Issue three | How do we look at art?

M and KU Leuven research

How do we look at art?

Issue three of M
More to read!

How exactly do we look at a painting? Which parts do we focus on and which parts are less interesting? Is this different for men and women? And is there a difference between laymen and experts?

It is precisely to answer these kinds of questions that M and the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology at KU Leuven joined forces. In 2017, their joint research programme was launched, led by Professor Johan Wagemans. The results are now in.

Women look more at faces and body parts, men are more interested in postures and actions


Seeing seems like something very simple. We do it constantly, without giving it a second thought. But in reality, it is quite a complex process. 


Our eyes are like cameras, but the images they transmit to our brains are much rougher than you might think. At the edges, for example, there is always a big blurry part. Moreover, our eyes are constantly jumping back and forth. They stop for a maximum of four times per second: at those moments, our brain analyses the blurred area to determine which part will be in focus during the next jump. In this way, we are constantly scanning our entire field of vision. Our brain stitches all this information together neatly into an image that is razor sharp everywhere. It also ensures that we do not notice the constant jumping of our eyes. The coherent, sharp image we ‘see’ is thus created in our brain, based on a lot of unconscious calculation.


The jumps our eyes make and the places where they stand still can be measured with recording devices. And that is exactly what happened in M, with the help of two eye-tracking stations. 


Visitors who wanted to participate in the study first had to answer a few questions about themselves and their background via a screen. They then looked at two paintings for thirty seconds: a 16th-century Maria Lactans by an unknown master and Karl Meunier’s ‘The string players’ from 1884. Meanwhile, cameras recorded their eye movements.  All measurements were sent to the Laboratory for Experimental Psychology, where they were analysed. The visitors themselves could compare their own viewing pattern with that of an expert, an eight-year-old child and with the hundred previous visitors. 


The research ran for two years, but not all tests were usable. Technically, it was a very complex experiment, and sometimes things went wrong. But in total, the scientists were able to analyse more than 2,000 results to answer their research question: does a layman look differently to an expert?    


It is not the first time that the eye movements of people looking at works of art have been recorded, but this is usually done in a lab, with a small number of participants. The experiment in M was unique because it ran for such a long time and so much data could be collected. Moreover, it took place in a museum, so all the participants were museum visitors anyway. 


The general results confirmed what previous research had shown. For instance, women look more at faces and body parts, while men are more interested in postures and actions. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, on average, women are more empathetic and have a greater interest in emotions and social interaction.


But what about the scientists’ research question: does a layman look differently to an expert? It turns out that there is a difference. The expert looks more at the whole, the layman focuses more on certain zones of the painting. Even more remarkable are the factors that make you an expert. The fact that you have studied art does not seem to matter. What does count: reading a lot about art, and visiting many museums.


The research was conducted by Sarah Delcourt, in the framework of her thesis ‘Eye movements as a key to understanding individual differences in art viewing and appreciation’, KU Leuven

On these images you can see the combined fixations of everyone who participated in the research. The red parts were viewed the most, the blue parts the least. Yellow and green are in between. In the case of the Maria Lactans, something stands out: the most fixed parts form the middle and the corners of a triangle. Apparently the painter knew in advance which parts would attract attention, and used that knowledge to create a balanced composition.

The blue frames indicate the zones on which the museum visitors focused. Women looked at the pink areas more and longer than men – at faces and body parts. This is possibly because women are more interested in emotions and interactions between people. Men, on the other hand, looked more and longer than women at the blue areas.

More to read!

Solotentoonstelling in M

Vincent Geyskens

Nummer drie


Ontmoet de collectie:

'Druk! Werk!'