I’ve always been interested in HOW people look at art…you see them transfixed in galleries and I wonder what is going through their heads? Are they really thinking great thoughts, or instead are they going over a grocery list?! What do YOU do when faced with a great picture or a great quilt? I try to soak in the nameless impressions first, all the inchoate sensations! But soon I start to look and see how and why the artist created the piece. What techniques did they use? Amongst these is how they have contrived to make me examine the whole piece. What do they want me to look at? Which parts of the piece are obviously most important to them? And how do they get me to move my eyes from that area to another? Are all the areas equally satisfying or do I find myself skipping over certain sections?
There are reams written about focal points and golden areas and Track of Vision (TOV)….at first I thought there actually was an area that had to be literally golden!! And I could never find the dratted thing!! “Where is this gold bit anyway?”. And all those rules about one third and two thirds or if it was turned sideways and you stood on your head somehow one side fitted into the other side with nothing left over….hmmm!!
Well, it turns out, (of course!) to be a whole lot more complex and many of these specific rules were probably made up and rounded off by the Controllers. Any time I’m told to do something 10 times or a hundred times, or some neat round number like that, I always know They’ve Made it Up!! for things just don’t happen that neatly. As James Gurney (excellent blog by the way) reports in this month’s International Artist, he actually commissioned an eye-tracking firm (wonder what their ads on telly would look like?!) to have people examine the TOV of people looking at his paintings.
In the historical books on composition, it is claimed that one’s eyes follow a circular path through a piece starting with the most important or interesting area and then gradually following a circular path out..like hunting for a lost purse in a field. Well I knew this wasn’t true simply by asking people to look at a quilt in process and saying “Where d’your eyes go first? and then where, and then?” and, I must admit, often being puzzled at their responses. When I thought about my own TOV, what I noticed was that I tend to flick about from one area to another. My eyes are not on legs (thank goodness!) and can zoom rapidly and saccadically about a piece. As did the eyes of those I asked.
What the eye tracking technologists revealed was that people tend first to look at people – I guess we’re hardwired to do that since other people are the greatest source of nurturance or danger in an environment – so first we check them out, especially faces. In the article Gurney shows the actual movements of the eyes when the picture is observed for 15 seconds on a computer screen. Different people look at a picture in different sequences, but tend to focus on the same areas. After people, and animals, the next most likely thing examined would be an odd shape that might signify something. I’ve also noticed that writing attracts attention – if you can read it, but not so much if it’s in an alphabet that one can’t understand.
Interestingly, what didn’t attract so much attention was areas of contrast. We have always been taught that one can emphasise a focal area by contrast and this is true…but an area of contrast per se without any additional meaning will be unlikely to grasp our attention especially if it’s contrast that occurs naturally in nature.
What was totally disproved was the important of the golden area! Which is just as well since I could never find nor figure it! If an area is worthy of attention, it will get it, no matter where it is. While people might begin and end looking at different places in the piece there does seem to be an overall tendency to alternate between looking at the piece as a whole, and then focussing in on details. I definitely know that to be true in my looking…I’ll advance slowly on a piece, and then sometimes back right off so I can see it from a distance…then come in very close, then back off again.
The artist has less control of the viewer than was previously thought. The viewer brings to each piece his/her own preconceptions – as in my friend seeing my familiar and friendly spires and towers as being threatening teeth! Her history and background being very different from my own.
so now…rush to your design wall and observe your eyes!!!
if you have been, thanks for reading!!! Elizabeth
Elizabeth, how long do you think it will take for traditional art teachers to accept this idea vs the Golden Mean?
Interesting! There's also a cultural aspect. I remember being confused by a set of 4 hangings representing the seasons hung in house in Singapore- they didn't seem to be in the right order. That's because I was 'reading' them left to right when I should have been looking at them right to left. They then made perfect sense!
How about familiar vs. unfamiliar? I'm sure that would play a part in where the eye goes. Training certainly does too. When I am studying repetition, that is the first thing I notice. When my mind is on movement, or line, then my eye goes there first. Maybe "rules" cannot be made???
I like reading your thoughtful pieces.
For years I have noticed a mismatch in art/vision notions and what I know to be scientifically sound vision function. (I am an occupational therapist and work with vision rehab).
As artists are curious and striving folk, I think eventually this vision "research" will be used to improve work. It may take generations though!
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