The subconscious eye


Dear Artist,

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:


Attention monitor: Scientists can track microsaccades to determine if something is secretly attracting a person’s attention – such as a slice of chocolate cake – even when that person is looking elsewhere. There is a significant article on the covert actions of microsaccades in the August, 2007 issue of Scientific American.

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.

Best regards,


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.

There are 6 comments for Ambiguity in paintings by Darla Tagrin

From: Linda Mallery — Nov 21, 2008

I agree, why not just take a photo?

From: Elaine — Nov 21, 2008

This may be why I am always drawn to pictures that are only partly realistic. Pictures that have a mystery area in them, so I can make up the “Rest of the Story.” I find this very interesting. It may change my style of painting somewhat.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Nov 21, 2008

I think that general rules are not such a great idea. I enjoy loose paintings, but I have seen glorious hyper real paintings that are a celebration of the complexity of minute details. They made me think about the mysteries of the nature…so there is a specific message that those paintings expressed. Although I agree that copying a photo just for the sake of having a copy of a scene has no meaning.

From: Jevon Safarik — Nov 21, 2008
From: Bob Posliff — Nov 23, 2008

Oscar Wilde said ” I live constantly in the fear of not being misunderstood “

From: Andy Cheverie — Jan 11, 2009

photorealistic, thats what cameras are for. Something dead in the street demands more mental investagation then 1000 mona lisa’s.


Eagle-eyed kid
by Chuck Marshall, Mason, OH, USA


“New snow”
oil on canvas
by Chuck Marshall

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


“White Rock Lake West #1”
pastel on paper, 19 x 25 inches
by Susanne Kelley Clark

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


“Wall ball”
original painting
by Sam Liberman

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


“Little birch reflections”
acrylic on canvas, 25 x 37 inches
by Jack Dickerson

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.”

There is 1 comment for Role of Painting by Jack Dickerson

From: D. — Nov 21, 2008

Your first 2 sentences discribe my childhood. My early paintings were dark. Real dark, like my life. Today, much later, they are bright and cheerfull. Indeed, what’s in us shows up on the canvas!


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.


Trompe l’oeil
by Lori Standen, Surrey, BC, Canada


oil on canvas
by Lori Standen

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.

There are 2 comments for Retention of dreams by Randy Hunter

From: Carole Wayne — Nov 30, 2008

To capture dream images, I keep a dream journal with unlined pages, and a basket full of colored pencils close by. Images can be embedded in the dream story as you write it, or later.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 04, 2008

I remember a story about a famoius writer who woke and jotted down on his pad what he thought was going to be his greatest idea yet.

In the morning he read what he had written…” boy meet girl.”


Missing the giant train wreck
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Ambient Wallpaper 2 “
acrylic on canvas
by John Ferrie

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!

There are 8 comments for Missing the giant train wreck by John Ferrie

From: Anon — Nov 20, 2008

John – Paint more, worry less!

From: John ferrie — Nov 20, 2008

Paint more, worry less! I respond with …”Get your head out of the sand!!”

And this person doesn’t even have the nerve to put their name on their comment.

I paint plenty, thank you very much. But I look out the window and wonder about the world we are leaving for future generations. hey, but maybe thats just me.

From: Janee — Nov 20, 2008

I agree John, these times are just about as bad as they can be and unfortunately have the potential of getting a lot worse. I hear your frustration but I see that your work communicates a lot of joy and beauty and there’s great hope in beauty. These are the things we need right now to make it through this and hopefully out on the other side and into a lot better world. Hang on tight, I think it’s going to be a very bumpy train ride.

From: Erin — Nov 21, 2008

Dear John: You say “for the first time in history, gays have their rights take away from them.” This is not accurate. Gay people have many right at this point in history, including not being discriminated against in job searches. They don’t, however, and never have had, the right to sacramental marriage. I agree that gay men and women should be able to form civil unions for their partner’s legal protection. California voted to ban same sex marriage, and that’s the will of the people in that state. Why don’t you paint pictures on signs and use them to pound on the walls of churches or maybe mosques (oops, better not protest Muslims!) if you want to be politically relevant. But protest art is often bad art, unless it’s great art.

From: Darla Tagrin — Nov 21, 2008

John — I hear what you are saying. But should we forget about all the good things in life, minor though they may be, and only concentrate on the bad, almost hopeless things? I need to think about good things sometimes so that I will have the strength of emotion to do what I can about the big problems. If I couldn’t think about what makes life enjoyable, what’s the point in living at all?

From: Anonymous — Nov 21, 2008
From: Bill Hibberd — Nov 21, 2008

John, I’ve concluded that the best thing we can do, as humans and artists, is to live and act in a helpful, serving and challenging way. We live in an amazing time, full of opportunity and privilege. Maybe turn off the mind numbing news and serve someone. PS.I like the reservoir.

From: Diane McCarten — Nov 22, 2008

The train wreck can’t be ignored and yet I believe there wouldn’t have been such a wreck if all had been ‘looking at the insipid light coming through the leaves’ in the first place. Art has major transformative powers and it starts with each individual.


Evaluating work for divorce
by Anonymous

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

eye flickers



catching secret visions

allured by the subconscious heart









Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The subconscious eye



From: Brad Michael Moore — Nov 17, 2008

Ask any mother who tells her son about the stories of the lives of her friends now passed away as he is trying catch a programs on TV he really does not want to miss – Mom might not know the term, “microsaccades,” but she surely notices them – and that is a sad accounting because it is true. I wonder if what is most curious to an artist is in his head – maybe they microsaccade in a different way like delta to REM? It is curious.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Nov 18, 2008

That is so correct about water! See a tourism ad for Arizona, and half the photos are of lakes.

I don’t understand the popularity of television, but it’s the opposite of “The human eye has the reverse capability–it sees meaning and purpose in things that are still.” Now I’m confused!

(and does five plus seven equal twelve??)

From: Jennifer Horsley — Nov 18, 2008

Yes, it does. But the “simple math question” has had me questioning my elementary math skills from time to time ;-)

From: Trudy Wardrop — Nov 19, 2008

I was struck in particular by this article, partly because I had taken a class in Perception (SJSU, 2003/Psych 158 taught by Dr. Kevin Jordan) in which I had learned much about the physiological aspects of vision – microsaccades being just a tiny part of that class.

Your article just touches on one aspect of vision, and I hope you will continue along this vein: As you said, “The wandering eye, even in its tiniest movements, is a window to the subconscious.” Indeed it is. But true perception goes much further than what we physically see, what we allow to bounce off our brain in a microsecond. True perception, I have come to learn from many sources, is allowing ourselves to absorb (rather than bounce off) at a deeper level those key images to which you refer… ; to realize that the universe, or our higher power, or whatever, – is putting those things in our vision for a reason, and that it is up to us to be open to – and recognize – those esoterical moments and the underlying message they are trying to convey.

As you said, “The subconscious eye seeks out atavistic desires.” In other words, that ‘visual stimuli’ we flickered on may be more than just eye candy. It may be sending us a much deeper message. Why, for example, when I wear casual clothes to work every day, do I suddenly become entranced by the suit in my closet. It’s a flickering moment, but I pay attention and wear the suit. No reason I can justify. No special meetings; in fact most of the folks in my office are out of town at a conference. I could wear my grungiest and no one would be there to notice. But…then, midafternoon, the President of the company comes strolling through. He has never visited our area before. I am really glad I paid attention to that microsaccadial moment. Something more than just the physiological was happening.

From: Warren Criswell — Nov 19, 2008

So maybe it’s the microsaccades that get ambushed. It always seems to me that I’m “ambushed” by images, especially still lifes. I’ll be doing something unrelated to art, not thinking about art, like going to the kitchen or the bathroom, and be suddenly immobilized by some random clutter of ordinary objects, demanding to be painted. When I try to set up a still life, or even move things around in the ambush to make a “better” composition, I lose it. I’ve apparently violated something. This type of painting always seems existential to me, because I’m not seeing a narrative or meaning, only the things themselves. (People see narratives in them anyway, because that’s how we make sense of the world, but that’s another story, so to speak.)

But the eye glomming onto something is only the first step. What grabs me and challenges me are the surfaces of things. What makes metal look like metal? glass like glass? How do you paint the skin of an orange or a plastic bag? How do you translate that into paint on canvas? These are not things you learn and carry over to the next painting– at least not for me. If I try the same thing in the next painting it doesn’t work–the light has changed, the humidity is different, whatever. I have to figure it out all over again, which is the joy of creativity. But this painting of surfaces must really put the microsaccades into overdrive!

From: Vicki Ross — Nov 19, 2008

What a fun word! Microsaccades. just rolls off your tongue! Kinda like when you are in a group and you can pick up nuances of talk and sound and be aware of what is going on in the room around you, picking up body language, almost a ‘knowing’. This is why super realism is not so super! Nothing to imagine peering out from the brush…it is all finished for you.

From: Sherril Guthrie — Nov 19, 2008

Your article really seems to touch on the collective unconcious – Jungian, of course, but very powerful for those of who subscribe to Carl’s theories. I believe our collective unconcious is the “well” and ultimate source of our day dreams, fantasies and creative journeys . . . as a painter, you’ve simply chosen a medium that allows you to express that. For a writer it is the assembly of words, Robert, which I also notice that you’re very adept at. You really are a shining example of someone who has applied discipline and expertise to creative compulsions and produced some beautiful results. Good for you! I enjoy every bit of it.

From: Rossella — Nov 21, 2008

Or microsaccades could be the key we humans own to go to that inner intelligence in our brain we don’t use yet, because we can’t control. This could be the reason why we can’t explain intuition. Or that we even have it.

From: New Mexico — Nov 21, 2008

I think that the eye always goes to a figure in a painting. A lone figure (or animal) will always be the focal point and then the eye begins to look beyond and around that spot on the canvas.

Interesting subject. Sometimes hard to find a focal point in a landscape which is why “barns” show up in mine or one tree that stands out above the others in value or color. The artist needs to lead that “eye” into and around the painting. Otherwise, people will walk by after a glance. We need to capture our audience and pull them into our work.

From: Anonymous — Nov 21, 2008

I am sorry to diffuse such an interesting idea, but the premise that microsaccades are an indicator of attention or focus is not only unproven, it is unlikely. I refer you here to Harvard researchers Horowitz et al.





Forgotten Barn

acrylic on canvas, 11 x 22 inches
by Brian LaSaga


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?”




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