A subscriber wrote, “It has been pointed out that all of my paintings have a center of interest on the right-hand side. Generally there’s a dark blob on the right because that seems to be how I like to compose. Is this something to do with one side of the brain? Do other people have the same problem? Is it serious and in need of correction? I’m sure it occurs entirely unconsciously.”
This is known as right- or left-weighting, and it is unconscious but it’s also a habit due to handedness. We all favour one side or the other. I don’t think it has anything to do with right- or left-brain dominance. While there are exceptions, right-handed people tend to start on the right-hand side of the painting and work toward the left. The reverse is true for lefties. Particularly for those who use a mahlstick or other hand-leaning device, the habit can bring a stultifying regularity to compositions.
Getting control of and understanding right- left-weighting is a valuable compositional ploy. Compositions-in-progress are puzzles that need to be worked out. To hit the reset button, you’ve got to consciously put that “dark blob” in a different spot. And you’ve got to do it early on. This sets the old brain into neural paths that enlighten compositions in a new way. If you produce a lot of similar works in a series, just alternating your rights and lefts is valuable. Weightings tend to run in flocks. Particularly when sending a bundle of recent paintings to a dealer, it’s a good idea to line them all up and give them the old “boring” test.
A problem that arises with habitual placement is the tendency toward traditional and tired academic ideas of balance. I call it “standard plonk” because you plonk down a compositional element in a habituated way. The antidote is to consciously think out and invent variations — extreme decentralization, edgemanship, symmetry, interlock, patterning, action outside the picture plane, and other devices. While it’s okay to just let it flow and to depend on intuition for your compositions, it’s also worthwhile to know that all of our individual pictorial pathways are loaded with traps. When I’m on jury duty, indeed when I’m looking at my own stuff, I’m constantly amazed at how we fall into these traps with stunning regularity.
PS: “A work of art is a collection of signs invented during execution to suit the needs of their position.” (Henri Matisse) “Composition is the art of controlling the observer.” (Robert Henri) “A composition is the organized sum of the interior functions of every part of the work.” (Wassily Kandinsky)
Esoterica: The business of composition is a precarious balance between trusting your intuition, understanding the needs of the work at hand, recourse to universal norms, and the minefields of subconscious habit. Start well and do well. “A well-composed painting is half done.” (Pierre Bonnard)
This letter was originally published as “Right and left weighting” on December 20, 2005.
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“An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, a prisoner of manner, a prisoner of reputation, or a prisoner of success.” (Henri Matisse)