There are hardly any news on the field of analysis of the structure of paintings. And common geometrical relationships have been used, for a long time in painting, to create pleasing compositions. All that theory has been also translated into ways of composing photographic images. Recently, it came to light a very intriguing compositional principle that portrait artists seem to have followed for the last six centuries, and one that seems to have been completely ignored by artists and art historians.

According to Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, in San Francisco, California, in a portrait, one eye falls consistently on the center vertical of the canvas. Tyler studied portrait paintings by 256 artists, from Botticelli in the fifteenth century, to Picasso in the twentieth, finding that one eye always fell on the center vertical whenever both eyes were depicted in the portrait, wether the model was painted face-on, in classic three-quarter pose or with Picasso-like weird features.

Apparently, such principle must have been overlooked because it is something instinctive and so natural that is has never stood out as unusual. The relationship may in part be guided by an unwillingness to position the whole face simmetrically on the canvas, or that the viewer naturally stands centrally and, as the eyes in a portrait are usually the main focus of attention, the artist will naturally place one eye in the center.

The accuracy of this placement of the eyes in the center is remarkably similar to the accuracy with which people can position elements when asked to find the center of a given frame. This precision, according to the researcher, may result from perceptual processes that seem to be unexpressed by the artists themselves, suggesting that hidden principles are operating in our aesthetic judgements and perhaps in many realms beyond portraiture.


Nature, April 1998