Eye Placement in Portraits

Eye Placement in Portraits
Here is an interesting bit of scientific/artistic conjecture. Christopher W. Tyler, of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco suggests in this short (1 page) illustrated article that a high percentage of portrait paintings are arranged so that one eye, presumably the dominant one, falls on the horizontal center line of the image, even when the head appears to be centered in the painting. (He goes into more detail in a second article.)

He cites a number of examples and invites speculation on the part of the reader as to the purposeful placement of eyes in portraits according to several artistic models. His results from a sampling of 282 different artists suggest that he is correct a large percentage of the time and my own casual observations seem to agree.

Get out your ruler and art books and see for yourself.

The site is part of the Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center, which also includes The Eye Page, with interesting tidbits about eyes, both human and those of other animals, and a series of Art Investigations, scientific inquires into various aspects of art.


13 Replies to “Eye Placement in Portraits”

  1. There can be only one answer. The Catholic Church is evil and has been leading people away from the sacred feminine for 2000 years. It’s only now that the Horizontal Center eye code has been cracked.

    M-m-m, I wonder if it works with the portrait on my blog?

  2. Laura,

    Yes, in Tyler’s grouped image, he has cropped them vertically to fit his group, but the horizontal dimensions are untouched, so the center indicated by the vertical line is accurate. The page I point to also has a grouped image he put together of shorter slices of 20 images.

  3. Owen,
    You may be right, but I won’t know until I finish calculating PHI out to ten million decimal places…

    Your portrait seems to have its center “right between the eyes”, so I guess you’re not part of the conspiracy.

  4. All of history’s great portraitists who mastered composition would arrange the elements within the composition in such a way as to hold the your attention in the center of the image. The eyes are at that center because that is where everything comes together…creating a sense of place and time.

  5. Yes. I’m planning a future post about the use of “targets” in master paintings, in which the artists arranges the composition so that alternating bands of dark and light values lead your eye to the intended focal point of the paiting. (Vermeer excelled at this.)

  6. Heh. Interesting analytical observation. It seems to leave out the commonsense argument in that a portrait is really only a portrait when there is a head/face in the approximate middle. If you take the width of the eyes against the width of the head then the probability of an eye being dead-centre is going to be high anyway without projecting the outcome onto an innate orderliness on the part of the artist.

    I wonder if he’s analyzed noses or say chins or the like (just as a statistical comparison). I mean I like that he’s gone to the trouble and such but the truth in what Corbin Hollis Cohate says is pretty obvious isn’t it? [I’m critiquing but in reality I’m smiling at the guy having given such depth of thought to it and then taken it to its academic conclusion so to speak]. Weird science
    {full disclosure: I only skimmed through the material}

  7. reviewed the original article. there seems to be some confusion about the term horizontal and the term vertical.
    Would love to chat with the author.
    mac johnson

  8. I honestly dont think the artists were paying much attention to eye placement. I think they either centered the width of the head so there is equal margin on either side, no matter if the subject was directly facing the artist or angled left or right (like Mona Lisa or George Dubya). The other portraits with the subject is off center look like a simple rule of thirds application, do they not?

  9. Thanks for your comment. I don’t think the author of the article is suggesting that the artists are deliberately placing the eyes this way, but that in the course of compositional choices, the effect is that the eyes often appear this way — suggesting a commonality in the position of heads in portraits.

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