Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What does eyetracking tell us about the rules of composition?

Eyetracking heat map of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci   
Artist and blog reader Eric Wilkerson asks:

     "I had a discussion with another illustrator over composition recently. Specifically about the usage of directional lines and shapes to lead the eye to the focal point of the painting or cinematic frame in a movie.
     "I know you refer to it as spokewheeling and shapewelding. I learned all this back in college and it was drilled into us based on the old Loomis books.
     "Anyway, my friend says that all of that is nonsense due to eye tracking and that it doesn't matter where the lines are going because the brain is going to look for a face or random points of interest every time.
     "So do you think eye tracking negates spokewheeling etc or is it all a combination of elements to lead the viewer through a composition?
     "I'm firmly in the camp that it doesn't. I've been studying the work of some famous cinematographers lately and they compose whole frames through use of strong light, shadow, color and directional shapes to lead the viewer.

     "I don't know....So I'm writing you. Hope you can settle this for me or at least offer some insight."

Eye tracking scanpath  by A.L. Yarbus
on Repin's painting "The Did Not Expect Him"
Hi, Eric,
That's a fascinating question, and I'm glad you asked it. Here's the short answer: I believe that scientific insights from eyetracking challenges a lot of the art-school dogma about how we look at pictures. But don't throw out the compositional toolkit just yet. Many of those compositional devices are probably still valid.

Eye tracking heatmap in a bar. Viewers apparently want to know
what brands of beer are on tap  
You and your friend are both right. Your friend is right that faces (or other psychologically important objects) will attract the most attention wherever you place them in the design. Eye tracking proves that. It also shows that the way each viewer explores the picture is highly individual. No two viewers will experience the picture in the same way.

Venice by Turner. I'd love to see an eyetracking heatmap of this painting. I believe
 that I'm most attracted to the light buildings on the light background,
not to the areas of highest contrast. But maybe I'm misreporting my experience,
and maybe I look at this painting differently than others do.

The scanpath (the track of eye movements over time) of a given viewer depends to a great extent on what psychological or narrative expectations he or she brings to the interpretation of the image. Contrary to many dogmatic assertions that we learned in art school, the eye's path through the picture does not really follow passively along the directional lines. Instead it jumps around in unpredictable jagged leaps all over the picture. While we customarily speak about "leading the eye" or "forcing the viewer" or "directing the attention" by means of leading lines, we have to remember that the eyes are not driven in a deterministic way, like a train on a track.

Eyes are active extensions of a hungry brain.

Does this mean that those traditional compositional devices have no effect on our experience of the picture?

No, and here is where I think you are also right. I believe that most of the classical design devices (including  spokewheeling, chromatic accents, edge control, value organization, etc.) can influence the way we perceive a composition. When used intelligently, they can help the average viewer decode what's important in a picture, and they accentuate the viewer's satisfaction in having their attention anchored to the centers of interest as they further explore subordinate areas.
Yarbus's data originally published
in "Eye movements and vision" (read more)
.

But it's difficult to know exactly how we're influenced by such devices. I suspect that we perceive them by means of our peripheral vision, even if we don't perceive them directly with our center of vision.

For example, let's look at the two paintings in this post. In "The Last Supper," Leonardo's placement of the vanishing point behind Christ's head seems to reinforce our focus on that important center of intererst.

But in the case of "They Did Not Expect Him," Repin doesn't place the vanishing point behind any of the major heads, but that doesn't seem to compromise the ability of viewers to find what is important in his painting.

Yarbus showed that people looked at the the Repin painting many different ways (right) depending on what question they were prompted with first.

Viewers are perhaps more influenced by leading questions than leading lines.

Science is beginning to reveal that visual processing of any image—but especially a realistic, narrative image—involves many areas of the brain. How we look at a picture appears to be affected by several interrelated factors, such as lines, tones, lighting, color, psychology, title, caption, and other factors. The leading lines and the shapes are just two of those elements.

My advice
Science can help us bayonet sacred cows, but it can't guide us very much in designing pictures. How we look at artwork is a topic that is still mostly unexplored by cognitive scientists using modern technology. Until more studies are carried out, we can't fully understand the logic behind pictorial design. My advice is to be skeptical when you hear any dogmatic assertions about composition. Instead, follow your instincts. Don't concern yourself with following compositional "rules," and don't bother with making your pictures pleasing or harmonious. Instead just work to make your picture interesting. Figure out what you want to say and say it emphatically.

If a graduate student in neurobiology is reading this and wants to devise some experiments, please contact me! I'll volunteer some of my paintings as guinea pigs.
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More info
Previous posts:
Spokewheeling 
Shapewelding
Eyetracking and Composition (series)
Books: Vision and Art (Updated and Expanded Edition)
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist

Monday, July 16, 2018

Color and Light in Russian and Korean


Here's my contribution to international diplomacy: the new Russian and Korean editions of Color and Light: A Guide for Realist Painters.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Studying Art in Paris, 1902

Around 1900, it was common for young American artists to study in Paris. But not everyone was in favor of it.
Typical Life Class in Sculpture
In an effort to promote American schools, Edmund Talbott painted an unflattering portrait of what it was like for young women studying art in Paris.
"American girls going to Paris have no conception of the life they will be forced to lead: the obnoxious companionship, the antiquated, disease-breeding sanitary arrangements in the dwellings, the scanty food and liability of illness resulting therefrom, the dirt, the dishonesty, etc. These things they cannot, except in rare cases, escape....Idleness, the dissipation of energies resulting from the temptations incident to residence abroad have robbed proud prestige which they acquired in their American schools, and left them worse off than though they had remained at home."
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Some Facts About Art Study in Paris, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May, 1902), pp. 122-126
Exhibition in Massachusetts: Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 through September 3, 2018

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Mick Moloney in Concert

Last night, Mick Moloney led an all-star group of Irish musicians in a late-night concert at a pub in East Durham, New York. 



The concert was all acoustic and included traditional instrumental tunes, songs and step dancing. 

Mick is a storyteller,  tour leader, professor, and folklorist with a special focus on songs about the Irish immigrant experience in America. As a professional musician, Mick plays the banjo and mandolin. He leads the Green Fields of America and has been one of the cherished leaders of the traditional music revival. 

There was a single light on the wall above Mick, and the rest of the room was quite dark. I waited for him to return momentarily to his pose, immersed in song. I used three colors of gouache (flame red, yellow ochre, peacock blue, and white). I held the sketchbook in my lap in very dim light, making it possible to estimate tonal values, but difficult to guess at the chroma or hue.
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The Catskill Irish Arts Week concludes tonight

Friday, July 13, 2018

Abbey and Sargent, Side by Side

Edwin Austin Abbey shared a studio space with John Singer Sargent in England as they prepared their murals for the Boston Public Library. Abbey had worked for years as a pen-and-ink illustrator, but he had a lot to learn about painting in oil at a large scale.

Fortunately he had Sargent to show him the way, as a contemporary account describes:

Detail of Grail mural by Edwin Austin Abbey
"The evolution of Abbey's art at this point is remarkable. Heretofore he had dealt almost entirely in small pictures done in black and white. Now he suddenly 'blossomed forth in a night' as a painter in large, — covering canvas after canvas with powerful figures glowing in color. Yet these sweeping lines were evolved only after painful struggle.

"[William Merritt] Chase, who coached him at one time, says, ' I almost despaired of him: he would persist in seeing in black and white." And Abbey was particularly fortunate in having Sargent at his elbow while the Boston work was going forward, for Sargent was the maturer artist, and had dealt almost entirely in oils. The two men, indeed, were of mutual assistance, having followed different methods all their lives. Sargent was the painter of portraits in one medium; Abbey was the illustrator of stories in many mediums. Being opposites in other respects they naturally became good friends."

"The broad-minded viewpoint of these two strong men is shown by remarks made by them as the years sped by and the work seemed to languish. When Sargent was asked when he would complete his task, he replied, 'Never, unless I learn to paint better than I do now. Abbey has discouraged me.' While Abbey replied to a similar query, 'Give me a little time, and I'll do something worth while.'

Detail of Frieze of the Prophets by John Singer Sargent
What was it like in the Morgan Hall studio where Abbey and Sargent worked side by side?

Study for the Frieze of the Prophets
by John Singer Sargent
"It would have been hard to find a better equipped "laboratory" than the Morgan Hall annex at this time. Here was room for a dozen enormous easels at one time, without crowding, and the whole space was generally in use. Great sections of canvas might be seen in every stage of completion, the busy artist darting from one to another as fancy directed him ; while as for properties —many a theatre might have looked upon this collection with jealous eyes, for they were the real thing."



"Here were rare old tapestries hanging carelessly about, beautifully carved oak doors, heavy panels leaning against the walls, lay figures, bric-a-brac, suits of mail, standards of weapons, —swords, spears, gleaming battle-axes ; while chests of drawers overflowed with silks, brocades, velvets, and other rich fabrics of special weave and design. In another corner might be seen old chairs, settees, and musical instruments of quaint pattern ; and scattered about were studies, sketches of heads, arms, and legs, —all waiting to be melted in the crucible of the palette and transferred to their proper abiding-place. In an adjoining room devoted to the library might be found the finest folios on costume, and manifold works of reference."
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Previously on GJ: Abbey, Sargent, and the Big Studio
Part 1: E.A. Abbey, "Greatest Living Illustrator"
Part 2: Abbey's Advice to a Young Artist
Manikin in the Snow
Abbey's Morgan Hall
Online Resources
Quotes are from Famous Painters of America by J. Walker McSpadden, 1916
E. A. Abbey on Wikipedia
Edwin Austin Abbey by E.V. Lucas
BPL's description of each of the Grail mural panels
Book: Unfaded Pageant: Edwin Austin Abbey's Shakespearean Subjects
Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) Exhibition catalog

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Reflections in Still Water

The Delaware River near Milford, Pennsylvania, casein, 5 x 8 inches
The surface of the river becomes glassy as the afternoon wears on. Here's what I was thinking about as I was painting the reflections:

• The reflections mirror the colors of the far bank of trees.
• The colors in the reflection are very slightly darker than the colors being reflected.
• Within the area of the reflections of the trees, the detail is stretched vertically downward.
• The bottom edge of the reflection of the trees breaks up into horizontal fragments.
• Slight zephyrs create a blue patch in the middle distance, disturbing the vertical reflections.
• The bridge is reflected in the form of fragmentary strokes.
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Previously on the blog: 
Water Reflections, Part 1

Water Reflections, Part 2
Water Reflections, Part 3
More about reflections in my book Color and Light
Join the Facebook group "Sketch Easel Builders"
Take part in the challenge "Paint a Parking Lot"

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Donald McGill's Postcard Art

Donald McGill was a gag writer and illustrator of comic-picture postcards in Britain in the mid-20th century. Each card had a slightly outrageous joke or double entendre.


George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, wrote about McGill's art:
"A comic post card is simply an illustration to a joke, invariably a ‘low’ joke, and it stands or falls by its ability to raise a laugh. Beyond that it has only ‘ideological’ interest. McGill is a clever draughtsman with a real caricaturist's touch in the drawing of faces, but the special value of his post cards is that they are so completely typical. They represent, as it were, the norm of the comic post card. Without being in the least imitative, they are exactly what comic post cards have been any time these last forty years, and from them the meaning and purpose of the whole genre can be inferred."

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Read the rest of the essay "The Art of Donald McGill," available online in full.
It is also included in the essay collection All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays

Monday, July 9, 2018

Next up in International Artist: How to Paint More Efficiently

Painting efficiently is not just about painting quickly—it's about getting a lot done in whatever amount of time you've got.

Efficiency is not the main goal in art. Sometimes in the controlled conditions of the studio you might want to throw away the clock. But having those skills can really help when you're facing the rapidly shifting conditions of just about any outdoor motif.

That's what I cover in the next issue of International Artist Magazine, issue #122 (August / September 2018).

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Surfside on the Lake

I assume that the name "Surfside" is semi-whimsical, because there isn't much surf on Lake George.


I want to paint this neon sign showing the lights coming on, so I wait until after sunset to start painting. I try to anticipate the effect of the fading light of dusk by exaggerating the gradation in the sky and darkening and softening the ground areas around the base of the sign. 
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• Take part in the challenge "Paint a Parking Lot"