Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mind Games

Maybe you've heard this one:  Four scientists are blindfolded and led into a room where they are told they need to identify an animal held inside.  One grabs a long and flexible, tube-like thing, while another finds four large, three foot round legs with three toes.  Still another scientist feels above his head and grabs a palm like flap of ear that's four feet long, and very thin.  The last gropes around, feeling the enormous girth and size of the animal.  They leave the room, and say, "Ah, hah!  We must apply for a research grant so we can get enough money to determine what this animal is!"

Apparently, these same scientists put their efforts to use answering a question no one asked: how does a persons eye move when looking at a painting for the first time?  Now, I'm not new to this party, as James Gurney first wrote in his excellent blog, and it was picked up by the inimitable Stapleton Kearns a little later.  So if you'll pardon me for being fashionably late, I'll throw my two cents into the conversation anyway.

You see, for the study, these scientists wired up the brains of some poor subjects (I'm assuming they wore a helmet with really cool wires and lights sticking out of it), and flashed images of paintings to monitor how their eyes tracked the scene.  Now, we painters spend an inordinate amount of time designing our pictures so that the viewer will look where we want them to.  Through the use of line, color, and form we try to direct the viewer to the Point Of Interest.  But the scientists didn't see that at all.  It turns out people's eyes flickered all over the place, going here and there with no apparent rhyme or reason.  So the scientist came to the conclusion that we artists are wasting our time with all this design stuff.  No one even notices!  So go ahead and cram all your subject matter into the lower left hand corner for all your viewers seem to care.  You're welcome.

Needless to say, I think that the intrepid scientists overlooked something very important when considering their results.  For many millions of years, before we wore suits and ties (then went to shorts, sandals, sloppy t's and baseball caps worn sideways over the ears) we lived very much like the herd of deer that feeds near where I live.  In other words, we are animals.  We may think we've overcome the animal way of life, but our instincts prove otherwise.  That's why we will always look at a bright, shiny object that flashes into view.  Why?  Because it could be a glistening drop of saliva shining on the eight inch fang of a saber-tooth tiger ready to pounce on us and rip our throats out.  We use to have to worry about those things in our day to day activities.  To a saber-tooth tiger, or giant cave bear, two humans together would be viewed as a snack pack.

Alright then, what does this have to do with how eyes track a painting?  Well, we will always scan a scene looking for tigers and such.  That's what the study seems to showed:  the eye was looking for bright, shiny objects.  Nothing there?  Then it looks in the shadows for other possible dangers.  Coast is clear?  Then we slow our gaze and look around a little more.  And all of that happens in nano-seconds.  Faster than we can possibly control, or be aware of.  Meanwhile, the mind is interpreting the scene, drawing on memories of paintings, colors, or other objects that might be shown in the picture.  That's what the scientist didn't find because they couldn't:  They could track how the eye affects the mechanical organ called the brain, but it's the mind that puts it all together and says, "Oh, what a lovely scene of a road going down into a valley and up a far hill to a distant church.  It just drew me right in."

So, by all means, keep working on your designs.  The average viewer will notice and appreciate your skill and talent.  And the scientists?  They're probably out looking for bright, shiny objects;  you never know where you're going to meet up with a saber-tooth tiger...



Karen Martin Sampson said...

Love this post! So true and I will definitely not quit working out my compositions very carefully (it is one of the things I get a lot of favorable comments about). I think some scientists get too wrapped up in single theory thinking...

Susan Roux said...

Thank you! I remember Stape's post on this. I read the links and though fascinating, I couldn't bring myself to believe design didn't mean anything. I think its quite the contrary. Without good design, there doesn't exist a good painting.

So glad I'm not a scientist... Look at all the vision they miss out on.

meera said...

I read that study but I really prefer your explanation!!!