Is He Following You With His Eyes?

We have been enjoying the book, The Artist's Eyes: Vision and the History of Art, by ophthalmologists Michael Marmor and James G. Ravine. One of our favorites among the many fascinating subjects they cover, is the eerie phenomenon or illusion in some portraits that the subject's eyes follow you no matter where you stand in the room. The eyes in the image below are from a portrait painting of John's, The Street Musician, Venice. Visitors to the studio often remark that the figure seems to follow them around the room.

The Street Musician, Venice by John Hulsey, detail of oil painting, 40 x 30.
The Street Musician, Venice by John Hulsey,
detail of oil painting, 40 x 30.

There was no plan or intention to create this effect. It just comes with painting any figure with a fixed gaze looking at the viewer. Because the portrait is a flat two-dimensional representation, it cannot change in perspective as we move around it. The directional cues are fixed and so it must always gaze at us. This phenomenon has often been referred to as "lifelike," but of course, it is anything but that. A portrait painting of a person looking slightly off-center will never look at us, no matter where we move. A live model staring straight ahead or even a three-dimensional portrait, as in a sculpture, do not appear to follow us with their eyes, because as we move around, our point of view changes and so do all the visual cues. We see less of the iris and more of the white as we move sideways. This gives us the sense that the object before us has three-dimensional form and occupies that space. A flat painting can never be as lifelike as a three-dimensional object.

W. H. Wollaston On the Apparent Direction of Eyes in a Portrait.
W. H. Wollaston on the Apparent Direction of Eyes in a Portrait.

This eye-following effect is nothing new and was noticed early on by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In 1824, William Hyde Wollaston published a series of plates where he illustrated this phenomenon as part of a larger treatise on the complexity of facial perception and linear perspective. Wollaston went much further than the fixed gaze effect to show that the same set of eyes, set in faces with different directional cues, would magically appear to change the direction of the gaze!

The picture above is from Wollaston's work and illustrates how those cues–nose direction, forehead/hair relationship, change our perception of where the gaze is looking. Wollaston demonstrated that our judgement of where a subject's eyes are looking is linked to the direction that we believe them to be looking. Thus we are employing our psychological expectations along with the visual cues to interpret the subject. This is a fun exercise to try at home. Paint a pair of realistic eyes–your own, perhaps, on a canvas, hang it on the wall, and wait for the comments from your friends and family.  Then add a bit of nose facing left or right and see what happens. Who says art shouldn't also be fun?

Please join us on The Artist's Road for more informative and interesting articles.

–John and Ann

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About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.