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 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.

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

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.

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’s 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.

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.

Optical illusion showing two men looking at each other or a vase

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.

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

The pursuit of the new in art is fraught with risk, because the viewer may recoil from objects that are too unfamiliar. Our brains are wired from birth to look longer at novel objects than at familiar ones–but only if the new things are only slightly new. Our eyes and bodies instinctively withdraw from very unfamiliar stimuli. This makes sense evolutionarily, because large changes in our environment are typically destabilizing or dangerous. Most people do better exploring what they already know.

Nonetheless, some people-explorers, inventors, artists- search for new experiences from birth. Not only their upbringing but also specific novelty-seeking genes help drive their pursuit of the new. Explorers’ maps and artists’ paintings help us incorporate their discoveries into what we already know. Thus, rather than create an alienating sense of strangeness, art can evoke an emotionally rich combination of newness and familiarity. Both the experience of novelty and of recognition come from the temporal lobe of the brain. That lobe is, not coincidentally, also the region that controls object recognition in art and our sense of meaning.

The most highly refined object recognition that humans can do is face analysis. Indeed, one region at the bottom of the temporal lobe is hard-wired to recognize human faces. Viewers’ precision in face discrimination makes portrait painting challenging. When an artist paints a face, moving a brushstroke 1/64th of and inch can change an emotional expression. Two or three such changes can make a viewer say, “Oh, that doesn’t look like her at all.” Precision and bush control at thine a level can take a portrait from good to great.

At the same time, selective loss of fine detail can make a painted portrait paradoxically seem more real. Self-Portrait, for instance, at first glance seems hyperrealistic. A closer look shows that minor features such as the shirt front are indistinct. This mirrors the action of our retinas, in which only the central focus of vision is sharp. The painting’s chiaroscuro, its exaggerated contrast between light and dark, removes all but the core of the subject’s body, yet creates a greater sense of depth and dramatic interest.

Self portrait of Warren Prosperi, wearing a black suit with white undershirt, looking down towards the ground
Detailed view of Prosperi's self portrait focusing in on the torso

A painting that plays with fundamental aspects of vision, such as depth perception or figure-ground contrasts, can defamiliarize objects and make us see them anew. After the retina and the brain’s primitive visual areas detect color and contour, temporal lobe regions identify objects and faces, and finally image analysis moves forward into brain areas that compare what we perceive now with with our memory of past experience. At this higher-level stage, the painter’s choice of subject contributes to the painting’s narrative and emotional associations. The painting Morning Light, for instance, has resonance for lovers of Dutch painting because of the way its slanting window light recalls Vermeer’s delicate illumination. The tableau recalls our own past kitchens and cats and the quiet of Sunday mornings.

Painting, like photography, excels in its ability to capture a particular moment of light and gesture. But the painter’s greater range of technique can more easily help our minds travel from the particular to the universal. The complexity of Prosperi’s technique paradoxically uses the way our brains perceive images to move us beyond perception, to give an experience of more direct contact with the world around us. The vividness of that experience helps take us outside ourselves.

Alice Flaherty, MD, PhD, is a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to WriteWriter’s Block and The Creative Brain.

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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