Prosperi Studio and the Artist’s Vision

Many conversions with Warren and Lucia Prosperi have made me fascinated with the way artists affect our perceptions and emotions. As a neurologist, I’m curious about how the brain processes visual art. Artists teach us to see the world differently, of course. What’s less well known is that their techniques can also show us how we see, how the brain makes images of the world. Scientists have begun to study artists to learn what artists instinctively know about how we extract form and meaning from the jumble of information our eyes take in.

When skilled artists look at a painting, they do so differently from people with untrained perception. Even the eye movements of artists are different. Artists’ eyes fixate on figures for longer periods of time than amateurs do, but less often. Instead, artists look more widely at the background, in part to see how the picture is built. Most people, when looking at a painting like Warren Prosperi’s Museum Epiphany II, have eye movements like those shown below in the lefthand figure.

Side by side portraits of Epiphany 2 showing the view of an artist versus non-artist

They look rapidly back and forth between the living faces, with a few forays to the marble heads that mirror them and a glance at the feet and plinth. An artist viewing the painting may spend relatively more time on the gradation of light across the white wall, or the relationship between the parallel columns of the womens’ bodies and the two pedestals.

Artists work to keep the viewer’s eyes from glancing off the surface of things, to help the viewer look longer and deeper, as artists do. One of Prosperi’s characteristic techniques to slow down the viewer’s eyes is the way he plays with basic aspects of vision, such as figure-ground transitions. All human brains are wired so that we see a shape as either figure or ground, but never both simultaneously. In the famous Rubin face-vase illusion, all of us see alternately the white vase or the two dark profiles that outline it, but we must pause to make sense of the image. Artists are more aware that in any picture the background is a shape too.

Two young girls in white sitting on large brown rocks on a beach, watching the waves crash against the shoreline

Conversation by the Sea, shows a delicate ambiguity in figure-ground relations. It is more easily seen when looking at the painting upside down, so that the subject matter doesn’t distract us from the design transitions. Viewed this way, it is more evident that the sea foam’s brightness pulls it forward visually, even though it is in the background of the scene. The reversed luminance presses the seascape into the foreground and creates visual tension.

Figure-ground ambiguity in painting work the way subtle puns do in poetry: they show us similarities we didn’t expect. Because contour is the major cue that the brain uses to identify forms, the children’s pale clothes make their bodies hard to distinguish from the white breakers. The children could be bits of sea foam thrown higher on the rocks. When Prosperi twists and breaks up a scene’s contours, he helps us see beyond conventional categories, such as “cute kids” and “surf”, to something new

Alice Flaherty

(Alice Weaver Flaherty, author of “The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain,” views the paintings through a neurologist’s eyes. She calls Warren Prosperi’s style “optical naturalism” and says that by carefully removing or withholding certain details, he creates scenes that look “even more real than a photograph.”)

More Naturalism Journals

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Artists Show Us How We See

By Alice Flaherty, MD, PHD (original article appeared in Vose Galleries Catalog for “Duets, Theme and Variation”) Many conversions with Warren and Lucia Prosperi have made me fascinated with the way artists affect our perceptions and emotions. As a neurologist, I’m curious about how the brain processes visual art. Artists teach us to see the world […]

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