Three things visual artists can learn from experimental psychology

Yesterday, I went to a lecture by a professor in experimental psychology that made all the artists in the room sit at the edge of their seat.

The professor was Johan Wagemans, head of the department of experimental psychology at the University of Leuven. The venue was the local art academy of Leuven, where artists and scientists are currently collaborating on several projects.

Professor Wagemans and his research group are studying visual perception and apply this knowledge, among others, to the perception of art.

As you can imagine, these lines of research provide valuable insights for visual artists. In what follows, I am sharing three of these insights.

1. Your eye is not a camera, your camera is not an eye

One of the most straightforward metaphors for our eyes is a camera … or so you think. This metaphor has induced a lot of false reasoning. Let’s set this straight from the beginning as it is an important aspect to consider for photographers and visual artists alike:

Your eye is not a camera. Your camera is not an eye.

Our eyes are imperfect visual devices. They do not show us an objective reconstruction of reality.

Our brain is constantly trying to make meaning of the complex, imperfect and sometimes straightforward deceiving signals that our eyes deliver to them.

One of the easiest illustrations of this is the fact that we are so susceptible to visual illusions. You might all have shared a laugh with your friends when switching views between the old and young woman, seeing perfectly round circles as wobbly or straight lines as sloped. Besides being entertaining, these simple illustrations also show us the complexity of visual perception.

Examples of visual ambiguity and visual illusions

Even if we ‘know’ that an illusion is just that, an illusion, we still can’t unsee it. Perception is a system in itself. A system that evolved to support our behavior and help us find meaning in the (visual) world. It has never been an objective representation of that visual world.

This has important consequences for visual artists. When people are looking at your artwork, they are never looking at it ‘objectively’, but always from within the specific characteristics of our visual system.

Similarly, your camera will not show you the world as your eyes saw it. You may have noticed this when you looked at the back of the camera and suddenly saw a tree prominently sticking out of someone’s head, something you didn’t even notice when taking the picture.

To complicate things even more, everyone is perceiving things coloured by their own personality, history, experience and mood, so even when two people are looking at the same artwork, they might perceive it differently.

2. Walk the line between order & complexity

Now that we’ve established that our visual system is not an objective observer of reality and is more complex than intuitively seems, how can we understand what happens when perceiving visual art?

What makes us perceive something as beautiful or ugly? Humankind has been interested in this question for a long time. Philosophers from Plato to Leibniz formulated their ideas on aesthetic preferences. Answers ranged from proportion, harmony or symmetry to unity in variety.

Later, Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) wasn’t satisfied with only contemplating the rules of aesthetics. He wanted measurable principles, factors for aesthetic appreciation that could be empirically tested. And so the discipline of experimental psycho-aesthetics began, interestingly even before the discipline of psychology started.

Different rules have been derived and empirically tested. One of them is the balance between order and complexity. Art needs to walk a fine line between these two to promote pleasure in the viewer. If there is too much order without any complexity, it will be easy to read and boring. If it is too complex without any order, it will also be negatively perceived. What you need to find is the optimal balance between these two dimensions. The principle of the aesthetic middle. The point of medium familiarity.

Things are interesting when they are neither too familiar (boring) or too new or complex (overstimulation). This rule applies to other domains in life too (fashion, product design).

That being said, finding this sweet spot is not an easy quest. The optimum is not even the same for everyone. Whereas one person can handle more complexity, the other wants it all to be a bit more structured. Where the art connoisseur with a lot of knowledge and a big framework of art can easily handle and appreciate complex abstract art, the novice in the art world might find it ugly.

So how can we set out to find such a sweet spot, how can we find the balance between order & chaos, structure & complexity, how can we engage our viewer with our art?

3. Engage the brain

As an artist, you want your viewer to be engaged and not discard it as boring or too complex. But what can engage a viewer? One of the research projects by professor Wagemans and Sander Van De Cruys examined how making and resolving prediction errors can be a factor in experiencing visual pleasure with art.

Our brains are constantly looking for information and meaning in the visual world. One third of our brain is even dedicated to this task (of perceiving and processing visual information). To help support our behaviour, our brain wants to predict the future. It is constantly making predictions of what it expects to see. As a result, the information that gets processed at the brain is not the passive ‘raw’ stimulus, but the error in the brain’s predictions. For example, we all know how our living room looks, so we don’t need to spend all our energy to process its visual information. Instead, it is more energy efficient to process the errors in what we predicted (for example your table is suddenly lying upside down) and then adapt your prediction to this new information.

The same applies to perception of art. Our brain is also predicting what it expects to see. When it finds something different than expected (hu?), it tries to resolve this by reorganising the information (aha!). The unpredictable gets the brain engaged to take a better look and to resolve the uncertainty. This movement from uncertainty to predictability makes us feel rewarded and as a result appreciative of the work. A good example of this is the painting Le Blanc Seing (1965) by René Magritte:

Magritte: Le Blanc Seing (1965)

Even though appreciation of art is often considered a personal opinion, we are all human and have a brain with similar functions. When artists use their talents to engage our brain, they are well on their way to make us appreciate their art. A good work of art stimulates our hunger for knowledge and meaning and lets us discover new aspects and layers (more ‘aha!’ moments) every time we look at it.

Artists learn from researchers learn from artists

These three insights show that visual artists can learn a great deal from the work of perception researchers. It is only when learning the peculiarities of human perception, that artists can actively use this information to make their art more interesting. Escher was doing this, commercials for cars are doing this, why are we, as photographers or visual artists, not making more use of these principles?

Of course, it is a two-way street. Researchers also continue to learn more about our visual system by studying visual art and its effects on the viewer.

The evening was a success and I went home with a renewed love for my background in theoretical psychology. The lecture was an excellent teaser for the connections between psychology and art/photography. I am looking forward to dive deeper into these connections. I hope you are too?