A Left-side Bias in Art

Normally I post images of contemporary pieces that I find beautiful or intriguing. However, this article describing research that has found a prominent left-side bias in art is fascinating. I will start paying attention to this much more now. Article link HERE.

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

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?
Man with smiley/frowny face.

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

That’s because, says science writer , 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?

Man looking at another man with his right brain dominant.

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.

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 about the left side of that person's face.

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 , The 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 …

Portrait of a man facing forward, looking dead on at the viewer.

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

Man turning slightly sideways to give his left side more exposure.

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

The Mona Lisa by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, at the Louvre museum in Paris.

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. of 1,474 portraits painted in Europe from the 16thto 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. 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 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 …

Two faces, one looking dead on and the other looking left.

… 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.”

Prominent scientists usually face right.

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?

Do kids draw faces looking left?

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.”

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Malamp Reliquaries by Brandon Ballengée

Very Interesting mix of art and science.

Discover Arts in Science

“Visually, they really [looked] like victims of Agent Orange or dioxin or Chernobyl,” he says. “That, from an environmental standpoint, really concerned me.”

Morpheus, 2013. Iris print on Arches watercolor paper. Cleared and stained Pacific tree frog collected in Aptos, California in collaboration with Stanley K. Sessions. The white dots near the base of the frog’s tail are the parasitic cysts that caused it to develop additional limbs.

Malamp Reliquaries” is an amphibian portrait series by artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée. Malamp is short for “malformed amphibian” and a reliquary is a container or shrine in which sacred relics are kept. Brandon has a unique perspective on the issue as both an artist and biological scientist. He graduate from the University of Cincinnati’s Art Academy in 1996 and earned a Ph.D. in biology from University of Plymouth, England in 2008. Brandon became interested in amphibian malformations in the…

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