 PM
Brett from Boston

It seems mid article the "left" reference changes from 'viewers left' to the left side of the person who's being viewed. Can you clear that up and have the drawings match the text. Or is this some transcription error where we're looking at a mirror image of the original drawing?

I do know smiles tend to start from the left side of the face.

Jun. 25 2014 10:45 AM
Goldie from Brooklyn, NY

The research displays a definite bias towards western art and renaissance/post renaissance portraits. It would be interesting to see what happened if the scientists studied art from other periods and cultures (Egyptian or Pre-Columbian, for example.

Jun. 25 2014 12:13 AM
kendra from CALIFORNIA

I don't believe that the motivation for turning the head 3/4 is a neurological one. I am an artist, and I can say (with some authority), that the artists have positioned the heads of their subjects like that to create the greatest illusion of depth. Positioning the face dead center and looking forward flattens the nose and destroys the illusion of volume and form and space.

May. 29 2014 01:51 AM
Carol D

I saw a sad face instead of a happy one. I scanned from both directions (one direction at a time) and concluded that it was a sad face or even a frustrated face. Both eyes and mouth helped me come to that conclusion.

May. 18 2014 12:11 AM

Perhaps it has something to do with artists' preference for North light.

May. 16 2014 03:38 PM
Ike B.

But I saw a sad face in the first picture. Try as I might, I simply couldn't see a happy face.

May. 16 2014 08:14 AM
Natalie from Sacramento, CA

As an artist and a lefty, I found this article to be very interesting. I am currently working on a project that required volunteers to send images of their faces (mainly their eyes) to me to use in a series of artworks. Spurred by this article, I just checked the "sided-ness" of the images I received. Out of 18 images, exactly 9 face left, and 9 right. I guess the fact that these are self-selected photographs might make a difference? Very interesting!

May. 12 2014 02:48 PM

Since I'm getting ready to sit for my LinkedIn portrait photo I was/am highly interested in which side is my better side. I too am confused, is it my right side from my point of view or from the point of view of the photographer or yet another perspective the right side from the point of view of the resulting photograph as viewed from the person looking at the photograph. Whoa .... spinning brain making for no right or left sides.

May. 11 2014 02:44 PM
Mengesha Yohannes

Artist friend suggests that subjects may also be mirroring painter's pose, assuming canvas on painter's right. If anyone knows of research into subjects' preference for showing more left face, please link in comments.

May. 11 2014 02:20 PM
Tyler from Red Lodge, MT

I do quite a bit of portraiture, and comfort for myself and the model seems to always take highest precedence.

I am right handed and when I set up to do a portrait from life I do not want to be looking over my shoulder and I set up with my easel to my right and the model to the left, allowing me to turn my whole body toward the model while painting.

Now to explain why the model would be turned with their left cheek to me and not their right. It is a slight inconvenience to paint a model who is facing the other direction (their right cheek toward me) because, being right handed, my hand actually then blocks more of the crucial facial structures from my own sight as I paint on the canvas. If I am laying down a stroke for the left eye on the canvas, I might pause mid-stroke and check my placement of the stroke in relation the tip of the nose or even the right side of the lips...but if my hand is in the way...I can't do that.

So to sum it up, being right handed, as most people are, I prefer a left cheek (the model's left cheek) to me so that my hand doesn't cover up vital information as I paint.

This may explain why little kids that are right handed draw faces with the features on the left side of the head...out of the way of their own hands. I wonder if left handed kids do the opposite.

I'm not sure if this is the reason, but it would explain why the scientists in photographs turned the other way more often than models do in paintings. On a whole, do we favor one side or the other when photographed?

My point about not looking over your shoulder coupled with the second point may explain why most self portraits are also dominated by the same face-on-canvas orientation as with their models.

May. 11 2014 01:12 AM
Mengesha Yohannes

Let me see... 1. Portrait viewers (including painters) prefer more of subject's face on left side of visual field because of right brain's payoff: face-reading satisfaction and its bias towards the left eye. 2. Subjects accommodate with a slight turn to their right. Could subject's innate "more-left" posing have a parallel satisfaction, i.e. more of painter activity in his/her left visual field? Resulting portrait is a hit of course (see #1). Now let me unsee: portrait outwardly shows more of subject's left face, but it is all driven by inner-eye need to supplement its focus on right face with more facial data." I think that guy is looking more like HIS right side....."

May. 11 2014 12:05 AM
Wally Carbo

I am surprised no brought up religion as a factor. Most know that it is better to be at the "right side" of God's throne, or the "right side" with the sheep - versus - the goats...etc.
Alright so if that is not enough, let s recall the definition of "SINISTER".
Besides "having an evil appearance or looking likely to cause something bad, harmful, or dangerous to happen".
From its origin: Middle English sinistre, from Anglo-French senestre on the left, from Latin sinistr-, sinister on the left side, unlucky, inauspicious.
So we even have words in our languages that give partiality to the right.
Am I going to far to imply that the "Right Wing" politicos also believe they represent what is right a decent? Nah.

May. 10 2014 08:20 PM
Philippa Michel

I'm inclined to agree with above, Eddie- I'm confused by this left-right business as described.

I also feel el like I always drew/painted favoring the right side the subject/person (opposite of what is apparently the bias). And I thought this was partly because in some ways all my portraits are a bit self portraits and that's how I draw or paint myself (and I know the article acknowledged that self portraits might be that way but I still don't see why others wouldn't be too!) maybe my subjects are/were 'looking to the future'. I wonder when they will start looking back.

May. 09 2014 10:49 PM
Paul Trillo from NY

It's true the clarification of left and right is reversed when we look at someone. Our left is their right. Also I don't agree out right with the argument, when I see a face like that I get a more negative or indifferent emotional read. It does not appear happy at all.

May. 09 2014 04:59 PM
Daniel from Melbourne, Australia

Although tangential to this article, it reminded me of a doco I once watched whose thesis basically came from an observation of a sudden abundance of left-handedness in Western painting which correlated with a quantum leap in painters' mastery of perspective, leading the researcher (sorry, can't remember exact details) to postulate that artists were using Camera Obscuras (pin-hole cameras, which can consist of anything from a cornflake box to a whole room blacked out except for a small circle to act as a the lens (essentially 'funneling' the light since light travels in straight lines)) to trace, and therefore master perspective...explaining why a predominantly right-handed species coincidentally became left-handed. Fascinating doco...will try find and post it when not so tired. Thanks Robert.

May. 09 2014 01:52 PM
Knittinglea from USA

Thanks, Eddie. I'm glad I'm not the only one confused...
First example seems to contradict others.

May. 09 2014 01:02 PM
KGA from Memphis, TN

The bias towards the left is a self-centric bias--I prefer to look at the left side of a person's face, I prefer to present the left side of my face, etc. It is always my left (never yours) whether I am the subject of the painting or the viewer of the painting.

Since the subject of the painting prefers his/her left side, the tendency is to turn slightly and expose the left cheek. The resulting painting ends with the mouth on the left side of the canvas. The viewer, preferring to look at the left side of the painting, sees the mouth on the right side and (assuming the subject is smiling) senses that the subject is happy.

If the subject turns his/her head slightly to the right, the mouth ends up on the right side of the canvas. The viewer,preferring to look at the left side of the painting, sees only cheek and senses that the subject is emotionless.

The "left" changes based on the person's perspective we are trying to understand.

May. 09 2014 11:52 AM
Art student

Another thing to think about is that in Western portraiture a person who faces or looks to the left is referencing the past, while looking or facing right references the future. This may be why the scientists were looking to the right; as scientists tend to favor progress and innovation. Portraits of important people or rulers looking left could reference their past accomplishments or royal heritage.

May. 08 2014 03:13 PM
eddie jones

this article is very unclear about which "left" you are referring to. is it the sitters' left, as in, the subjects left side of their face, their left eye, their left nostril, or is it the artists left, meaning the subjects right side? in your first example with the half-smiling, half-frowning drawing, you refer to the left side as the subjects right side. but then with the mona lisa, right away, you switch to mean the subjects right and continue this way for the rest of the article. you address this issue in the final cartoon but you still don't clarify. as readers, we read your first example with the drawing, take in that information, and then proceed to read the rest of the article thinking, "this is the exact opposite of what we were just told." so which is it? which side is more "dominant" in portraying emotion? you cant have it both ways lol

May. 08 2014 03:04 PM

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