Science tracks our ways of viewing art

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The Independent Online

The way thousands of gallery visitors view masterpieces by Rembrandt, Dégas and Munch over the next three months could transform the way all art is seen in future.

The way thousands of gallery visitors view masterpieces by Rembrandt, Dégas and Munch over the next three months could transform the way all art is seen in future.

It might even lead to improved driving skills and a better reading of X-ray films, by explaining how we actually use our eyes.

Curators have asked scientists from the University of Derby to track the eye movements of thousands of visitors to a new exhibition, Telling Time, at the National Gallery in London.

It will be the biggest investigation ever carried out into how humans absorb images and how artists' use of colour and texture affects the way a painting "works".

The participants will sit before a computer screen where copies of paintings will be shown. Infra-red light will shine onto the eyes to illuminate the focusing process, and an infra-red sensitive camera will record reflections on the cornea and retina of the eyes as they look.

Some of the paintings will have "prompts" inviting the viewer to notice particular aspects of the art work, and the camera will register how that information affects the pattern of observation.

Up to 120,000 visitors are expected at the show, which opens on Wednesday and runs until January.

Alexander Sturgis, the curator, brought in the scientists because he wanted to show visitors how long it took to see what was really in a painting. "It's not something people think about a great deal. They imagine they see things instantly, but you see extraordinarily little instantly," he said.

How to lead the eye through a painting was a critical concern of artists in the 17th and 18th centuries. The experiment should reveal whether those artists successfully resolved the problem. But Dr Sturgis said he suspected it would also show that experts today seriously overestimate how much the ordinary viewer understands of what they are seeing.

"It may show that what we in the gallery imagine to be self-evident is not, and needs to be pointed out," he said.

Dr David Wooding from the Applied Vision Research Unit at the University of Derby said the experiment could contribute to the basic scientific understanding of our visual systems. But the findings were also likely to lead to practical uses.

"There are lots of ways in which we use our sight every day: when we're driving, reading, looking at signs, when a radiologist is looking at an X-ray. So we may be able to take these findings and apply them to other visual areas, such as driving, signage or advertising."

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