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January 22, 2021
By PW Staff
An indie author studies intuitive responses to art.

In his independently published First Blush: People’s Intuitive Reactions to Famous Art, Dan Hill uses facial coding and eye tracking to observe how viewers look at artworks. Hill is the founder of Sensory Logic, a company that measures emotional responses to outside stimuli for market research purposes. BookLife spoke to Hill about what he has learned about human perception and emotion.

How did your interest in art develop?

When I turned six years old, our family moved to Italy for two years because my father had a posting there for the company 3M. It’s fair to say my interest in art started during those two years. For one thing, my mother ensured we went around to visit many of the great art museums. For another, I didn’t know Italian at first and often had to read my environment visually more so than verbally—and it was a very interesting new environment to take in. Finally, on the way back to America, we stopped in Holland, where I first fell in love with Rembrandt. I minored in art history in college, and, in my work as a market researcher, I continued to apply my interest in visuals to analyzing advertising for over 50% of the world’s top 100 companies marketing to consumers.

How did you conceive of First Blush?

I always wanted to use the two tools I specialized in for business—eye tracking to capture where exactly people look, and facial coding to read expressions and learn how people feel about what they’re seeing—applied to art rather than just helping sell, say, more baked beans. The specific inspiration was an article that mentioned people spending on average about 20 seconds per artwork in viewing them in a museum. That struck me as too long an estimate. So, on my next business trip to New York City, I spent the equivalent of about a day sitting in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Frick, and the Guggenheim observing visitors. My finding: on average, about four seconds to view an artwork, five seconds to read the title plate, and another one-second glance at an artwork before moving on. From that confirmation of my instincts, I became eager to go further and capture the “inside scoop” on how people really experience art.

How did you find participants and choose the works? How did you conduct research?

Eye tracking has been used in studying art, but, as best I could find, nobody went in-depth. My study is easily the largest ever of this kind, with 88 artworks and 96 demographically varied participants ranging from age eight to 80. Each person got 15 seconds to view an artwork, and halfway through that period I would say aloud the last name of the artist and the work’s title to simulate people reading the title plate in an art museum.

Choosing the artworks to include took a lot of investigation online and via art books. I started with the obviously most famous works. Then I wanted to have a strong dose of more contemporary works. Ensuring gender and racial diversity was important. So was my getting in some works from Africa and certainly Asia, for instance. I varied the mediums, integrating photography, sculpture, and ready-made pieces. Finally, I added in artists that would introduce a few interesting variables: figures who made the most money, were the most popular, and/or were the most critically acclaimed. Trying to spread the choices around by era was yet another factor. All in all, a very tricky proposition that left out some personal favorites, like Matisse.

What surprised you most?

I can’t say I was surprised that 80% of people’s visual attention and emotional responses centered on faces when they were a part of the composition. However, there were other strong findings, too. How does one’s gaze move through an artwork? The best bet is the lower middle as the starting point, with the four corners being a little like Outer Mongolia. The study confirmed that the vast majority of participants’ viewing and emotional involvement happened within the first four seconds. Other findings: vertically oriented compositions performed best; red was the most emotionally engaging color, and blue the most appealing, or most associated with positive emotions. Titles that were poetic or meaningful did well; those that were obscure or untitled were panned emotionally by my participants. In terms of titles, the single best performer was Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. The title provided them with greater insight into the visual content. Now, the participants could see the Manhattan grid of streets, the yellow as taxi cabs, and the overall brightness as the lights of Broadway. Suddenly, participants really connected with an abstract piece.

Do you feel that the ability to intuitively see visual art is “learned out” of us as we age?

It might be. It’s striking that more time is spent in a museum on the title plate than the artwork itself. Yes, we’re seeking context, and I support that as an analyst! But, as an art lover, it’s a bit of a disappointment to think that maybe people are looking for more understanding or confirmation that such and such artwork is “important” as opposed to being absorbed by what one sees and responding accordingly.

What were the key takeaways? What do you hope readers gain?

My book is very, very visually oriented. It’s in four-color [printing], and the eye tracking results are shown in color based on what’s known in the trade as colorized “heat maps.” Reds and orange mean more gaze activity, green less, and no color could account for the parts of an artwork that the participants barely observed. So the key takeaway concerns what kind of content and composition elements draw people in. I think this “inside scoop” can be useful to practicing artists, to teachers, to museum curators laying out the next exhibit, and to the general art lover.

Is a purely emotional response to art as valid as a more critical response?

Certainly. The scientific estimate is that about 95% of our mental activity isn’t fully conscious. A lot of that activity goes to monitoring intuitively how our body is doing. But lots more goes to subconscious than conscious processing of the world around us and our experiences of it, including art. I’m as vulnerable as the next person to taking in the title plate and confirming this is such-and-such important artist to pay attention to in an art museum. But, at the same time, I often enter the next room and try to start by asking myself: what piece in this room grabs my eye and heart most?