I have often heard art teachers tell students to step away from their drawings/paintings often so that they may better see what they are doing. To some—this may seem a bit odd. How can distancing yourself from an object allow you to see it “better”? Well, here is one reason why:
First, it is important to understand that our vision is dependent on contextual relationships. That which surrounds the stimuli that we are focusing on, directly influences our perception of it.
Second, you should understand that our foveal vision (center of vision/region of retina with the highest acuity) sees only the central two degrees of the visual field. This is approximately the area of your thumbnails at arm’s length (two thumbnails is roughly the size of the macula). As “information” on the retina moves away from the fovea, toward the periphery, there is a reduction in acuity (or an increase in spatial imprecision). So if an object is large, (covering a large angle), the eyes must constantly shift their gaze (saccade and fixate) to bring different aspects of the object into the fovea.
To better understand the size of the region of visual acuity in our visual field consider our perceptual span when reading:
The lower line of text simulates the acuity of vision with the relative acuity percentages. The difficulty of recognizing text increases with the distance from the fixation point.
Therefore, working at only intimate proximities to your painting or drawing may diminish your ability to discern important relationships simultaneously with good acuity. You must step back from the work, increasing your distance from the artwork, so that the object covers less of the visual angle and the contextual relationships become clearer and less spatially imprecise.
So the next time someone asks:
“Why should we often step back from our work?”
It is quite appropriate to respond with:
“So we can better see what we are doing.”