Have a look at this painting of bears in a forest by Ivan Shishkin. As you look at the composition, take note of where your eyes travel.
Do the same thing with this one by Thomas Moran. What did you notice first? What parts of the picture did you just you glance at, and where do your eyes linger the longest?
Here’s another Turner. There are a lot of things to look at here. Allow your eyes to peruse it casually, but try to be aware of what they just glance at and where they spend the most time.
Here’s one by David Roberts. Where do you look first? How do your eyes explore the scene?
OK, one last picture. You saw this on an earlier post. Look at it again, and try to be aware of how your eyes track around the picture.
I asked you to play this game in order to pose a couple of fundamental questions: Does everyone look at pictures in the same way? And do we really understand how pictorial design influences the movements of our eyes?
Scientists have designed experiments to explore these questions. In 1967, Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus developed sensitive instruments to track the involuntary jumping movement of the eyes, called “saccades.”
Here’s a map, or “scanpath,” of the movement of one person’s center of vision, or fovea, as it scans the bears in the forest. The eyes clearly fixate on the bears, but they also circulate generally around the perimeter of the picture.
Yarbus showed his subjects the Repin painting “They Did Not Expect Him.” The scene shows a prisoner returning to his family after a long exile. Yarbus asked his subjects a series of different leading questions, like how old the people were, or how rich they were, or how long the man was away. He found the chart of eye movements differed wildly each time. And the scanpaths varied from person to person.
These scanpath studies lead to a number of conclusions—and questions—for us as artists:
1. Different people don’t look at the same picture in the same way. And a single person will look at a given picture differently depending on what questions they bring to the image. This has profound implications to curators writing museum tags and comic artists writing word balloons.
2. Pictures do not “control” the eye. The viewer’s thought process plays a huge role in how their eyes travel through a composition.
3. Standard compositional theory assumes that our eyes follow contours. That doesn’t seem to happen at all. They never follow along the curve of the woman’s back, for example, they just jump from face to face. Of course we do perceive lines of action and flowing contours, but our eyes don’t actually follow along them.
I also wondered if there is any basis to the assumption in standard compositional theory that the eye is attracted to areas of strongest contrast. That’s why I showed you the Turner and the Roberts and the Moran. I noticed when I looked at those pictures that my attention was sometimes attracted to the edges with the least contrast.
In the Turner, for example, I found myself looking at the light-colored tower (1) more than the black gondola (2), which had much more contrast. Was that true for you, too?
My hunch is that the areas of strong contrast are somehow felt or registered by the peripheral vision, but that the eye’s center of vision quickly moves to other tasks, in this case to sorting out close contrasts.
To my knowledge, there hasn't been much scientific study at all on the subject of what's going on in our peripheral vision when we're decoding an image.
In any case, when it comes to how we look at pictures, there is more than just abstract design theory going on. Regardless of how the picture is designed in abstract terms, we seem to be involuntarily attracted to sorting out the human stories.
I hope you’ll share your own experience of looking at these pictures in the comment section. For more information on the science of eye tracking, check out this link:
Tomorrow: Stretching a Face