The Astonishing Focus of the Namibias Nomads

Here is a great look at how the modernization of our environment may be shaping our visual perception.


“Different environments require different strategies, even at the level of eye movements. Context is everything … and so the power of perception is not only what we see, but how we look.” -Beau Lotto


Reading this article caused me to look up Navon figures on Wikipedia.

" David Navon’s research demonstrated that global features are perceived more quickly than local features.[2] Jules Davidoff also performed research, but in a remote culture, finding opposite results; the participants more readily identified the local features."

So Anthony, given that you’ve studied perception research a lot, does Navon’s thesis still hold for viewers from modern environments?

If so, for art, does that indicate that the “big picture”/broad view of a work is much more important to the visual illusion/impact of a work than the details?

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What a great questions John----whereas both sets of results may seem to conflict, I believe they are both a matter of what was addressed by Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus in his 1967 book, Eye Movements and Vision.

He states "…In conclusion, I must stress once again that the distribution of the points of fixation on an object, the order in which the observer’s attention moves from one point of fixation to another, the duration of fixations, the distinctive cyclic pattern of examination, and so on are determined by the nature of the object and the problem facing the observer at the moment of perception.” -Yarbus, A. (1967). Eye movements and vision (B. Haigh & L. A. Riggs, Trans.). New York: Plenum Press

So min some cases it will be the “big picture” that captures our attention first while others may give up that initial attention a component part. As Yarbus states, it depends the nature of the object and the problem facing the observer at the moment of perception.

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For example, if we were having a discussion about how fast we can identify colors (without the automatic character recognition inherent to many Navon figures)…

Anthony, I agree with what you’re saying regarding Yarbus and how perception functions in the real world (i.e. which aspects of our visual input is important to the goal at hand) or given specific tasks (identify a specific color or object).

I am just wondering how we can use the conclusions from research to our benefit as artists. I can’t think of a context in art where the minutia/details would be more important to the initial perception of a piece than the big effect of the picture. It seems that when looking at art, people first see the big effect, and then move closer for more information/resolution. The big effect is what cues recognition of what the scene is from across the room, and the big effect is what gives visual interest enough for the viewer to care to move closer (given that in most viewing spaces for art, the viewer starts far away from the work).

That has inclined me to create a hierarchy of importance in visual interest for image making: (1) big picture effect, (2) medium range effect, and (3) close effect/details.

It seems that if the painting lacks an interesting big picture effect, the viewer will never bother to come closer to see the rest.


Absolutely John—How can artists use this information?

First, we can use such research to understand that there are indeed no “geometric armatures” (sacred or otherwise) that will govern where and how we look at a complex stimulus (image). As Yarbus stated, we interact with such stimuli in such a way as to address the problem facing the observer at the moment of perception.

  1. While we cannot control many of the variables inherent to the observer as they approach a particular piece of artwork, we can indeed better navigate “picture building” by considering context, potential bias and perceptual set, as well as any priming agents that we can make use of.

  2. While a hierarchy heuristic may seem intuitively helpful, we must remember that a simple demonstration (like a Navon figure built of auto-recognition characters) may not reflect some unwavering global rules for perceptually navigating a “picture.” Consider the first oil painting that I ever did: (click on the image to see the full piece.)

Now consider that this painting is titled “The Second Shot”.

Most people that are aware of the title begin to examine the bullet holes in an effort to investigate which “shot” may have been the second. Others investigate the shot glass. Some even investigate the bullets on the table and their arrangement—

However what most realize later on (or not at all) is that the entire composition is actually based on the number two. Now I suspect that you, and the vast majority of people looking at this painting would consider the large numerical character to be a big picture effect. But did it grab attention at all in the same way that the small character-driven Navon figures seemed to operate? Understand that the large compositional number here is even less noticeable when standing before the painting as opposed to a tiny image in this post. The fact of the matter is that it does necessarily seem important to the initial information gathering process. Rather, you explore the image like you would the percept that this surrogate aims to represent—and we don’t often notice things arranged in the form of large characters—so whether it is a big-pic effect or not—it fails to elicit the same result at the Navon figure.

Now I don’t mean to imply that a large to small scope heuristic for image considerations cannot be successful—it most certainly can be. What I am stating though is that it would nevertheless be a heuristic. A rule-of-thumb that will work in some to many cases—just not all.


Dude… first oil painting! Wassup! Nice job!

What kind of media had you used before this? Acrylics? Surely this wasn’t among your first experiences using a brush, was it?

Secondly (mind the pun), yes, “The Second Shot” serves as a good example where the big picture content/message is not initially as apparent as the medium and small content/message, even though you’re saying that the large 2-shape the objects made was the title concept.

Still, the painting has an interesting arrangement of shapes on the canvas that draws in the viewer, even if they don’t recognize the large picture message/content. If the objects had just been all piled at the bottom right corner, aside from the loss of the big picture message, I don’t think the painting would have been as successful because the big picture effect or visual interest/impact at a distance would have been greatly diminished.

After seeing your response, perhaps my question should have been: Is it reasonable to set up a hueristic based upon the visual impact (or visual interest) that a work makes at different distance scales, setting a hierarchy of importance from far to near?

On one level, the hueristic seems reasonable given that the viewing distance for most paintings starts from afar (unless the work is hung in a bathroom or hall). It seems that visual impact at the far distance is your chance at making the viewer care enough to come and look more closely. You might not get a Second Shot (I should’ve stopped the puns while I was ahead).

I guess I really came up with this idea when I started seeing which of my paintings “worked” (i.e. that I liked and which got the best feedback) and which didn’t. The ones that looked boring from afar tended to be my least favorite and recieved the least positive feedback, even if they held good visual interest from medium or close distance scales.

Perhaps this isn’t true for art in general though.