Right and left weighting


Dear Artist,

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.”


“Bathers by a River”
oil on canvas, 1909-13
by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

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.


The Music (La Musique)
oil on canvas, 1939
by Henri Matisse

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.


“Sorrow of the King” 1952, confined to a wheelchair, Henri Matisse worked with scissors to cut colorful pieces of paper and glued them onto larger pieces of paper with the help of assistants.

Best regards,


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)



  1. Great article, and this is the very reason I keep turning my paintings around so the original right hand side, now becomes the left, upside down..I flip the painting all four ways..and I keep doing this until at some point I decide on the final orientation, and sometimes that’s way at the end!

    • a recent piece that i am developing was started by spinning the canvas while dripping the paint onto it. that took me out of the task of conscious placement. perhaps putting a very small dot of red color in a specific place can also break an old habit.

    • Elaine Vice on

      Charlene…never heard of the Google Streetview paintout project. What a fabulous idea, especially to those of us who love to paint en plein air, but don’t travel so much anymore. I’m definitely going to try it.

  2. We read left to right. I like to put the center of interest, using the Golden Mean 5/8 rule” on the right side of the painting…then lead the eye around the painting, arriving back at the main interest (area with highest contrast). If that center of interest is on the left, the eye will go there first of course and last and I feel being “left” on the left side of the painting is somehow disconcerting. Ending on the right side of the painting is more restful. My work is about creating beauty. If the intent of your own painting is about tension, anger, unsettling, etc. ending on the left might be what is needed.
    I really enjoy designing square paintings, too….you can break design rules.

  3. I seem to remember something from a drawing class, an exercise where you just made marks – lines, circles, x’s, whatever – with no intent. Later the placement of the marks were analyzed and I was surprised to learn that if one is feeling defensive, there tends to be more or a larger mark on the right hand side of the page. If one was feeling open and happy, the weight would be on the left. I had to admit, I was feeling quite pressured by a group I belonged to at the time, and was indeed feeling defensive about a lot in my life.

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