You Look Different.

Artists see the world differently.

Although it inspired this post, I don’t like that phrase. It’s misleading. It suggests that artists physically see things differently…like they are another species with eyes that process a larger range in the electromagnetic spectrum or something. And in that case, not everyone has this innate ability, so features of the world’s artistic masterpieces are lost to the general population. This is also a tragic situation for the artist: only a small percentage of viewers even have the ability to see and appreciate all the fruits of their labor (if indeed those individuals choose to put forth the effort). A world such as this is a sad, sad, world.

But, never fear! Artists are wired the same as any other human.

Artists and art-lovers gaze into a world within frames quite often, and like anyone who practices something, it shouldn’t be surprising that those folks can discern more from a painting than the average joe.

So I embarked on a quest to find out exactly what it means to “see the world differently”, and I ran across a few insightful studies on the subject.

Cognitive Interpretation

Sam Putko conducted a study in 1989 that compared the perceptions of individuals who had art training and those who did not. Subjects viewed 16 works of art, each belonging to one of 4 trends in painting: impressionism, fauvism, expressionism, and cubism. Artistically trained subjects assessed the works using terms such as ‘contrast versus fusion of colour’, ‘contour versus fluid form’, ‘dominance of color versus dominance of form’, while those who had less experience judging art used descriptions such as ‘joy versus sadness’, ‘gay versus gloomy’, ‘expressive versus unexpressive’.1 *Notice how the trained viewer uses vocabulary that describes visual elements of the painting and the untrained viewer describes the painting using terms that are much more subjective. Interesting.

Facial Processing

R. Solso (2001) used fMRI technology to study the brain activity of one trained artist and one untrained participant while drawing portraits. One area of interest to the researchers was the right-posterior parietal, an area of the brain associated with processing facial features. The untrained participant experienced increased blood flow in this area when drawing, suggesting a higher level of concentration; the blood flow was less in the trained artist, as that individual was more efficient in processing facial features.

“The artist, who sees and thinks about faces professionally, may require little involvement by this area of the brain normally associated with facial processing. The novice may require greater involvement, suggesting he is processing faces at a ‘lower’ level, which deals with features rather than the ‘meaning’ behind the face. In effect, the novice seems to be ‘copying’ the face; the artist is ‘seeing beyond’ the features.”3

Eye-Fixation, Eye Movement

Stine Vogt (1999) found that when studying a painting, the eye-movement of art students differed from those of artistically untrained students. Subjects viewed 15 different colleges (that included both abstract and figurative elements) and their eye movements were recorded. “…Whereas the eye movements of artistically naive students predictably clustered on the figurative elements, the art students scanned the human figures only curiously, showing instead a clear preference for graphic composition and color contrasts.”4 These results indicate that artists have developed “different viewing strategies as a function of expertise in the apprehension of exact physical properties of scenes and objects, rather than general conceptual associations, and that this may be associated with the figurative rendition of three-dimensional scenes on canvas or paper, i.e. that structural features have acquired meaningfulness (e.g. as cues for accurate rendition).”1


from Nodine, Locher, and Krupinski study (1993):
The images on top show eye-tracking data from art-trained viewers, and the bottom images are tracking untrained viewers.

In another study, Nodine, Locher, and Krupinski (1993) allowed subjects (both artistically trained and otherwise) to scan a painting for 12 seconds, and they measured the length and location of each subject’s gaze. The researchers found that artistically unsophisticated viewers “tended to spend more time viewing individual objects than relationships among elements in paintings.” 1 In contrast, viewers who had been trained generally spent less time fixating on distinct figures and in the painting than the untrained viewers, and they spent more time considering the background than untrained viewers. 2 Additionally, viewers with art training tended to focus “on finding thematic patterns among compositional elements,” and untrained viewers concentrated on “representational and semantic use of picture elements.”6 Nodine et al. concluded that:

“untrained viewers failed to recognize the perceptual organizing functions of symmetry, focusing attention instead on the representational issue of how accurately individual element conveyed ‘objective’ reality…Art training seems to teach viewers to appreciate paintings not because, in Levi-Strauss’s words, ‘they are good to see,’ but because they are ‘good to think’. This suggests that beauty is less in the eye and more in the mind of the beholder.”2

Vogt study

From the 2007 Vogt study. The image on the right shows the eye-tracks of an untrained viewer; the left image shows those of an art-trained viewer.

Vogt study

From the 2007 Vogt study. The image on the right shows the eye-tracks of an untrained viewer; the left image shows those of an art-trained viewer.

All of these studies really underline the cognitive basis of art-viewing. My conclusions:
– Yes, individuals who are trained/practice viewing art glean a greater variety of information from the artwork.
– No, you don’t have to BE an artist to learn how to appreciate art is this manner.

I’d be interested in a study comparing viewers who have been trained in art history versus viewers who are artists…

1. Vogt, Stine, and S. Magnussen. “Expertise in pictorial perception: eye-movement patterns and visual memory in artists and laymen” Perception 36.1 (2007) 91 – 100.
2. Nodine, C. F., P. J. Locher, and E. A. Krupinski. “The Role of Formal Art Training on Perception and Aesthetic Judgment of Art Compositions.” Leonardo 26.3 (1993): 219-27. The MIT Press. Web. 3 June 2013.
3. Solso, R. L.”Brain activities in a skilled versus a novice artist: An fMRI study.” Leonardo 34.1 (2001): 31-34.
4.Vogt, Stine. “Looking at Paintings: Patterns of Eye Movements in Artistically Naïve and Sophisticated Subjects.” Leonardo 32.4 (1999). The MIT Press.
5.Solso, Robert L. Cognition and the Visual Arts. The MIT Press. Cambridge: Massachusetts.1994.v


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