Researcher decodes Rembrandt's 'magic'

May 28, 2010

A University of British Columbia researcher has uncovered what makes Rembrandt's masterful portraits so appealing.

In the study, published in the current issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's arts and sciences journal Leonardo, UBC researcher Steve DiPaola argues that Rembrandt may have pioneered a technique that guides the viewer's gaze around a portrait, creating a special narrative and "calmer" viewing experience.

Renaissance artists used various techniques to engage viewers, many incorporating new on lighting, spatial layout and perspectives. To isolate and pinpoint factors that contribute to the "magic" of Rembrandt's portraits, DiPaola used computer-rendering programs to recreate four of the artist's most famous portraits from photographs of himself and other models. Replicating Rembrandt's techniques, he placed a sharper focus on specific areas of the model's face, such as the eyes.

Working with a team from the Vision Lab in UBC's Dept. of Psychology, DiPaola then tracked the viewers' eye movements while they examined the original photographs and the Rembrandt-like portraits.

"When viewing the Rembrandt-like portraits, viewers fixated on the detailed eye faster and stayed there for longer periods of time, resulting in calmer ," says DiPaola, who is also an associate professor at Simon Fraser University and adjunct faculty at UBC's Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre. "The transition from sharp to blurry edges, known as 'lost and found edges,' also directed the viewers eyes around the in a sort of narrative."

The study is the first to scientifically verify the impact of these "eye guiding" techniques on viewers and to attribute its origin to Rembrandt.

The viewers also preferred portraits with this "eye guiding narrative" to the original photographs with uniform details across the tableau.

"Through these techniques, Rembrandt is essentially playing tour guide to his viewers hundreds of years after his death, creating a unique narrative by guiding the viewers' eye," says DiPaola. "This may explain why people appreciate portraiture as an art form.

"Whether he observed how his own eyes behaved while viewing a painting or if he did it by intuition, Rembrandt incorporated an understanding of how the human eye works that has since been proven accurate," says DiPaola.

Explore further: When it comes to how pizza looks, cheese matters

More information: ivizlab.sfu.ca/research/rembrandt/

Related Stories

Japanese group gives health tips to 3D viewers

Apr 23, 2010

A group of Japanese businesses has released a handbook advising viewers on health and safety when watching three-dimensional televisions to counter symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and eye fatigue.

Is everything really better in 3-D?

Apr 29, 2010

From its heyday in the 1950s to its current resurgence, 3-D technology has gone from a cinematic gimmick to a box-office gold mine. James Cameron’s Avatar, heralded for its creation of a three-dimensional ...

Recommended for you

When it comes to how pizza looks, cheese matters

15 hours ago

Most consumers have an idea what they want their pizza slice to look like. Golden cheese with that dark toasted-cheese color scattered in distinct blistery patches across the surface with a bit of oil glistening in the valleys. ...

Freedom and responsibility of science

21 hours ago

Yesterday, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Leopoldina National Academy of Sciences presented their recommendations for "The Freedom and Responsibility of Science" in Berlin. Both research organizations appeal ...

What I learned from debating science with trolls

Aug 20, 2014

I often like to discuss science online and I'm also rather partial to topics that promote lively discussion, such as climate change, crime statistics and (perhaps surprisingly) the big bang. This inevitably ...

Activists urge EU to scrap science advisor job

Aug 19, 2014

Nine major charities urged the European Commission on Tuesday to scrap a science advisor position it says puts too much power over sensitive policy into the hands of one person.

User comments : 0