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Rembrandt and Eye Tracking

Rembrandt and Eye TrackingIf art is so subjective, why do some people gravitate towards some artists and not others? What is it about a painting that makes it engaging enough for the work to stand time and keep people coming back over and over again? Difficult questions, and plenty of theory and art criticism has been written on the subject, but a Canadian research group recently announced that they may have discovered at least one characteristic behind some artist’s’ lasting effect.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia focused uniquely on the 17th century Dutch painter, Rembrandt, and how he may have pioneered a technique that guides the viewer’s gaze around a portrait, creating narrative and a calming effect while looking at the painting. Painterly technique and visual tricks are approaches that have long been used by painters to engage the viewer, and as painting progressed through the ages, artists discovered new ways to represent light and depth through perspective, spatial layout, and the “vanishing point,” ultimately creating a more accurate representation in portraiture. Science and math informed art and vice versa, and soon artists like Rembrandt were able to incorporate these new techniques into their works.

Steve DiPaola, the researcher from UBC, wondered about the “magic” of Rembrandt’s paintings and decided to study, through eye tracking, how Rembrandt came to certain decisions about his artistic process. DiPaola employed computer-rendering programs to recreate four of Rembrandt’s most famous portraits through photographs of himself and other models. In replicating the artist’s techniques, he paid close attention to specific areas of the model’s face.

DiPaola tracked viewers’ eye movements as they looked over the photographs and portraits, and found that they tended to fixate on the detailed eye faster, staying for longer periods of time. This has a calming effect on the viewers’ experience as their eyes are actually guided around the painting by Rembrandt’s technique of transitioning from sharp to blurry edges, light, and focus. As your eyes travel through the painting, you start to create a narrative of the subject, which could lend itself to meaning, or a better understanding of Rembrandt’s work. Maybe this journey your eyes take when looking at a painting is what helps to create that “magic” DiPaola recognized in the work – something that lends a timeless and engaging quality to the art.

In creating “eye guiding” technique, as DiPaola puts it, the artist is essentially playing tour guide for viewers, centuries after his death. “Whether he observed how his own eyes behaved while viewing a painting or if he did it by intuition,” says DiPaola, “Rembrandt incorporated an understanding of how the human eye works that has since been proven accurate.”

UBC researcher decodes Rembrandt’s “magic”