Why Do Historically Most Portraits Show Subjects Looking to the Right?

Why Do Historically Most Portraits Show Subjects Looking to the Right?

The Atlantic's science writer, Sam Keen, recently looked at a study that compared posing in portraits. He found that in a disproportionate number of images the subject was turned slightly to the right. Coincidence? He thinks not.

As stated in the video, if you were to walk into a portrait gallery you might expect to see about 1/3 of the subjects looking forward, 1/3 of them looking to the right and the remaining 1/3 looking to the left, but this doesn't seem to be the case. In the study referenced, over 60% of the subjects were turned to the right, showing the left side of their face. Sam believes this favoritism for the left side of peoples faces, or a subject's natural tendency to highlight that side is related to the part of the brain responsible for its use.  He explains that the left half of the body is controlled by the right half of the brain which is also responsible for emotion and communication, making it more pleasing to look at and more likely to convey emotion.

Take a look:

[Via The Atlantic]

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I feel like the fact that most people are right handed and/or right eye'd dominant as well might play a part. Not sure why though.

That 'left brain, right brain' stuff has already been disproved. Old world myths still persist, so please do your research.

Austin Rogers's picture

I'm not sure about that. I'm by no means a neuroscientist, but from what I've read neural crossover is a very real thing. Check out the corpus callosum — if someone is missing this structure they can draw a circle with one hand while simultaneously drawing a square with the other. Certain regions of the brain are responsible for certain activities. For example, the rhombencephalon (sometimes called the hindbrain), located just above the spine is responsible for many of our base functions. While I haven't studied the anatomical structures referenced in this video I don't think the conjecture requires too much of an intellectual leap. Plus it was meant to spark a conversation. Thanks for your input!

I can draw a circle with one hand, and a square with the other. It's not that hard. Just saying... And no, I don't show any of the signs to be missing that part of my brain... Considering how difficult it is to understand the brain, I wouldn't fathom my first hypothesis around the peculiarities of it. More often than not, the simplest answer is usually the right one. And considering how people in western cultures read from left to right, that seems to me to be the most logical answer. Diving into the deep end of neuroscience seems to be a little excessive. Many people have already posted many good ideas, most of my which seem to have a far greater potential to being correct than your brain theory. Sorry to sound harsh, but I just think you need to take a step back next time and consider other alternatives before you spend so much time on a video..

Austin Rogers's picture

Hi Nick! Thanks for weighing in. I didn't make the video or perform the research; it was made by a science writer at The Atlantic named Sam Keen. It’s not my theory that’s being discussed here. I thought it was interesting and defiantly worth looking in to. You are right that typically the simplest expiation is the closest to the truth.


So Austin, hold up your right hand and pledge to never again perpetuate the demonstrated nonsense about right brain/left brain?


It's because the majority of the world read words from left to right and as a result we naturally read images in this direction too. Therefore the brain more easily accepts the face or portrait reading into the face as opposed into the back of the head. It is also the most common direction of lighting into still life subjects in many of the old masters paintings. Much of my work is shot the same way although not necessarily intentionally, other times the environment you are shooting in dictates the direction your subject faces http://karltaylorportfolio.com

Austin Rogers's picture

Karl, thanks for chiming in on this. I've seen other publications that talk about the brain "reading" an image in a similar way to reading a text (with westerners reading right to left, many easterners reading vertically, etc.).

Hi Austin, Yes it would be interesting to draw information from a study of old Chinese art and portraits to see if the left/right variability was different to the early western art given their vertical script or calligraphy.

I think this is a very good point.

Well put, Mr. Taylor. The first lesson of composition is "flow." Flow, within the frame, runs from the top left to the bottom right. Having the subject face into the flow, like a rock in a stream, gives a feeling of strength, confidence or resolution. If the subject is facing to our right, the effect is softer, acquiescent, more "go with the flow." For a good portraitist, this is a basic composition tool. It's something most of us use very consciously. http://rickdahms.com

Anybody consider lighting and orientation? I imagine most old portraits were made by window light (not many lightbulbs in the 1600's) i.e. the subject turned facing the window at an angle, otherwise the lighting would be from the side. Then assuming most painters are right handed, you would want the subject to your left so you could see past the canvas or else you'd have to peek over it or keep moving sideways. Wonder if there is any record of right-vs-left handed painters and which direction their subjects typically face!

Austin Rogers's picture

Hey Nick, I think you brought up something pretty important here that might not have been given much thought in the study, it definitely got me thinking. That said, it's not just paintings that were examined. This trend towards the left side of the face is reflected in photography as well as paintings that were not based on a model. The video references another study that looks at paintings of Jesus, 90% of which had the head facing right.

Yup I thought of that just after I posted. I wonder if the continuation of that trend into photography is just a matter of convention and 'what looks right' based on hundreds of years of painted portraits. And I think most paintings not of live models would still be based on sketches or other models i.e. having someone stand in to play Jesus. Painters would be more used to or better practiced at left-facing portraits i.e. better do your best work if you're painting religious figures. But of course there may be something left/right brain as well, I just thought the more practical aspects were interesting!

Right handed painters (for centuries) shaded from left to right because it's easier to let shadows fall off to the right, for right-handers- making the key light source from the left. Photographers (and the general population) have built a familiarity with key light sources coming from the left.

I would go with familiarity and reading right to left in the Western world being the main reason. It would be interesting to see a study comparing Asian and Middle eastern cultures though.

In oil painting you generally paint "light into dark", so I can't subscribe to a key light to the left being easier at all. Meaning for right handers, it's adding "light" to the left of a scene, on top of and after a foundation of shadows and mid-tones. Thus covering up with your right hand or a mahl stick, what you're attempting to define with light. Seeing the shadows and manipulating the light, is the key to great photography, just as it is in art.

Most people in the USA part their hair on the left. That's usually my first attempt at their best side for a portrait.

in olden days, the houses of the rich n wealthy were facing certain ways to get the sun. hence windows (and therefore portraits) are situated in certain ways,

Interesting stuff. Debates aside, I'll definitely check this out myself the next time I visit a gallery!

Savi You's picture

It just looks...right.

Of course the junk retouching plug-in ad we see EVERYWHERE shows the face the other way...
That alone is enough for me to stick with the masters and light a symmetrical face facing left.

I have flopped a face left that faced right because of a cosmetic issue. That was to match other content. Now I'll "swim upstream" when I can and try the other way.

Thing that I find good about this discussion is realizing that there are different emotional reactions that can be elicited by having a subject look in different directions, or leading lines from left rather than right, etc. Then we can use these techniques with deliberation and forethought.
Thank you all.

Sorry to step on your awesome thought, but the real explanation is much simpler....Almost everyone has one eye higher than the other, and it's usually the right eye. Portraitists turn the higher eye slightly away from the camera to camouflage this imbalance.
And, I'm also sorry to say that neuroscientists debunked the left-brain/right-brain theory long ago. Your brain is a network and ascribing functions to one side or the other is very 20th century.