From first looks to visual thinking: Doctoral defence Patrick Ceyssens

A visually pleasing PhD defence

Working in the academic world involves going to the occasional PhD defence of friends and colleagues. Often, this involves a straightforward procedure of short presentation (20 min), questions by judges and the final decisions, gratitude expressions and receptions.

Last month (21/09/2018), however, I was curious to find out whether the same held true for a PhD in the arts. I went to listen to the PhD defence of artist, teacher and image thinker Patrick Ceyssens with the promising title ‘From first looks to visual thinking’. Although the general building blocks (presentation, questions, decision, reception) were similar, I did enjoy the refreshingly creative approach to them.

The defence took place on stage in the theatre hall (at the cultural center of Hasselt), the presentation was engaging, videos of visual experiments, thoughts and artworks where shown, the reception took place in a large exhibition by Patrick Ceyssens himself, and the often standard paper booklet with the thesis was instead a nicely designed combination of three books: an artist book, a book centered around the PhD research and a short booklet with an introduction by one of his research colleagues (Tom Lambeens). A visually pleasing approach to defend a PhD on visual thinking.

A well-designed combination of three books, including the doctoral dissertation.

Thinking about image thinking

Not only the style, but the content was very rewarding too. The questions the - now doctor - Ceyssens set out to answer throughout the last 6 years are revolving around the question: How do we ‘read’ images or what is the ‘language’ of images? Given the high centrality of images in our current society, there is surprisingly little study and education on the topic. Image thinking should be a new science, hence Ceyssens.

He gives some tools to start to understand the complexity of images: every image is layered. There are formal aspects, there is a content, there is our own perception, there are the memories of all the images we’ve seen before, there is the context in which we see the image, etc. It gets interesting, of course, when different layers are interacting with each other. Using examples from the movie ‘Jaws’, it is explained that a horizon that cuts through the eyes gives a much stronger intention behind the gaze, a change of direction in how a movie is shot (always from left to right, suddenly from right to left) is aligned with the danger of the moment;and the dune poles in the middle of an image are indicative of shark teeth.

To get a better grasp of the complex interactions between different image layers, they are brought together in a mental model. He highlights four layers, consisting each of their own elements: formal layers, layers of content, personal perception layers and the visual language layer as a separate experience.

It’s not all theory and models though. Throughout the defence, we got many short glimpses into the wide array of visual, artistic and thought experiments Patrick Ceyssens engaged in throughout his doctoral years.

An inspiring presentation, filled with image thinking

Images are a language in themselves

When we are talking about an image language, images should also be able to be the prime language and should not always be accompanied by words or models says Patrick Ceyssens. And he is living up to that idea. One of his visual experiments are ongoing image conversations with several of his friends, acquaintances, strangers, … No words, just a communication through images. Luckily for us, you can also find all these image conversations online on their own website:

Another way to explore how images work is to observe how certain visual patterns keep repeating themselves over images - a sort of universal way of framing certain aspects of life. Ceyssens has been collecting these types of visual archetypes for years, you can find them at The horizon cutting through the eye (mentioned above as a way of reading a stronger intention behind the gaze) is one of them, for example (archetype 47 on the website.

Screenshot from talkwithimages

Image-ception: Artistic contemplation through images about images

Of course, a PhD in the arts would not be complete without an artistic reflection. After the defence, we could all have a look at Ceyssens’ artworks in a large-scale exhibition at CCHA. Having gotten an insight in his doctoral work through his presentation before seeing his artworks in the exhibition was a real added value for me. The artworks themselves reflected similar, ideas and musings than what was presented before, but also added their own additional layers.

Interestingly, in a previous master thesis study at our lab by Yane Beckers, centered around the layered work of Patrick, a slightly different effect was found. Participants who were more familiar with his work appreciated it more. However, those who were not familiar with the work and who received explicit information beforehand did not appreciate the works more than those who did not receive any information.

I invite you to try it out for yourself - by visiting the exhibition at CCHA Hasselt. Let me know what you thought!

Another view of the three books by Patrick Ceyssens

Read & See

Spread out of one of the three books by Patrick Ceyssens