Our eyes move toward those things already on our minds. A man passionate about model railroading, for example, is likely to look at a painting of a locomotive. But deeper cues move our eyes. Some of these stimulants are with us from birth and are a part of our psyche. Others are learned, selected and personalized by life’s preferences.
Recent studies have examined a variety of eye movements that include tiny flickers called microsaccades. Developed long ago as a focusing aid to hunting and gathering, they have evolved with us. Although these flickers are too fast for an ordinary observer to see, experts are now thinking microsaccades may be keys to innermost thoughts and desires.
Typically, you may be visiting with someone, but your attention is drawn to something else that happens to be nearby. It could be that last piece of cake on the table or that guy over there. Depends what’s on your mind. The wandering eye, even in its tiniest movements, is a window to the subconscious. Naturally, I’ve always been curious about visual stimuli. Here are a few eye-catchers:
Fuzzy: Blurs, puzzles, mysterious entanglements.
Furry: Teddy bears, pussycats, terriers.
Textured: Roughness, protrusions, indentions.
Gradated: Innate sensitization to 2-d and 3-d.
Illusive: Intrigues, fascinations, eye-foolery.
Colourful: Jarring and unusual combinations.
Patterned: Checkerboards, counterpoints, repeats.
Human-like: Shapes, patches, forms.
Cute: Babies, Kewpie dolls, rubber duckies.
Calm: Horizontality, tranquility, leveling.
Wet: Rivers, oceans, waves, streams. Water is elemental eye-candy in all its moods.
The human eye adores a massage. Mere subject matter — like that well-painted locomotive — may not always be enough. The subconscious eye seeks out atavistic desires. But painting Kewpie dolls and teddy bears would miss the point. I think it’s the more abstracted, devious stuff that really flirts with our minds. To the eye and the complex interpretive devices that are wired to it, suggestion may be more powerful than reality.
PS: “Your microsaccades betray your true focus.” (Susanna Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik, neurologists)
Esoterica: Microsaccades interpret the nature of still objects and help make them interesting. Without them, things fade from view. Curiously, certain species of frogs don’t have these small eye movements. Because of this they cannot see a fly at rest, but have no trouble snapping it out of the air with their tongue when it flies. The human eye has the reverse capability — it sees meaning and purpose in things that are still. Curiously as well, when shooting a rifle we humans are able to temporarily suspend the motion of our microsaccades.
Ambiguity in paintings
by Darla Tagrin, Montgomery Village, MD, USA
I have always thought that you need to leave enough ambiguity in your paintings so that there is room for the viewer’s imagination to contribute to the experience, making it a collaboration. This is not to say that your work should be a completely incomprehensible abstraction — but leave enough room for interpretation so that they can imagine their own story, guided by what you have put in your painting. Those small abstract clues of composition, rather than the overt subject matter, can be the sneaky guideposts to your “message.” Further, this may be heresy, but unless they are extremely well composed, I find photorealistic paintings boring, because viewing them is such a passive exercise.
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by Chuck Marshall, Mason, OH, USA
I grew up in a hunting family, and my father jokingly used to call me eagle eyes. I had this knack of seeing very subtle nuances in the outdoors. It came in very handy to say the least. Now that I am a plein air painter I use it in a very different way. I search the scene for what it is that is truly catching my attention and makes me want to paint a scene. I also teach plein air workshops and try to convey how to do this with my students. This learned conversation with one’s mind isn’t impossible, but does take some time to hone. One just has to be aware of it first. Now I have a name to call it. Further, this may be one of the reasons people think artists weird. I know I am constantly aware of many things that catch my attention even when having a very focused conversation with someone. My grade school teacher was constantly telling my parents I was a dreamer, that I had a hard time paying attention. Maybe I was just aware of too much?
More eyes than most
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
When hunting around in the landscape for something to paint, we search for the place that draws us in, enough to want to spend a good bit of time there possibly struggling. So we find the place, maybe because we can see a painting in our mind already. We set up the gear, begin the drawing and it’s just not it. It seemed like such a good place and idea, and it’s just not happening.
So my painting buddy said, whenever you find the place, never assume that what you really want to paint is directly in front of you, that it may very well be in your peripheral vision or even behind you… because you are actually standing in your subject, so what you are actually interested in could be just about anywhere in your visual field from where you stand. That made a lot of sense to me and has been very helpful. So when I begin in my “place,” I make a drawing in every direction from where I stand, and often what I end up painting is behind me. I see artists as having more eyes than most.
Eye-catchers that backfire
by Sam Liberman, Sacramento, CA, USA
Almost all the examples of eye-catchers you mention are relevant directly to painting. We need to use these devices such as protruding patches, jarring color, horizontality (if that’s a word) etc., apparently to catch the eye of the viewer. At the same time almost all of them can backfire and distract from the painting if used too much or in the wrong way. The strange thing for me is that I am not conscious of where my eyes go when I look at a painting, and I have a hard time following some of the composition “rules” for that reason, but I usually can tell when something is wrong in the sense of distracting rather than adding to the painting.
Magic of screen movement
by Pete Gerard, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA
I learned in my years doing movie work (miniatures, props and special effects) that there are three things on a movie screen that will capture one’s immediate gaze. These are: something in motion, an on-screen source of light, or a source of sound. Of course, if it is something you are interested in (or feel a connection to), you will keep on looking, but I’m describing only our instantaneous responses.
Most mammals will find you much easier to see if you’re moving – for predators because you might be prey (escaping) and for others because you might be a predator (attacking). Colors, forms, balance, harmony… these factors elicit their own human responses, intellectual and/or emotional… I speak only of the physiology of vision. This may explain why a higher percentage of the general population is captivated by film and live performance than by static visual art on a wall or pedestal.
Role of Painting
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
I grew up with a lot of trauma. My mother was extremely violent, both verbally and physically. It affected many of my decisions — until I became myself. I have experienced a lot in my life time — and overcome a lot to become the person I want to be. The point is: I am absolutely certain that my painting has played an enormous role in helping me express what I am truly about — not necessarily my trauma. People say my paintings are healing, positive, calming. This was an eye opener for me. I believe my painting has the soul of which you speak. Artists express their own soul through their paintings. It is, perhaps, an affirmation of who we really are — as art rarely lies. It is easy to lie with words. But our actions and our art will always speak honestly about us, our soul, and more specifically, where we are at that moment in our life, what we are experiencing inside. I find it fascinating that I have never before in my life felt so comfortable with people seeing who I am in my paintings. As Stephen Quiller rightly said, “Painting… is a way to place our energy, feelings, and soul before the viewer.”
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What’s on our minds?
by Mona Hearne, Matthews, NC, USA
What do you mean by “Our eyes move toward those things already on our minds?”
(RG note) Thanks, Mona. In many cases this means that people are attracted to what is familiar to them. The popular expression, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like,” often means “I don’t know anything about art, but I like what I know.” Fortunately, there are people of passion with whom an artist can truly connect and communicate. While some of this happens on a subconscious level, most of us have buyers who have said things like, “I know that feeling so well.” The “idea” behind your work was already on their minds, perhaps latent and hidden, only to be aroused by your efforts.
by Lori Standen, Surrey, BC, Canada
Thank you again for your in”sight”ful letter. Trompe l’oeil is French for “trick of the eye”… or eye-foolery, as you termed it. This is exactly what I wish to infuse into my paintings… a sense of “something else, just slightly beyond the initial viewing.” It has been said before in comments such as “hold the viewer’s eye” or “Art is not what is seen but what is to be seen.” Now, with your list of specific ways to create that, I’m off and running (and painting), again.
(RG note) Thanks, Lori. Trompe l’oeil is a painting (often a still life) so real and attentive to detail that it looks like the real thing. This is an illusion of course, and qualifies for eye curiosity and fascination. Add symbolic shapes, or some of the other nuances that cause the eye to wander toward it, and you really have something.
Retention of dreams
by Randy Hunter, Makuhari, Japan
My microsaccades seem to be attuned to modernist painting, architecture and graphic arts. But along these lines… upon retiring for the evening as I am drifting off to sleep, I encounter pictures in my head or behind my lids that are fleeting but are none-the less amazing quick glimpses which I would love to produce in glass, or another medium, if I knew how. The stumbling block to this is their fleeting appearance and equally fleeting disappearance, along with my relaxed and almost falling asleep consciousness. The images seen or imagined are not something I can transfer to paper or memory to use upon waking, as they are long forgotten when I wake up. Are there methods to train and capture these fleeting ideas?
(RG note) Thanks, Randy. Most folks experience difficulty in remembering dreams. Having enjoyed a lifetime of vivid ones, I’ve tried to develop systems for their analysis. Sometimes it’s possible to wake momentarily, particularly if the dream ends with a bang, and put down a word or two in a notebook. The words, often incomprehensible in the morning, can be used to dig around and sometimes the items are accessed. While the dreams themselves often come out of left field, I’ve noted that characters in them have often been substituted for others. Running a bunch of names can often tip you off to the dream-story and you can then replay the item. Further, “leaving a few cares and concerns lying around as you fall asleep” and remembering them, can be key to digging the pictures out of your subconscious. And while a dream is often a vignette, without definitive beginning or end, you can sometimes access a salient point or most memorable part, and then work backwards and forwards to flesh it out.
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Missing the giant train wreck
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Lately I have been seemingly more aware of the state of our world. I feel the world is teetering on the brink of disaster. On one hand, for the first time in history, a black man has been elected president of the United States. On the other hand, for the first time in history, the rights of gays and lesbians are being taken away from them with the absurdity of Proposition 8. The economy is tanking, banks are going under and they are saying it is going to take a “Trillion” dollars just to bail everyone out. These times can profoundly affect what it is to be not only as artist and what we communicate in our work, but the human race in general. And YET, you are commenting this week on the microscopic flickers and eye candy that impact our innermost thoughts and desires. Rather than looking at the insipid light coming through the leaves, let’s have a look at the giant train wreck that is really having an impact on our lives!
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Evaluating work for divorce
I would be grateful if you know about evaluating paintings for divorce proceedings. Lord knows some paintings are never sold and I feel this is unfair that they should be listed as part of my ‘assets’ like a personal retirement plan, jewelry, etc. I’m not sure what to do (short of giving them away or destroying them all).
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous. I don’t know the answer to this, except to say that in some jurisdictions personal works of art may not take on a significant value until they are sold. This will not apply to works of art that you jointly own that are not by you. Sadly, a departing spouse is more likely to want cash rather than the creative work of the ex. You need to get the input of a divorce lawyer. In any case, all artists need to destroy substandard works even though they may have value.
by Paula Timpson
catching secret visions
allured by the subconscious heart
acrylic on canvas, 11 x 22 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ann McCaughey of New York, NY, USA, who wrote, “The phrase ‘eye candy’ is used as a put-down, but one wonders where to draw the line between pleasing to the eye and going too far?
And also Terry Renner who wrote, “For an analysis of eye movement and interest points on Velasquez’ Las Meninas you might refer to the item in Duane Keiser’s blog.
And also Jeannine Perez of Loreto, Mexico, who wrote, “I’ve attended many workshops on the brain, and the connections to different types of sensory stimuli. Your letter reminded me of the newest theories on learning, and on the choices we make, and somewhat answer why I prefer literature, music, real life scenes AND paintings that suggest hidden stories or mysteries.
And also Kathleen Self of Los Gatos, CA, USA, who wrote, “Those tiny eye movements in response to things around us reminded me about Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink (he also wrote The Tipping Point). In Blink he goes into detail about what those barely perceptible eye movements reveal about the intent of the heart. It was very thought-provoking, especially for a visual artist.”
And also Dorcas M. O’Reilly of Goleta, CA, USA, who wrote, “So many of the “eye-catchers” you describe in your list are related to our experiences in infanthood and early childhood when we educate ourselves through touch. Are we revisiting these pleasures subconsciously with our eyes?”
Enjoy the past comments below for The subconscious eye…