Visual Storytelling: A basis in biology

Quite often with visual art we make the assumption that the artist is an intuitive prodigy. The idea is that art is something that is just “known” to the artist. That it is some mystical force that only the special can sense and no amount of classes or guidelines or rules of thumb will make up for it. As it happens, this might not actually be the case! Recent research indicates our brains might be hardwired in such a way that there is at least a base start from. Read on for more.

Before we get to the study, let’s talk a bit about the late Roger Ebert. Having enjoyed, taught and critiqued visual storytelling through films throughout his life, he came to realize that there were some fundamental rules about composing an image that were consistent in any good film. He wrote these thoughts down in an article called How To Read A Movie. Here are just a few of his ideas:

  • The right side is more positive. The left is more negative
  • Foreground is stronger than background
  • Brighter areas dominate darker areas

The brighter-over-darker note is obvious. It’s easier to see when there is more light, so we tend to focus on brighter areas. The foreground-to-background could be explained by the fact that humans are predators. The eyes are set in the head so as to judge distance to a target. Naturally differences in distance would draw our attention. But what about that left/right idea? Turns out our brains may be hardwired that way as well.

According to a study by the School of Communication at Cleveland State University (PDF here), people generally consider the left side of a frame “negative” and the right side “positive”. This tendency seems to apply to all humanity, regardless of culture. For example, the Japanese read right-to-left, but still exhibit this tendency of left/bad and right/good with regards to visual imagery.

Oddly, this might be just a part of the way all brains are constructed and not just humans. For example, the New York Times wrote an article on how dogs wag their tails. As it turns out dogs wagging their tails to the right are happy, but dogs wagging their tail to the left are nervous. It’s possible the left/right tendency is something of a universal truth, at least here on Earth.

Regardless, it means that for visual art and visual storytelling, there is a base framework from which to build your art. Knowing we’re all hardwired to respond intuitively in similar ways means there is a default visual language with which we can paint a picture, draw a comic or film a movie. No special “artiste” prodigy magic required.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.