10 Famous Left-Handed Artists: Chance or Destiny?

Left hand painting with a brush and oil color
Oana Coman-Sipeanu / Getty Images

New insight has been gained in recent years into how the brain works. In particular, the relationship between the left and right brain has been found to be much more complex than previously thought, debunking old myths about left-handedness and artistic ability. While there have been a number of famous left-handed artists throughout history, being left-handed did not necessarily contribute to their success.​

About 10% of the population is left-handed, with more left-handedness found among males than females. While traditional thought is that left-handers are more creative, left-handedness has not been proven to correlate directly with greater creativity or visual artistic ability, and creativity does not emanate solely from the right cerebral hemisphere. In fact, according to the National Institute of Health, "brain imaging shows that creative thought activates a widespread network, favoring neither hemisphere." Of the left-handed artists commonly cited, although an interesting characteristic, there is no proof that left-handedness had anything to do with their success. Some of the artists may even have been forced to use their left hand due to illness or injury, and some may have been ambidextrous. 

New research shows that "handedness" and the idea of people being "left-brained" or "right-brained" may, in fact, be more fluid than previously thought, and there is still much more for neuroscientists to learn about handedness and the brain.  

The Brain

The brain's cortex consists of two hemispheres, the left and the right. These two hemispheres are connected by the corpus callosum. While it is true that some brain functions are more dominant in one hemisphere or the other — for example in most people the control of language comes from the left side of the brain, and the control of movement of the left side of the body comes from the right side of the brain — it has not been found to be the case for personality traits such as creativity or a tendency to be more rational versus intuitive.

It is also not true that a left-hander's brain is the reverse of a right-hander's brain. They have much in common. According to the National Institute of Health, "some 95–99 percent of right-handed individuals are left-brained for language, but so are about 70 percent of left-handed individuals." 

"In fact," according to Harvard Health blog, "if you performed a CT  scan, MRI scan , or even an autopsy on the brain of a mathematician and compared it to the brain of an artist, it's unlikely you'd find much difference. And if you did the same for 1,000 mathematicians and artists, it's unlikely that any clear pattern of difference in brain structure would emerge."

What is different about the brains of left and right-handed people is that the corpus callosum, the main fiber tract connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, is larger in left-handed and ambidextrous people than in right-handed people. Some, but not all, left-handers may be able to process information more quickly between the left and right hemispheres of their brain, enabling them to make connections and engage in divergent and creative thinking because information flows back and forth between the two hemispheres of the brain more easily through the larger corpus callosum.  

Conventional Characteristics of the Brain Hemispheres

Conventional thought about the brain hemispheres is that the two different sides of the brain control distinctly different characteristics. Although we are a combination of characteristics from each side, it has been thought that our personalities and way of being in the world are determined by which side is dominant.  

The left brain, which controls the movement of the right side of the body, is thought to be where language control resides, is rational, logical, detail oriented, mathematical, objective, and practical. 

The right brain, which controls the movement of the left side of the body, is thought to be where spatial perception and imagination reside, is more intuitive, sees the big picture, uses symbols and images, and influences our risk-taking. 

While it is true that some sides of the brain are more dominant for SOME functions — such as the left hemisphere for language, and the right hemisphere for attention and spatial recognition — it is not true for character traits, or to suggest a left-right split for logic and creativity, which require input from both hemispheres.

Is Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain Real or Myth?

Betty Edwards classic book, "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," first published in 1979, with a fourth edition put out in 2012, promoted this concept of the distinctive characteristics of the two hemispheres of the brain, and used it to very successfully teach people how to "see like an artist" and learn to "draw what they see", rather than what they "think they see" by overruling their "rational left brain." 

While this method works very well, researchers have found that the brain is much more complex and fluid than previously thought and that it is an oversimplification to label a person as being right- or left-brained. In fact, regardless of a person's personality, brain scans show that both sides of the brain are activated similarly under certain conditions. 

Regardless of its veracity or oversimplification, however, the concept behind the drawing techniques developed by Betty Edwards in "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" has helped many people learn to see and draw better. 

What is Left-Handedness?

Although there are no strict determinants of left-handedness, it implies a preference for using the left hand or foot when performing certain tasks that involve reaching, pointing, throwing, catching, and detail-oriented work. Such tasks might include: drawing, painting, writing, brushing your teeth, turning on a light, hammering, sewing, throwing a ball, etc.

Left-handed people will also usually have a dominant left eye, preferring to use that eye for looking through telescopes, microscopes, viewfinders, etc. You can tell which eye is your dominant eye by holding your finger in front of your face and looking at it while closing each eye. If, while looking through one eye, the finger stays in the same position as when you view it with both eyes, rather than jumping to one side, then you are looking at it through your dominant eye. 

How to Tell Whether an Artist is Left-Handed

It is not always easy to determine whether a deceased artist was left- or right-handed, or ambidextrous. However, there are several ways to try:

  • The best way to tell is to actually observe the artist painting or drawing. This is possible if the artist is alive, but can also be determined through film footage or photographs of artists who have died. 
  • Third person accounts and biographies can tell us whether an artist is left-handed.
  • The direction of the mark or the brush stroke when making hatch marks (unrelated to contour or plane) can also reveal left-handedness. Right-handed hatchings are usually lower on the left and higher on the right, whereas left-handed hatchings are the reverse, angled down towards the right. Background hatchings are most useful in this regard.
  • Portraits of the artist done by another artist are more reliable indicators of handedness than are self-portraits. Since self-portraits are often done by looking in the mirror, the reverse image is portrayed, thereby representing the opposite hand being the dominant one. If a self-portrait is done from a photograph it is a more accurate representation of handedness, but one never knows. 

Left-Handed or Ambidextrous Artists

Following is a list of ten artists commonly thought to be left-handed or ambidextrous. Some of those purported to be left-handed might not actually be so, though, based on images found of them actually working. It takes a bit of sleuthing to make an actual determination, and there is some dispute over a few artists, such as Vincent van Gogh.

01
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Colorful painting of mask by Karel Appel
Mask Painting by Karel Appel. Geoffrey Clements/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Karel Appel (1921-2006) was a Dutch painter, sculptor and printmaker. His style is bold and expressive, inspired by folk and children's art. In this painting you can see the predominant angle of the brushstrokes from upper left to lower right, typical of left-handedness. More »

02
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Raoul Dufy seated, painting venice scene with left hand
Raoul Dufy painting with the view in Venice, with left hand. Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) was a French Fauvist painter known for his colorful paintings. More »

03
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Drawing by M.C. Escher of a skull within an eye
Eye With Skull, by M.C. Escher, from the Cultural Center Banco de Brasil "The Magical World of Escher". Wikimedia Commons

M.C. Escher (1898-1972) was a Dutch printmaker who is one of the world's most famous graphic artists. He is most known for his drawings that defy rational perspective, his so-called impossible constructions. In this video he can be seen working carefully with his left hand on one of his pieces. More »

Portrait
Elizabeth Dauncey, 1526-1527, by Hans Holbein. Hulton Fine Art/ Getty Images

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) was a High Renaissance German artist who was known as the greatest portraitist of the 16th century. His style was very realistic. He is most well known for his portrait of King Henry VIII of England. More »

05
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Abstract Still Life with Dice, by Paul Klee
Still Life With Dice, by Paul Klee. Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was a Swiss German artist. His abstract style of painting relied heavily on the use of personal childlike symbols. More »

Part of Michelangelo's artwork on The Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo's artwork on The Sistine Chapel. Fotopress/Getty Images

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a Florentine Italian sculptor, painter and architect of the High Renaissance, regarded as the most famous artist of the Italian Renaissance and an artistic genius. He painted the ceiling of Rome's Sistine Chapel, in which Adam, too, is left-handed. More »

Painting of Peter Paul Rubens showing his painting with his right hand.
Peter Paul Rubens At His Easel by Ferdinand de Braekeleer the Elder, 1826. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a 17th century Flemish Baroque artist. He worked in a variety of genres, and his flamboyant, sensuous paintings were filled with movement and color. Rubens is listed by some as being left-handed, but portraits of him at work show him painting with his right hand, and biographies tell of him developing arthritis in his right hand, leaving him unable to paint. More »

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec painting La Danse au Moulin Rouge, 1890. adoc photos/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) was a famous French artist of the post-Impressionist period. He was known for capturing Parisian nightlife and dancers in his paintings, lithographs, and posters, using bright color and arabesque line. Although commonly listed as a left-handed painter, a photograph shows him at work, painting with his right hand. More »

Drawing of Tank and Notes Written in Mirror Image by Leonardo da Vinci
Study of Tank and Notes in Mirror-Image by Leonardo Da Vinci. GraphicaArtis/ArchivePhotos/GettyImages

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a Florentine polymath, considered a creative genius, although he is most renowned as a painter. His most famous painting is the "Mona Lisa." Leonardo was dyslexic and ambidextrous. He could draw with his left hand while writing notes backwards with his right hand. Thus his notes were written in a kind of mirrored-image code around his inventions. Whether this was by intent, to keep his inventions secret, or by convenience, as someone with dyslexia, is not known definitively. More »

10
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Vincent van Gogh

Painting of wheatfield with cypresses by Vincent van Gogh
Wheatfield With Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch post-Impressionist painter who was considered one of the greatest artists of all time, and whose work influenced the course of Western Art. His life was difficult, though, as he struggled with mental illness, poverty, and relative obscurity before dying at the age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Whether or not Vincent van Gogh was left-handed is disputed. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, itself, says that van Gogh was right-handed, pointing to "Self-Portrait as a Painter" as proof. However, using this same painting, an amateur art historian has made very compelling observations indicating left-handedness. He observed that the button of van Gogh's coat is on the right side (common in that era), which is also the same side as his palette, indicating that van Gogh was painting with his left hand.

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Marder, Lisa. "10 Famous Left-Handed Artists: Chance or Destiny?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/a-list-of-left-handed-artists-4077979. Marder, Lisa. (2017, December 5). 10 Famous Left-Handed Artists: Chance or Destiny? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-list-of-left-handed-artists-4077979 Marder, Lisa. "10 Famous Left-Handed Artists: Chance or Destiny?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-list-of-left-handed-artists-4077979 (accessed December 14, 2017).