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.

Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker Omaha, Nebraska August 10, 1979 by Richard Avedon (1923-2004)

Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker, Omaha, Nebraska
August 10, 1979
Gelatin silver print
by Richard Avedon (1923-2004)

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:



The Lawyer Florynce Kennedy, in 1969 by Richard Avedon

The Lawyer Florynce Kennedy, in 1969
by Richard Avedon

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.

Beekeeper, 1981 by Richard Avedon

Beekeeper, 1981
by Richard Avedon

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.

This letter was originally published as “The subconscious eye” on November 18, 2008.

avedonThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“If I could do what I want with my eyes alone, I would be happy.” (Richard Avedon)



  1. I wonder if these microsaccades interpret color variations between people. As a colorist I’ve always been curious how a color blind person might see my paintings. Since my son-in-law is colorblind, I’ve asked him if he can define different colors in my work and he just shrugs and answers that he would guess they look muted and kind of grayish green. Perhaps we all see color slightly differently from one another and how would we really know?

    • I agree, Julie, have thought the same about different colours. And, how can we know, when it is subjective, there is no absolute, only relative shades?

  2. This is the first time I’ve posted here after many years of enjoying your site. I found the information about the micro saccades very interesting. I’m a photographer who, for many years, looked at and photographed the world in large part, the way most people see it.

    Only in the past three years have I radically changed the way I look at the world and how I make photographs. I now make abstract, black and white photographs using a camera and film, as I always have. Most of these pictures begin with material I see on walls or pavement while walking through various cities. Your site today, struck me that while the micro saccades are an innate part of human make-up, it might be possible to train one’s self, to achieve a higher or more selective use of this ability.

    In fact, much as a musician (which I also am) trains to distinguish sound and intonation on a very high level and very quickly to distinguish slight variations in pitch, a similar visual acuity is theoretically possible. I’d be happy to hear from anyone else here, thoughts supporting or otherwise, about what I’ve said.

    For anyone interested in seeing my work , check my website at:

  3. Steve Clement on

    Hi Sara, this was a fascinating column, and I thank you for it. But my real reason for writing was just to say how much I miss the presence of your father on this planet. I never met him in person, but having read his thoughts on art and life for so many years and having enjoyed so many of the images of his artwork and Youtube videos, it felt as if I had known him personally. I am grateful we live in a time when the memories and works of people who went before us can be both disseminated widely and preserved for us to enjoy today and in the future. All of us who read this column are blessed both by your father and by you. So thank you, dear lady.

  4. Beautifully expressed Steve. I think you have captured the sentiment that all of us have. I unfortunately never had the opportunity to meet Robert in person either but through his writings, I feel that he has become a very good friend full of wisdom and advice that he wanted to share with us. Sara, you also have his gift and I thank you for carrying on both your father’s letters and your own.

    • I also agree wholeheartedly, with the proviso that I first discovered Robert’s art in the 1970s, was totally entranced by his unique use of colour and had the privilege of meeting him here in British Columbia twice – the second time in Penticton with Sara and Airedale, shortly before his death. May the letters and the love that inspires them continue!

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Discover the majestic island of Santorini with George Politis AWS, SDWS, RI. Small and large format, painting in watercolour and other watermedia like watercolour pencils, acrylic inks and collage, learning techniques and how to see and find a subject (often far from the obvious). Boost the creativity by new inspirational ideas, winning techniques for an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Pure watercolour to mixed watermedia, realistic to abstract painting. All inclusive (course, hotel, all 3 meals per day, transportation in Santorini during the workshop).  Up to 12 artists, all levels accepted. late afternoon sun on the tip of Savary Island's Indian Point highlights the design elements of the logs and the summer surroundings of the island.

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