eye tracking path Starry Night painting

In the largest study conducted involving eye tracking in art, we learn just how “The Starry Night” pulls us in.

Author of “First Blush: People’s Intuitive Reactions to Famous Art

In 1908, the same year that Gustav Klimt created “The Kiss,” eye tracking was born. Back then, the tool was cumbersome as hell—requiring enough invasive bells and whistles to make test subjects look like they were going deep-sea diving. Fortunately, the tool has gotten a lot easier to use since then. Plop a person down in a seat in front of an eye-tracking machine, and you can precisely capture—on a split-second basis—where exactly a person is looking. The set-up takes usually no more than half a minute. During the set-up calibration period, participants are asked to follow the bouncing red ball on screen so that the machine can quickly learn where precisely to find their eyes. Then the test can begin.

In van Gogh’s case, “The Starry Night” is more or less the view that the artist had from his asylum window in Saint-Rey-de-Provence after cutting off his ear. I say “more or less,” but it’s actually more. That’s because van Gogh added an idealized village.

Participants naturally took a variety of paths in looking this painting over. But on average, where did they tend to go with their eyes? First up was the biggest swirling vortex in the sky. Next up was the slumbering village. That stop along the gaze path was followed, in turn, by participants looking at the moon. Finally, they took in the large cypress tree in the foreground that parallels the church’s steeple.

Related Article:

Mona Lisa and The Birth of Adam: The Power of Faces in Art

Dan Hill, Ph.D., is the author of “First Blush: People’s Intuitive Reactions to Famous Art,” the largest study conducted involving eye tracking and facial coding to capture see/feel responses to art.

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