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First Impressions

First Impressions is a social tagging experiment that allows us to see what you see, or rather, where you see. Individuals were able to go through a selection of artwork and click on where their eye was drawn first. By doing this, we were able to document exactly what people looked at first.

Kyle Jaebker is the applications developer behind First Impressions. “Coming from a non-art background, it’s interesting to see if I’m looking at what everyone else is . . . and any art interaction is valuable.”

So what do people see? Well here is one of the presented images –

Lozowick, Louis (American, 1892-1973), "Winter Fun."

and here is where everyone clicked (the warmer the color, the more clicks received).

The viewer did bounce around a little but mostly kept to the figures in the foreground and the center of the painting. But are these people looking at the right things? Or are there even right things to look at?

Marty Krause, Curator of Print, Drawings and Photographs, weighs in on this idea, “There aren’t wrong answers. People’s eyes tend to go to the middle—that’s how eyes work.” The artist knows this and builds their composition around it. You’ll look at what the artist intended you to look at first; it’s part of their job as a visual expresser.”

What about a more complex image? This painting has its most eye-catching elements towards the center. The artist has an idea of where they want the eye to go – the fact that viewers are seeing the most important details first comments on the beauty and effectiveness of the composition.

Utagawa Hirōshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), "Nihonbashi in the Snow."

This print had more going on. John Teramoto, Curator of Asian Art, explained the above work. It shows off the three most important aspects of the Shogun capital in Edo, Japan—Mt. Fuji, Edo Castle and Japan Bridge. These are also three very important symbols for the country as a whole, however, they aren’t represented evenly in the composition—as we can tell by where the clicks fell.


The viewers shifted focus from the bridge to Mt. Fuji and back. Little attention was given to the Edo Castle (seen back, right). Why would viewers not notice the castle – one of the most important elements of the print? Well, because it’s in the back and to the right. It’s important for the work, but with this busy composition you just aren’t gonna see it at first.

Most of the participants were consistent with what the artist had in mind as to the important aspects of their compositions. Some participants appeared to be distracted by less intentied elements. However, to re-visit Marty Krause, “There aren’t wrong anwsers.” So even if what you are looking at is not what everyone else is, the responsibility lies with the artist, as a visual communicator, to create an effective composition, no matter where you’re looking. Through this experiment it seems that individuals are viewing art however they want to view art, which, is exactly correct.

Filed under: Around the Web, Art, Musings

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