How do we actually look at pictures, and how does that affect what we see in them? I started thinking about this again when I read about the Kuuk Thaayorre, an Aboriginal society in northern Australia. Lera Boroditsky (mentioned previously on A&P) reports on The Edge that their language and culture describe space and spatial relationships not in body-relative terms, but in absolute, land-fixed terms (I wonder if this is true for many Aboriginal langiages). When given a sequence of picture cards (showing a banana being eaten, or other obvious process) to arrange in time order,

Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.

It struck me this might be relevant to speculations about the narrative tendencies of a panoramic format, where the question arose of whether one reads left-to-right or vice-versa, which would affect the direction of any implicit narrative. The answer seems to depend on the way you read a book in your language. But I hadn’t thought it would depend on which wall of a gallery the picture was hung, as it would for the Kuuk Thaayorre.

That led me to search for eye-tracking studies of picture viewing. I didn’t get too far, but I did come across an article on the difference between artists and non-artists. Which yellow tracks below represents the path of an artist’s gaze? [Warning: answer in the next paragraph]

I think most artists will guess it’s not the one on the left. It seems reasonable to me that the artist is interested in detail and technique everywhere, and in the relations of all parts to whole. The explanation in the article is roughly the same thing said inversely: non-artists are more focused on salient features like people and faces. But the more interesting ideas are in the comments, such as

This seems similar to studies of eye-movement in the sightreading of music. Those who are particularly good at sightreading are constantly looking over the entire page, whereas novices look mostly at the exact spot they are playing.


By the looks of it the non-artist is seeing the scene as if it was real, sizing up the doorway and figure on the first, checking the distance from the horizon on the second.

Whereas the artist appears to be looking at the flat image only as a two dimensional space.

Aside: while deep into the results of a Google search on eye-tracking, I encountered a story not of viewing, but of creating a picture using that technology. The Hawaiian artist Peggy Chun, progressively incapacitated by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), used various methods to continue painting, eventually making use of eye-tracking and finally of a direct brain interface to make pictures.

So I’ve learned just a little about how we look at pictures. But as to how that affects our experience of them, I’m not much the wiser. I can imagine that one’s sensitivity to narrative elements might depend on whether one’s default ordering matched the composition of the picture. Perhaps viewers from different cultures might extract differing stories from the same work for this reason.