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Monday, July 24, 2006

vision and Monet

I just finished reading "Vision and Art: the biology of seeing" by Margaret Livingstone. It's a pretty dense book for something that wouldn't look out of place on your coffee table. It's not a difficult book to read, but there's a lot of interesting information to absorb. I've been reading it slowly and will likely read it through again to try and take her ideas in a little more deeply.

Anyway, one of the ideas the book talks about is the idea that our peripheral vision lacks acuity. Because our eyes are moving all the time, we don't really notice this, but try focusing on a single point on a page of a book, for example, and then try to make out the words to either side of where you have your gaze fixed. You'll see how quickly you loose detail. The interesting thing is that peripheral vision isn't blurry or out of focus, it lacks spatial precision. So you have a hard time fixing the location in space of objects seen with your perpherial vision. The result is your brain fills in the details to give you an illusion of detail, but it can fill in these details differently each time you look at something with your peripheral vision.

What does this have to do with art, and Monet? Last Saturday, in an effort to escape the heat, I visited the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco (which was amazingly fog-less) to see the Monet in Normandy exhibit. Livingstone contends that the impressionist painters, by creating images that were spatially imprecise, give an illusion of movement or vitality because of the way your brain completes objects. I tested this idea looking at Monet's paintings, and it was true. If I kept my eyes still instead of roaming the painting, the paintings seemed both more realistic and also had an illusion of motion. The flags seemed to flutter a little, the air seemed to shimmer in the heat and so on.


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