Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Artists Don't Know Better Than the Rest of Us How Things Look

It's almost a ritual, in discussions of the phenomenology of vision, to praise "artists" -- meaning those in the visual arts -- for having an appreciation of visual phenomenology that most of the rest of us lack. However I believe that the truth is the reverse.

Thomas Reid is typical:

I cannot therefore entertain the hope of being intelligible to those readers who have not, by pains and practice, acquired the habit of distinguishing the appearance of objects to the eye, from the judgment which we form by sight of their colour, distance, magnitude, and figure. The only profession in life wherein it is necessary to make this distinction, is that of painting. The painter hath occasion for an abstraction, with regard to visible objects, somewhat similar to that which we here require: and this indeed is the most difficult part of his art. For it is evident, that if he could fix in his imagination the visible appearance of objects, without confounding it with the things signified by that appearance, it would be as easy for him to paint from life, and to give every figure its proper shading and relief, and its perspective proportions, as it is to paint from a copy (An Inquiry into the Human Mind, 1764/1997, p. 82-83).
Now this much I'll grant Reid and others who share his view: Traditional, representational painters have the difficult skill of rendering on a two-dimensional canvas an arrangement of paint such that it produces for the eye an arrangement of light importantly similar to what would be produced by the actual three-dimensional scene they are rendering; and it takes much practice to see outward things in terms of how they can be presented on a canvas, for example foreshortened and rendered in the right two-dimensional shapes. But that skill is not the skill of appreciating real visual appearances.

For one thing, the view makes no geometric sense. Three dimensional scenes cannot be rendered in two-dimensions without geometric distortion in size and/or angle -- distortion that becomes more evident the greater the visual angle encompassed. This is why there is always something a little wrong with panoramic photographs. This geometrical difficulty could be avoided if artists drew on concave semispheres instead of flat rectangles. But they don't; and they'd have to relearn the rules of perspective to do so.

Even setting that issue aside: We should not infer from the fact that to create a sense of realism in the viewer an artist must color shadows in such-and-such a way that we really visually experience shadows as colored in that way. We should not infer from the fact that light, and water, and distance, and motion, can be rendered a certain way on canvas to the fact that our visual experience light and water and distance and motion matches such renditions (e.g., motion as either a series of freeze-frames or as blur). The painter learns the skill of seeing the world in a certain way for the purpose of a certain technique, not the skill of apprehending our visual experience as it is in itself.

Since most visual artists don't seem to appreciate this fact, their reports about their visual experience are likely to be less accurate than the reports of non-artists -- distorted by the false assumption that the world as seen for painting is the world as seen for life.


iolasov said...

I recently ran a pilot study using a test I'm (slowly) developing for the ability to introspect on visual experience. I was pretty surprised to find that, on several tasks in the test, the one visual artist that I had in the sample performed worse than most or all of the other participants. She was especially bad at a color contrast task that I modified from Titchener's lab manual. I do think, though, that the use of perspective in drawing and painting can make artists better judges of the shapes and sizes of visual representations of objects. For what it's worth, my artist did (very quickly) solve a tricky task dealing with Poggendorff's Illusion that should measure something along those lines - the ability to overcome naive introspectors' obstacles in making geometrical judgments about visual representations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, you're replicating an experiment from Titchener's lab manual?! We should talk.

Very interesting results you report. Drop me a line and tell me more about yourself and your research.

Neil said...

Hey Eric, do you know this anecdote:

Once, when walking with a friend through a house they had never been in before, [Ibsen] turned suddenly and said, "What was in that room we just passed?" His friend had only the vaguest notion, but Ibsen gave a most exact description of everything in the room, its appearance, its location, its relation to everything else, and then said, under his breath, as if to himself, "I see everything."

--Oliver Sacks (1933-), in Seeing Voices.

What do you think? A myth? Did Ibsen set it up? Or was he a progidy? I bet against the last one, since we know that people with extraordinary memories have related problems.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Neil! I hadn't heard that one. My hunch matches yours: There are prodigies, but they pay the price for their talents (often by being autistic). More likely it's an ordinary feat (perhaps he'd particularly noticed a few things in the room for some mundane reason) that got blown out of proportion in the aftermath.

Allan Karlsson said...

I wonder if Ibsen might be able to "see more" because he wrote plays? He was not a visual artist as far as I know. It may have been something like: he was looking at the room and wondering about how he might stage some sort of act or something. This would have given him a better sense of the visual space. It occurred to him that he had done this, so then he turned to his friend and asked his question.

He may not have been as aware of the room on some random occassion. It may not have worked it Eric attached a beeper to him and randomly beeped him. Eric could probably have proven that Ibsen doesn't really see everything. But a playwright, unlike a painter, may be more attuned to the space in which action takes place, especially if he is thinking about a scene for a possible play.

But generally, I agree with Eric's blog that painters might be better at perceiving how objects in paintings are produced, but that bias could actually interfere with quotidian experiences of actual three dimensional spaces.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Quotidian, for your interesting comment! That all strikes me as very plausible. I can imagine a playwright finding herself occasionally falling into thinking of spaces and conversations in terms of blocking directions and angles to the audience! (This also reminds me of a recent post on A Brood Comb on .)

Anonymous said...


I don't know if this speaks to my lack of visual ability or to my wife's abilities, but she is a representational painter, and she (it seems to me) is much better at determining which colors will look good together in a room--which will complement, which will blend, etc. Further, she is better at noticing which things in a room are "out of whack"--positioned non-proportionally, out of alignment, and so on. She'll move a chair or a picture on the wall, and the room will "feel" better. Finally, she can explain what it is about someone's face that accounts for its beauty, or its there lack of, or its individual charm. And, in addition, she can draw or paint those faces with minimal gestures that still capture the "essence" of the face (good caricature artists do this sort of thing...).

Now, the color thing is clearly part of her training, but I think she can introspect and consider what things will look like next to one another--something I cannot do well.

About furniture and such--not sure if that's anything to do with her training, but may be just a skill she has.

About faces--that seems connected to her training, and it does seem to get at something real, though not, perhaps, what is exactly out there. It's a skill at abstracting, of latching onto the features that matter most to our visual perception. Or so it seems to me.

Not sure how this connects to the 2-D/3-D thing, which I agree seems like a distortion rather than an accurate representation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Josh! Everything you mention seems quite plausibly connected to training or interests or a certain kind of natural eye for things. I'm happy to grant painters all that! But if you were to conclude that these skills show better knowledge of the stream of ordinary lived visual experience, there I'd balk.

Maybe this is the way to think of it: All these skills show knowledge of what kinds of outward things produce what kinds of visual effects. On the face of it, that does seem to suggest skill at knowing one's visual experiences; but counterbalancing that is, I think, the too-tempting tendency to leap to simplistic conclusions about the relations between outward things that produce experience and the experience itself -- for example to conclude that because you need to add purple to a shadow under such-and-such conditions to make it look right our experience of shadows under those conditions has a largely unnoticed purpleness to it.

Troy Camplin said...

This is all assuming that this is what artists are in fact up to in the first place. Art did not start off as "photorealism," and only became so during the Renaissance in Europe. It did not take long for art to get away from that form and into the various forms of Modernism and Postmodernism. At its best art idealizes, it doesn't merely replicate.