How science can help us understand art

  • by Tobii
  • 4min min

science art eye tracking

Creativity is one of life’s great mysteries, we admire it, we envy it, and often we’re confounded by it. However, eye tracking technology is helping to unlock some of its secrets.

In a new episode, How do kids and artists see while drawing?, Function, a YouTube video series combining science and technology, looked at how gaze patterns can highlight the different ways children and trained artists create a piece of work. Seven children between the ages of four and 19 and three professional artists were asked to recreate The Card Players by Paul Cézanne while wearing eye tracking glasses collecting data on their eye movements.  A real-life recreation of the painting was set up inside the Eckford Street Studio in Brooklyn NY for the participants to base their work on.

Cognitive Neuroscientist, Dr. Heather Berlin, provided on-screen analysis for the project and was able to observe the correlation between their gaze and the method in which they composed their works. “You might expect that the artist will look quickly at the scene and take in everything that they need and then start to draw, but it’s actually the opposite” she said. Over a 10-minute period, the children spent around 42 seconds of their time studying the scene, while the trained artists spent 90 seconds.

She also observed a distinct difference in the importance each group placed on getting the scale of the objects correct, and how they responded to time pressures. In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which isn’t fully developed until the age of 25, effected the pace of each group.  “Some of the work I’ve done shows that the prefrontal cortex is involved in time perception and that also played out there because when the children were told [time was running out], it didn’t really effect their behavior… whereas the adults really took that time concept into consideration”.

Eye tracking as a tool to understand creativity

“Driven by Caravaggio” is another eye tracking study conducted to better understand creative pursuits. Researchers at Scienza Nuova in Italy wanted to test the hypothesis that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, one of the most influential painters of the 17th century, understood how we perceive images and considered how the environment would affect the viewer's visual experience.

Tobii Pro Glasses 2 wearable ye tracker used in a painting viewing study in Italy

In this study, participants wore Tobii Pro Glasses while looking at Caravaggio’s Opere di Misericordia which remains in its original location at the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, and another of his works at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Researchers found those looking at Caravaggio’s painting in its original context followed a similar gaze pattern as they observed the work, while those viewing his art in the museum had no identifiable pattern of examining the piece.

Eye tracking was also used to understand how trained photographers and amateurs view photography. Canon conducted an experiment analyzing the length and focus of attention. It highlighted a distinct difference in the way a non-photographer, a photography student, and the creator of the image each view and study its intricacies.

Applying eye tracking to understand art and performance has also extended to music. Another project from Function looked at the difference between how a trained pianist and his student direct their attention while playing.

Eye tracking technology could be applied to gain a greater objective insight into the appreciation of art, which is, inherently subjective.

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Written by

  • Tobii employee

    Andreu Moreno

    Account manager, Tobii

    Andreu is the account manager for the medical and scientific research segment at Tobii (UK and Ireland). Every day, he talks with researchers, helping them to choose the most appropriate equipment for their experiments. He loves seeing the impact our products have on outcomes, thanks to the people who use them and the research they carry out.

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