Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Eye Magnets

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


Michael said...

Hi James!

When ever I am looking at works of art, specifically historic paintings I find myself scanning for the most detailed section of the painting first. After that I usually scan across the scene and find the lightest or darkest areas (sometimes with the least amount of contrast, probably because I want to know how they achieved the feat). Great stuff!!! Your blog keeps getting better and better!

Erik Bongers said...

It's difficult to consciencely track your own eyes : you might no longer be looking spontaneously.
But this is my experience :

The 'was not expected' painting told me the following.
1. I start with the faces. (No surprise here)
2. When I spotted the 2 children at the right, I really kept my eyes at them for much longer than the 'lead characters'. And I think I know why : I was wondering what they would think of the situation : did they at all recognize the man who was probably their father ? I guess I was looking for the interesting stories behind this scene and the most interesting one for me was the children's point of view.

Conclusion : I start with the faces and end up with the stories.

About the Turner :
I first looked at the smaller view (inside the blog) and only then did I click on it to look at the larger version of the image.
What a difference !
The smaller view : I started with the gondola but quickly abandonded it as I couldn't detect much 'info' - it's just a black spot. My eyes started looking for recognizable things and ended up on the left and right of the painting : the city-scape, which contains much more readable details.
The the larger view :
What a contrast !
I immediately was pulled to the men on the gondola where I stayed for a little while. After that I spotted that there was a lot going on on the right side (the stairs towards the water).
Conclusion : size matters !

As a final remark : a Belgian photographer, Carl de Keyzer, once used the expression 'to read a picture' as opposed to the more common 'to look at a picture'.

Mark Heng said...

Very interesting post! I'm glad to find out the test subjects had very different experiences based on the previous information given to them. I've always suspected that was the case and have often wished museums would exhibit the work without any info at all to sway our perception.

Regarding scientific research into peripheral vision, etc...have you come across Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing by Margaret Livingstone? She covers some interesting territory including how our rods and cones provide different and sometimes conflicting information. Same with direct and peripheral vision which is supposedly the secret to the Mona Lisa's smile.

Eric Orchard said...

What an interesting question, I think My eye goes automatically to the area where it seems something is happening: the swirling clouds, the the climbing bears, the thrust of a tower etc. But I can't be sure. Are you suggesting that we are drawn more to narrative than to abstract elements?

James Gurney said...

I don't know if we're more attracted to narrative than to abstract elements. I assume that they're both woven together in a good picture. But there's no doubt that faces are automatic eye magnets--and that basic fact isn't usually taken into account in composition theory.

Eric Orchard said...

I agree. I think when people talk about art, we're still at the mercy of Martin Greenberg. I hope we're moving passed the notion that a well drawn/painted face is kitsch.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the new digital cameras automatically focus in on the human face as focal point and exposure/color metering information criteria.

Rose Welty said...

Thank you for this great post! When I am reading about a painting, I almost never followed the "path" the expert describes. It's always confused me - so much so that for January and February I've joined a study project of composition, to see if I could understand the rules better. So, far, my path through a painting is no more conventional, this article gives me real hope that I'm not just "off".

Enjoy your blog, thanks!

Stejahen said...

In the Moran one I looked at the towers in the distance alot, as well as the ships.

But in the last one I mostly followed eyelines, What is he looking at? etc.

I wonder if artist look at paintings differently.

larin said...

What amazing timing--we were supposed to have a test in my art class today, except that we ended up with a snow day instead. One of the sections of the test asks students to look at selected paintings and explain where their eyes are attracted and why, using the terms we've learned in their explanations. Today I find that my eye follows lines of movement, but that could be because I've spent the last couple days looking for paintings that show the concepts we've learned, including movement. Thanks for another interesting and informative post! --LaRinda

Dan G. said...

Fascinating post. In They Did Not Expect Him I found my eye drawn to the faces, especially the two children's faces. My eye went from face to face assembling a story for the scene.

In the Shishkin my eyes looked from bear to bear, but lingered longest on the cub standing up on the log, looking in the distance. What does he hear?

In the Turner, I, too, looked at the tower. My eye was also drawn to the people on the steps. The gondola was not the main eye magnet for me.

It's my hunch that advertising firms and web designers under contract with the biggest (richest) corporations know a lot about the behavior of the human eye, more than they'll readily share. Perhaps some of what they know would be regarded as trade secrets.

In any event, the web seems like an ideal tool to discover what sorts of visual objects attract attention, like those figures (dancing aliens or women on my computer) doing a victory dance in celebration lower mortgage rates. After all, each thing they try will give them immediate feedback in terms of the mouse clicks their work attracts. Movement is clearly eye-catching, but that's irrelevant to painters, I guess.

Michael said...

Sometimes my attention was drawn to the darkest portion of the paintings, and other times to the lightest portions. In some paintings, my attention was drawn to a human gesture or to a direction being suggested by a principle character.
Your post is fascinating -- I will certainly follow the link that you present.
As a painter, this suggests to me that a lot of the peripherary work is not really examined closely (what a disappointment)! But is also suggests that we should spend more of our time on creating a focus of attention - either light-toned or darkened.
Thanks again for this particularly revealing posting.

sylvia said...

HI Friends

Utmost interesting subject...

1-) As James already wrote, Art needs to get a
bit " lose minded ; but witted thought " . And now, as this blog shows, Artists are also required to be
" lisible " : able to express also the meaning of their " deed " - see this for instance in the California School directed by famous curator Richard KOSHALLEK -...
Thus have we to go " rationnal " - as during the italian renaissance and antiquity - thus,
allow me some more details, please :

2-)In a course about LOGIC, we studied also Lewis CARROL as a mathematician, we were taught :
in an image the eyes are first attracted by
-) a living person
-) a moving element
-) the rest of the picture ( also according to lights / darks)

3-) Also the SHISKIN 's bears is interesting because he also quotes ( as TIZIANO did for instance ) the THREE ages of life.
-) On the left : the young age of trees,
-) in the center, the middle age ( grown up ) and -) on the right the dryness of ages....

Also there're interesting " echoes " of the shapes of the Bears three times on these three ages of trees.. !

4-) About Mrs Margaret LIVINGSTON ( quoted by Mark HENG) ... doesn' t she teaches in HARVARD univ. and wrote about Leonardo da VINCI, the Gioconda ? ....Very interesting...

I also wrote about Leonardo but to evoke his mathematical thinking as a lecture ( humbly mine ) in the light of contemporary knowledges.....

Thanks for your attention, Best wishes


kozlove said...

Hi James,

As for a research on human perception, you might find interesting a book by David H. Hubel "Eye, Brain and Vision" - quite thorough, clear and unexpected statements there:) The saccadic movement's study is also mentioned.


James Gurney said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Denis. I'll check it out.