Friday, September 18, 2009

Eye Tracking and Composition, Part 1

When a viewer looks at a painting, how does the eye travel? Does it move in a circular pathway? Does it follow contours? Does it go to the grid lines of a golden section? Is it attracted to areas of maximum contrast? Is it possible to design a picture so that it controls the eye?

Eye-tracking scanpath studies show how individual viewers actually explore an image. This information can be valuable for us as artists, because it allows us to test our assumptions about how the design of a picture influences the way people perceive it.

Most books on composition seem fairly sure about how people’s eyes move around in pictures. Henry R. Poore’s influential book Pictorial Composition (1903) presents the notion that the eye moves in a flowing, circular way through a design.

“One’s vision involuntarily makes a circuit of the items presented,” Poore claims, “starting at the most interesting and widening its review toward the circumference, as ring follows ring when a stone is thrown into water.”

In his book Composing Pictures (1970), Donald W. Graham argues that the artist “must find graphic controls so strong that they will force most of his audience to see the elements of his picture in the order he has planned.”

I was curious to find out whether these claims had any basis in fact, and I really wanted to try a study using my own artwork. So I approached Greg Edwards, president and CEO of Eyetools, Inc. (Left to right: Larry Kresek of RMCAD, Greg Edwards, and me).

Scientists at Eyetools use the latest technology to record how a viewer’s gaze actually travels over a picture. Sensitive instruments track the pathway of the center of vision, or fovea. The eye movements are input into a computer, which then outputs a map called a scanpath, superimposed over the image itself.

Here's the first painting we'll take a look at: Marketplace of Ideas, from my recent book called Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. The painting is approximately 12 by 18 inches, roughly a golden rectangle. When I designed the painting, I placed the main vertical column near one of the key grid lines of the golden section. I was curious to see if the placement of that column drew any particular attention.

Tomorrow we’ll see what happens when we try this image with a series of test subjects.
(Note: This material is adapted from Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist, published by Andrews McMeel, ©James Gurney 2009.)

Related posts on GurneyJourney:
Eyetracking and Composition, part 1
Eyetracking and Composition, part 2
Eyetracking and Composition part 3
Introduction to eyetracking, link.
How perception of faces is coded differently, link.


Charles Valsechi said...

Awesome, this project/experiment excites and interests me!

Roberto said...

You've got my attention! My eyes are glued to the blog. I can't wait to see where this leads to ;P -RQ

Chinami said...

I can't wait! I'm really interested in how our eyes scan paintings as well. :D

jeffkunze said...

You really have the coolest blog that I've ever seen!

Tyler J said...

This should be very cool...I remember seeing something like this on a news show where the reporter had his eyes tracked in a virtual grocery store. Advertisers were VERY interested in what actually worked and didn't (eliminating the Q&A panel that can be misleading).

It was fun to see what he was looking at based on his eye movement instead of what he said he was looking at (they were two different things).

johnsnapsit said...

This is such a fascinating read, will be intently reading each word and scanning each post! :)