Sunday, June 26, 2011

More about the eyes that follow you and some slander aimed at perfectly nice people.

I believer I will talk about a couple of things today. First a little more about the eyes that follow you problem. I am traveling (again) and I carry a few photos of my wife and kids in my computer bag. I remember what they look like, but women always ask me if I have photos of my family and disapprove if I don't. Men, never ask.

So, I propped one of the pictures of my kids up against the desk lamp in my motel room and walked back and forth in front if it. The eyes in the photograph seemed always to follow me. I am certain that the camera didn't manipulate the images in some special way to make that happen. Nor did the camera employ some artifice or covert mathematical operation to secure the effect. Oddly though, people never remark about the eyes in a photograph following you around, at least I have never heard that. I think that backs up M. Guilmets explanation, and as I said earlier, it requires no special manipulation to paint a portrait with eyes that "follow" you except for having the sitter train their eyes on you as you paint them.

I think that a little of what is underlying this whole thing is a popular idea or need for the artist to be a shaman or possessed of some secret knowledge. The idea that a paintings eyes follow you around because of some little known contrivance appeals enormously to that. It reinforces the idea that the painting has been imbued with some special and mysterious "life" that is slightly otherworldly.

Most people, OK, not most, but a great number of people who I meet tell me that either they, or their mother is(or was) an artist. My standard reply is to show a warm and supportive smile as I ask "Cool! Maybe I have seen your work, where are you showing?" That always seems to sort things out. When it is Moms work they will tell me about, or if possible show me a portrait Mom did of the kids. As I look at it, I can easily tell it was made by copying a photograph by someone with no particular ability or knowledge because it contains no structure or form. That is, rather than the modeling explaining the planes and surface of the heads, the shading is like dirt on the surface or has cast shadows that fall randomly across the features rather than being arranged to display the features expressively. As I observe this I usually hear the proud relative saying "and the eyes actually follow you around the room"! That being presented as the final authoritative argument for the high quality of Moms art. See, Mom can do "it". The painting also "looks just like them".

I try to be supportive and move on to admiring their collection of unicorns or something, but it makes me feel foreign. I always wish that the people that I met knew more about painting, but it is obscure to them. After spending a lifetime honing my craft, it is always a little scary when you discover that most "normal" or educated people don't know the difference.


Johan said...

Perhaps this is because artists improve their "seeing abilities" their whole life, while non artistic people aren't used to studying everything with their eyes.
Personally, I can be quite irritated sometimes when I see something wrong in a painting and others don't, but I shouldn't.
On the other hand, they do notice when something is off in a portrait of a family member very quickly. Most of the times though, they don't seem to be able to tell me what exactly is off.

Libby Fife said...

I have enjoyed the "trailing eyes" discussions so thank you.

I was also interested in your observations on peoples' comments upon meeting you. My opinion is that in the extremely limited time that you have when you first meet someone (like maybe a minute), people tend to look for the most common denominator that they can relate to you on (hence the Mom and her art discussion). I also suspect that art is intimidating for most people, sort of like selecting a wine. I imagine, as you mentioned, that the people you talk to at shows aren't always incredibly educated on this particular subject (back to the fear thing). I think this is what allows them to show you Mom's portraits with impunity. You don't know what you don't know. Lastly, I don't think the average person considers in depth what a career artist might have had to learn in order to get to the final product. Contrast that with what a person might know about say, a surgeon, for example, and their education. So, I am glad you said that you were polite and kind. It's a wonder though that people don't ask you how you learned your craft. That would be my first question. That and can you look at my picture of this unicorn please?

Happy traveling!

willek said...

I get worried when someone sees something wrong in my picture that I don't see. When that happens you have to go back to school.

I remember those eyes in the portraits on the walls in the 3 Stooges movies, that followed them around the room. Same phenomenon, different mechanism of action.

lobote said...

If mona lisa's eyes follow you, then it is not due to the explanation given on your blog, since she isn't looking directly at you. (Claim her eyes follow you:)

Other things might be going on (such as different visual systems):

The explanation with the convex/concave phenomenon seems to be when you are to lisa's right, the eyes are convex, and looking at you. When you are to her left, the eyes are concave. The brain does something funky and you think she is looking down at you.

It's sounds like this optical illusion:

But yeah I don't really get it and I only have a print of the mona lisa painting so can't really check it. But I do know that even if you want to understand how something simple like a mirror works, you need to draw relatively complicated ray diagrams. Maybe this is a question someone should ask on a physics forum.

Unknown said...

Sorry this does not apply to post. Fire in Nm started two miles from our house. We are under possible evac though winds are currently blowing away from us. We just drove home from co got thru roadblock and are currently packing essentials to be ready to go.
I hope I have room in car for paints . Cats have gone. We have doggies- chickens??? Don't know what to do. Pray for those directly in line of fire.
We see glow of 500 ft. Flames from our deck.

Robert J. Simone said...

Many good people think that fine paintings "flow" out of painters as piano concertos flow out of a musical savant. Most don't realize the amount of training, hard work and self sacrifice that goes into the development of real painting skills. Many do not think of painting as a skill. Rather they view it, as they do all art, as pure expression. Evaluation of skill is not part of the equation. This seems to be the defacto entry level of all fine art appreciation. Not a bad thing, though. Earl Nightengale would view this circumstance as un-mined Acres of Diamonds. said...

Copying photographs has made artists out everyone and their mothers. Some clients see distinctions , some do not. But there are enough clients out their who do appreciate " it" when they see " it".

I am always surprised an " artist" comments to me that I am the " real thing" ! I've always been too polite to ask them what they really think they are.

Deb, get the dogs in the car, your papers and credit cards and, just get out of there and hope for the best.

Anonymous said...

It always used to bother me as a chid when my parents would watch the news and I would sit at an extreme angle to the tv screen, but the news anchor would still be looking directly at me.
Same principle as the eyes in a portrait. Haven't thought about that in years:)
I think I asked my dad one time about why that was, and I think he mumbled something to the effect of "that's just the way it is."
Now I can truly explain it to my child, should they be so observant as to notice and ask when they look up from their unicorn collection.

Welcome back to MN Stape! If your still here.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Johan Derycke:
I try not to be irritated. I am getting better, I think.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Libby Fife;
I don't think it occurs to many that painting is a learned craft plus self expression.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I almost wrote about those old movies with the portraits eyes that were real.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will have to ponder this, I still don't really get it. Perhaps I will after more thought.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Paint is cheap! Get out now!

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's a good point
. Earl would view it in his own way.

Stapleton Kearns said...;
I get told I am the real thing occasionally, I like that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Oh yeah TV forgot about those.

knoxblox said...

A common occurrence I experience is when the "artist" in question is nearby, while I'm out painting in public.

The "art fan" will trot out to retrieve the "artist", but the "artist" (in visibly understood body language) expresses that they do NOT wish to speak to me.

Go figure. At least the lady who makes sock monkeys will talk to me.

lobote said...

"I will have to ponder this, I still don't really get it. Perhaps I will after more thought."

Also when the eyes are painted looking directly in front: when they follow you, you don't notice the mouth or nose 'following you'. This might be because of those two different visual systems. The one that focuses on details isn't going to see the frame and so the brain doesn't notice its flat and skewed image - and it will be focused on the eyes because they are the most important thing. But the other system does.

So if you focused looking at the mouth, you wouldn't notice the eyes following you. Maybe.

The other thing is how does the brain calculate where people are looking? Does it look at a ratio of the whites on the left of the iris and the white on the right of the iris? When you move to the right of the painting, if it were real 3d and looking straight ahead, the ratio would change. But because it is an image, the ratio doesn't change (ignoring skew caused by perspective). So maybe that fools the brain into thinking the eyes have moved.

You could email that harvard lady and see if she actually knows the answer.