Today, I’d like to mention a little business that I’ve been playing with since I was a kid. It surprised me recently to find that a group of artists in my studio hadn’t heard of it. It’s called the West-East convention. Come to think of it, I just figured out a name for it today.
If you were looking at a map of North America, for example, you would see the West coast on the left and the Eastern seaboard on the right. There’s nothing written that says you can’t look at your map upside down — it’s just the convention to look at it that way. Another example: If a motion picture shows a jetliner flying from the left of the screen to the right — you can be pretty sure the implication is that the plane is flying in the direction of New York from LA — or from London to Moscow. Mess with screen-direction and you are in film-editor’s purgatory.
Particularly in landscape art there’s a tendency to plunk down the easel where the good stuff just happens to be. Map-based directionality is not generally a consideration. Photo and sketch reference material doesn’t care either. But often, not always, a westward look and feeling can be well depicted with a right-weighted, left-facing composition. The reverse for an eastward look. Timely light, dawn and dusk, etc., affect and enhance this device. The convention applies in other valuable ways — for example, a portrait of a guru who looks toward the right (east) for his inspiration. A cow-poke and his horse tread ever leftward into the sunset. Left-facing can also be used to enhance material that implies opportunity, adventure and the opening of a new frontier.
Corn-ball as it may seem, I came on the West-East convention in my search for a sort of intrinsic truth. Something to do with universal connectivity and the quest for norms that reside in our neural connections. This is the realm of idealization where realism and correctness give way to a viewer’s subconscious expectations. And like so many of the conventions in what we do — it ought never be a straight-jacket. There are some little businesses that are just good to know about, and are there for you if you ever need to use them.
Esoterica: Rightness and Leftness, Eastness and Westness also have implications for in-your-face centrality and symmetry. Side-glancing compositions tend to be abject and neutral. A central, forward-proceeding motif suggests demand, engagement and monumentality. The rearward-proceeding motif can imply sadness in life’s losses, departure, and “moving on to another village.” Incidentally, if you’re reading this on Tuesday the 21st of October, 2003, I’m on a plane flying from left to right.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
Here in Florida we have two handy coastlines to paint: the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. And of course, you can stand on the beach looking north or south on each coast. But many people assume that a painting with the water on the left is the West coast, and if the water is on the right, it’s the East coast, to the point of extreme confusion when I correct them.
by Edna Damron, FL, USA
I discovered some time ago that my flower arrangements most always were for right-handed viewers. I felt I must be neglecting the left-handed ones, so from then on I have been trying to reverse my curves and center of interest. The same with landscapes, and other centers of interest.
Against the wind
by Hank Tilbury, Kansas City, USA
Funny that you mention the East-West convention — I have noticed lately in my own work a tendency to compose pictures following certain assumptions about left and right. I’d never thought about this until I looked at a few of my paintings grouped together. It seems whenever I depict someone involved in a tense situation or a struggle against odds, the protagonist is inevitably located on the right side of the painting, facing to the left. Perhaps it’s because he is going “against the wind”, which, here in the midwestern US, blows from west to east (left to right on a map). But an even stronger reason for why these pictures look this way, I’ve decided, has to do with the way we read and write. We learn at a very early age that our written word moves from left to right, and we internalize this as the “natural” flow of things. When I paint someone who is bucking the norm, he is inevitably facing left — going against the flow of words, numbers, maps, etc. I’ve wondered if this feeling would translate to someone who reads right-to-left, as many non-Western cultures do… ?
Lower right finish
by Kristi Bridgeman, Saanich, BC, Canada
In a recent painting for an autumn theme exhibit, I chose to place my setting sun in the lower right — it seemed very important to me at the time that right lower corner is where it needed to be. So when I read the last letter it made me wonder why I had chosen the lower right… I would like to think of myself as anti convention, but this was not the anarchist in me at play. Then it occurred to me that my sun was influenced by my writing habits — which are not the up/down of eastern calligraphy but are left/right. Living in a left to right reading society leaves my ‘finishes’ in the right corner, particularly as I use smudgy calligraphy ink and am right handed. My sunset in Autumn was my right hand signature corner, the last ink free paper on my page, and the finish of the piece.
Left and right, east and west
by Martine Gourbault, Vancouver, BC, Canada
It has come to my attention over time that many portraits show the model facing or gazing to the right. Now you say it has something to do with looking in that direction for inspiration as a guru might… hmmm. Is the East always to the right of a guru? Interesting. There I was wondering whether it had something to do with the model or the artist being right or left handed, some reason far less ethereal. Personally, I find it somewhat easier and more natural to draw a model facing to my left (her or his right) and I am right handed. I’d be interested to know if left handed artists find it more natural to do the opposite.
Is it gestalt?
by Sonja Larsen, Minesota, USA
Thank you for your “convention.” Here’s why. I am a printer and part of my work is gyotaku, which is printing fish. It is a Japanese art, and you work directly with the fish to make a print on soft paper. Invariably, Japanese fish swim to the viewer’s left, and American printers point their fish to the right. I thought this was simply the difference between the writing of the two countries… and thusly, the “logo” or signoff was commonly upper or lower left for Japanese, and lower right on a page for Americans (and Europeans). Working both ways has helped me with my composition, and in placing the artist’s seal more imaginatively. Now you have given me fresh insights into the right/left, east/west — is it a gestalt?
by Helena Tiainen, Berkley, CA, USA
You bring up an interesting point that totally actually depends on one’s perspective and is in its traditional form very earthbound. Some of these ideas are also very culturally bound. The directions are connected with certain attributes i.e. north with wisdom and intellect and east with spirituality etc. But when you start thinking about it, if you are hanging in midair and spinning, your perspective will be very different. Sometimes what we call east is to your right and what we call west is to your left, like when in Russia, the USA is to the left of your country when looked at one way and to the right of it when looked at another way. I suppose whether you look at the planet clockwise or counter clockwise has something to do with this. Most of us are maybe taught to look at everything from a very traditional perspective. After all we are the ones that named the directions and use them as a reference. I think it is good to question almost anything and to live not taking things for granted as they are handed down to you.
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
In RU/UA traditionally faces of peasant houses are directed to Sun, to South. I long time had living in house with face and windows to South, when You looking with Your face to South the East is left. When I began in 12 years age to study geography, I had completely ripened imagine about left East.
Might be it individually for left-right directions, but really corresponding to day time degree of blue-red light at morning East side and sunset West side of picture is parameter of reality. Different energy of blue (morning) and red (sunset) rays must be differently sensing with each of red-left eye-brain hemisphere channels of man.
It is existing also known usefulness to expose brain first, then all body to coming Sun, when sleeping to prepare heart to coming wave influences with brain impulses. Possibly turning chair in artist’s studio is useful to follow this correspondence, but it also is possible to use it to treat several pictures with the same paint turning at chair. Some indicate at correctness of beginning to turn at chair follow clock arrow in North Earth hemisphere and vice versa in South one during such business.
by Nicoletta Baumeister, Surrey, BC, Canada
I would agree with you that each culture imparts its subtle conventions in the way its citizens ‘read’ information. A very young child will scribble about — on anything! — indiscriminately until it reaches a critical point — “drawing on wall baaaaddd, drawing on paper goooood.” In our modern culture, a piece of paper suddenly becomes an ersatz for the spaces the child used to, literally, move about in. Just think of the mental gear-shift from being entirely physically engaged in the world, to stepping into an 8 1/2 x 11 inch rectangular white room! The drawings of figures are soon grounded on the bottom edge as the orientation of bottom is used as a metaphor for the ground the child stands on, clouds are above the figures’ heads and so on. (One of the most engaging aspects of Minoan Art is the free form way that the figures seem to float in space. Do you think that growing up floating in water created a culture that was aware of the spaces between things?)
As a child moves away from being in the concrete experiential phase, the centre of the universe shifts from the sense of being deep within to a more detached arm’s length perception. “I am in the world” seems a simple statement, but it requires an awareness of “I” as separate from “the world.” West-East convention strikes at the roots of who is the observer and what world do they find themselves in?
by Jan Zawadzki, ON, Canada
You might be interested to know that this is called the Coriolis effect and begins to reverse itself the closer you get to the equator. People whose directional inclination is towards magnetic north (those who live in northern latitudes) become temporarily disorientated the further south they get. Another interesting phenomenon is found with those who live between two large bodies of water. The electromagnetic field that is generated in between knocks this internal positioning off kilter and is restored when approaching one or the other of these bodies of water. There are also geomagnetic anomalies where the internal and instrumental compass also become skewed. These are interesting places but what is interesting is that people are drawn in the direction of the energy source.
Playing with the context
by Michael Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
Some other thoughts on the subliminal cartographic references. We tend to know the map of the world through the mercator projection (the most common way in map making of plotting a spherical surface (sort of) on a flat sheet). So we tend to think that the countries at the equator are larger relative to those nearer the poles. Canada has a greater land area than the US with Australia not much smaller.
Poorly travelled southern Ontarians (Canada) totally mis-judge the size of the northern part of their Province because the Provincially produced road maps have south Ontario printed on one side of a large sheet and North Ontario on the other. The trouble is that the Northern map is half the scale — so the area of North is about four times that of southern Ontario.
My trips to New Zealand also screw up the references… sun from the north… and so on. And, no, the water doesn’t go around the other way down the waste pipe. Did you notice the travelling in Lord of the Rings, filmed in NZ, going in the “wrong” direction? Come to think of it, was the sun shining at all?
Everything we do is framed by context. Misreading the context will always mislead the intent, in all things. Playing with the context in art is device to play with the audience. Good art lets the audience play along. Think Magritte, for example.
by Tom Scarlett
Have you ever seen a world map with the south pole at the top? Some of the school map supply companies have them. It’s really quite startling to look at the world this way and realize that there is absolutely no reason that north needs to be at the top. The upside-down map makes you think about the political and social dominance of the northern hemisphere. Most remarkable to me was the size of Canada when you look at a map of north America upside-down — Canada is huge and the US looks quite inconsequential. We need to be reminded constantly to look at everything with “fresh eyes.”
Cafe Paris, Sinatra
ol painting by Joan Marti, Spain
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Max who wrote, “In esoteric terms, right to left movement implies moving from the past to the future. In card readings, the left cards dealt reference the past and the right reveal the possible future.
And also Carolyn Smith, Victoria, BC, Canada who wrote, “I did read this on a Tuesday and could imagine you up there going east! My life is finally falling into place, after so many years of following the horse crap instead of the happy horse going into the sunset.”