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.
More info
Previous posts:
Eyetracking and Composition (series)
Books: Vision and Art (Updated and Expanded Edition)
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist


Susan Krzywicki said...

In the bar picture, I wonder why no one even looked at the tap all the way on the right?

In the Repin, people still tracked the humans no matter in what order or with what intensity. Ditto the Last Supper. So, we know people are super-focused on Homo sapiens, first.

Then it would be interesting to see if we would scan to an animal - domestic or wild, next, or would we be interested in food for ourselves if these choices were in an image with humans.

Mario said...

Very interesting subject.
The semantics heavily drives our attention, so no "formal" composition rule can work very well. But perhaps eyetracking is most important in advertising or similar stuff. When we look at a painting in a museum or in a book, we usually take the time to explore it and, if we like the image, we will probably return to it many times. Our judgment gets less instinctive and more thoughtful. So, an image with a rational and structured composition can be more pleasant and satisfying.

Kessie said...

After reading a lot about eyetracking, I picked up a book and found that my toddler had scribbled in it. To my amusement, she had drawn something on all the faces. Toddlers seem to operate by eyetracking, too, but they don't have the filters in place to make them unaware of it.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Before the civil war English had genuine grammar, it's '...as daylight doth a lamp' but it's, 'thou dost'. Then they got rid of it because the nation was ruled by a yokel from Norfolk, who didn't understand it. Everything was fine until the 18th Century when Samuel Johnson published his book on grammar. The point is, he decided that English should be grammatical so he made up 'A Grammar for English' much to the delight of School matrons everywhere and we've been lumbered with halfwits telling us what the rules are ever since.

The rules you learn for composition are very much like Johnson's grammar, they're made up and largely arbitrary. What makes them significant, is how and why you learnt them because what they in fact are, is cultural artefacts. That is a body of convention shared amongst a culture. That's important because it gives your work a cultural context. All that airy fairy guff you learnt about lines and forks and blither and blather is that, guff and nonsense. Every so often an artistic movement arises that rebels against the prevailing absurdities overturns the conventions and replaces them with its own.

Alan North said...

I think just because we are attracted to faces or where people might be does not necessarily mean we don't take in other aspects of a picture. People seem to frame it as an all or nothing question. Maybe composition does not guide the eye as much as we want, but I still think people notice it, how much, and how much do artists notice vs non-artists, who knows. That would be an interesting study. Also it would be interesting to ask people what they like about a picture, it might not be completely correlated to what their eyes pay attention to. And when people don't look where you expect (I too am drawn by the buildings in the background in that painting), then maybe something is going on there.

But I think bad composition is still distracting (e.g. tangent lines are sure to cause confusion), and good composition can be very pleasing. To continue the questioner's movie analogy, with movies/shows I'm mostly paying attention to the story/characters and would not be watching them if they had no story, but great cinematography still pleases me. I just saw Isle of Dogs, for example, and I think I enjoyed the cinematography almost as much as the story.

Garrett said...

+1 Alan North- you took the words right out of my mouth! Even though eye tracking reveals the unique and unexpected ways that viewers look at a painting, it tells us little about how "successful" the painting/photo is overall. I do think there is such thing as the "gestalt" of a piece, and how viewers receive and feel about the image. To know more about that, we'd need additional information.. It might be true that what we find appealing in a composition is more influenced by culture (as opposed to being innate truisms about human perception), but they're still good tools to know.

Tryggvi Edwald said...

Very interesting subject.
James, you say ".. maybe I look at this painting differently than others do ...".
I think that is very probable. Your training as a painter probably directs your attention to areas the 'uninitiated' wouldn't look at first.
From my own limited experience, since I started drawing people some years ago, I find my attention drawn to aspects of the human body I'd never have noticed before. Encountering people I'll think "What a magnificent pair of collarbones!"; "Now, there's a well-turned elbow!" where most people would notice some other features first. I think it generally enriches my experience, rather than mark me as a weirdo.

@Kessie (above), if I may: This is a fantastic anecdote, it made my day! :-)
I'll add an anecdote of an artist who was raising a crow in her studio, where many of her oil-portraits were on display or drying. One afternoon the crow escaped the cage, and poked out all eyes on all the portraits, but caused no other damage.

Deborah said...

Maybe this is a sideline issue, but all the analysis of eye mapping seems to be geared to the initial view of a painting/scene. The best paintings continue to give pleasure over years and years of viewing. I suspect we all have favorite paintings that we return to look at, or ones hanging in our homes that are old favorites. After a while, I've realized where my eye rests and moves throughout a favorite painting, which is a good part of why I enjoy looking at it over and over. Maybe as artists we need to live with our paintings a little longer, looking at them over time, rather than simply falling back on compositional rules to determine what makes each one good. Oddly, however, I find the ones that please me the most are also the ones that keep to those compositional rules (which probably became rules, as a rule, because they worked).

Sesco said...

I agree with simply focusing your effort on making a painting interesting. Another facet of a painting's ability to be interesting has an element involving where and when it is viewed, much like when you have cacciatore in Venice vs Tarboro, NC. Your environment creates an emotion, as well, that heightens or reduces the evaluation of a painting. When I walk into a museum to view paintings, if I view several wonderfully executed masterpieces with the horizon line at the relatively same position, the costumes relatively all over-the-top, filled with dogs jumping, ladies swooning, fatally injured foxes, and storm clouds looming in the distance, and the very next painting on the wall is of a lonely, old tree planted in the upper right quadrant of the canvas in a field of impressionistic lavender, I immediately resonate because of the disparity from the repetition of the paintings that came before. My eyes are pleased, I study the impresionistic brushwork, I marvel at the artist who executed such a stark, yet handsome, painting. Context is usually everything. I rarely study only one painting, and whatever eye-tracking may say about the path my eye takes, being 'interesting' is almost the same as creating resonance. Perhaps we should be wondering what eye-tracking shows during the Rothko exhibit?

Some Person said...

It seems eye tracking takes what we're looking at as a single laser focus instead of what our peripheral vision sees. I can see a whole image, maybe the direction lines guide what our mind focuses on not a pinpoint focus from the center of our pupils.

scott said...

I think it would be instructive to also include artwork with poor composition. Or better yet, artwork that is not of Western origin.

Some Person said...

In that spoke wheeling article, the Dean Cornwell piece, the brim of the hat and the rifle being held by the cowboy on the left is guiding my attention, not as a single line but in my peripheral vision i can see and feel it like it was a train track to the right. The negative space feels like the dip in between the tracks (pointing elements). With the background characters and wall halting the push on the right. Curving my focus foreground wise to the man in the chair.

My state of mind is waking up in the morning, so maybe these elements directing me require that I think less and allow the image to guide me. Perhaps if someone has an overactive mind they will overlook (be distracted from) these elements.

Allen Garns said...

To paraphrase Miles Davis (and others) maybe "It's not what you look at, it's what you don't look at". Just because a viewer looks at faces does not mean they are having a good visual experience. Good orchestration of color, values, shapes, negative shapes, does much more than direct the eye.