Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone (Abrams, 2002)

I've read a fantastic book on the science of art. I'm so impressed that I even submitted my customer review to Amazon.co.uk. Before Amazon publishes it, let me publish it myself below.

The content of the book is fantastic. In a way, the book is about the history of European paintings from the neurobiology viewpoint. Although I wasn't a big fan of paintings, this book has made me start appreciating the works by Leonard da Vinci, Michelangelo, Impressionist painters (especially Claude Monet), and Pointillism painters. It also taught me the tricks behind the departure from representationalism by Fauves and Picasso. In addition, the book is useful to understand several principles of design. Design textbooks often mention that contrast and repetition are eye-pleasing, without explaining why. Color theory textbooks claim that complementary colors (red and cyan, yellow and blue, green and purple) enhance each other when placed side by side, without explaining why. This book provides the neurobiological reasons behind these design principles. Finally, the book also taught me scientific reasons why line drawings can represent what we actually see, which gave me confidence that I could be good at drawing from training.

What's unfortunate about this fantastic book is, however, the exposition. The structure of the book is quite confusing. The author's writing style is also sometimes confusing. I have to read three times to really understand what's written. I've figured out that the book has three big themes, repeated throughout the book. First, our vision is sharp only at the center of gaze while its resolution is quite coarse for the surroundings. This first theme explains why Mona Liza's smile is elusive. Second, the brain processes visual information in two parallel chains, one for only using luminance to recognize depth and motion (what is called the Where system in this book) and the other for using hues in addition to luminance to recognize shapes and colors (called the What system). The second theme explains why water looks flowing and simmering in Monet's paintings. Third, our visual system is responsive to sudden changes in luminance and hues while it is irresponsive to gradual changes. This last theme explains why we perceive the sunlight, incandescent light, and fluorescent light as all white while the iPhone camera does not. The neurobiological reasons for each of these themes are scattered around in the first six chapters. The description of how these three facts were recognized and exploited by painters throughout the history is also scattered around across Chapters 5, 6, 8, and 10. In Chapter 11, all these three themes turn out to be relevant for the sensation of Pointillism and Chuck Close, although the author does not explicitly says so. (Chapters 7 and 9 deal with additional materials, that is, perspective and stereopsis, the latter of which seems to explain why repetitive patterns are eye-pleasing.)

It's a bit like American sitcoms: three different stories are going on in parallel, and the scene busily alternates across the three to keep the viewer interested. Here in this book, it can cause an opposite effect: the reader may stop reading because he or she gets confused.

Having said that, reading this book three times taught me a lot. It has even enriched my life. Due to the poor exposition, I cannot give five stars. But I still recommend this book highly to everyone. It would be a great gift to your partner if you're into art but he or she is more of a scientific type. Once your partner has read this book, then you two can visit museums and galleries to appreciate art together.

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