Van Gogh Museum eye-tracking project

September 30 2016

Video: Francesco Walker/You Tube

Researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam have teamed up with the Van Gogh Museum to use a mobile eye-tracker to see how people look at paintings. They did this because:

Many of us appreciate art, but no-one really knows how or why we do so. Researchers in the field of empirical aesthetics attempt to answer such questions. The way people look at paintings is often studied by letting participants look at images on a computer screen in a laboratory setting, during which their gaze is tracked using a stationary, bulky, eye tracker. Obviously this is not a ‘natural setting’ in which people normally view paintings or appreciate art, so the question remains how well viewing behaviour in such laboratory settings approaches that of real life.

Part of the research's purpose was to see how children and adults look at pictures differently. I'm not sure, however, that following our eyes can really tell us that much about 'how we appreciate art'. This may sound daft, but there's much more to appreciating art than which part of the canvas your eye actually looks at, and in which order. While our eye is looking at a picture, our minds are processing any number of other thoughts, such as an appreciation of beauty, an examination of technical achievement, and of course (and perhaps more powerfully) our emotional interactions. To further complicate matters, all of the above may in turn may be driven by our own beliefs, faith and a lifetime of unique experience. 

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