Lighting has three main purposes:

  1. an illusion of depth (modeling).
  2. Create a mood.
  3. Normalize (or, conversely, emphasize) the subject's features.

Once you’ve worked out your composition and thought about the symmetry of the objects within it, you’re going to have to consider where your light source is coming from. Research has been done into which direction of lighting people respond to best and guess what? People generally prefer paintings lit from the left. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t have your light source coming from the right if you want to (and we’ve experimented with both), but you might just find your rendering will work better in some cases if you have it coming from the left.

Now here’s an interesting one. Researchers looked at more than 1000 European portrait paintings produced from the 16th until the 20th century and were surprised at what they found. Almost 60 percent of the time, the subject had their left cheek turned towards the viewer.

Why is this? Some analysts think it’s all to do with our left-right preferences again and our instinctive love of symmetry in art. It’s not always the case though, and it looks as if social standing has some influence on whether it’s the left or the right cheek that’s facing the viewer. For example, academics such as scientists are often painted or photographed with their faces inclined to the right.

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