Why My Eyes Are Annoying But Also Awesome

I have an astigmatism, a fairly common eye condition that has some interesting effects on how i see the world and how a create images.

The scientific explanation is this:

“Astigmatism is an imperfection in the curvature of your cornea — the clear, round dome covering the eye’s iris and pupil — or in the shape of the eye’s lens. Normally, the cornea and lens are smooth and curved equally in all directions, helping to focus light rays sharply onto the retina at the back of your eye. However, if your cornea or lens isn’t smooth and evenly curved, light rays aren’t refracted properly. This is called a refractive error.” American Academy of Ophthalmology

“In astigmatism, images focus in fromt of and beyond the retina, causing both close and distant objects to appear blurry.”

 In a normal eye, the cornea and lens focus light rays on the retina.”

I have a Corneal astigmatism:

If the cornea does not curve perfectly – if one half is flatter or steeper than the other – the light that hits it will not refract properly and the retina at the back of the eye will receive an imperfect image. The person will have blurred vision from that eye – astigmatism. People with astigmatism commonly have an oblong-shaped (oval-shaped) cornea rather than a perfect sphere shape. A ping-pong ball is a perfect sphere, while an American football or a rugby ball has an oblong shape. If the cornea’s curve is like an oblong the light rays will focus on two points in the retina, rather than just one.”

(Medical News Today, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/158810.php)

Astigmatism is often accompanied by short/far sightedness luckily for me i only have a small amount of shortsightedness in my left eye which also happens to be the eye that has the the rugby ball curved cornea, my eyes do however tire pretty easily. My condition doesn’t so much make my vision blurry, more distorted particularly when i am tired. The image from my right eye is clear, the image from my left eye is a bit distorted almost like looking through very still water, its as if my eye has focused on a space in the air in front of an object as opposed to the object itself. The images from both my eyes are combined in my visual system to form one image, this combination can make judging distances challenging, like playing pool or driving, and if i look at the same distance for prolonged periods ill get a headache from having to consciously focus my eyes; if i continue and my eyes become strained and i will have difficulty focusing at all and will often walk around with everything out of focus limiting myself to focus on select points according to relevance.  This is not ideal but im used to it, on the plus side these visual quirks have also produced some interesting effects on what and how i see. Knowledge and study of vision, through doing a BFA at Elam and a BA in psychology, has helped me understand these quirks and explore them further.
There are certain instances when my eyes are very tired (from looking at the same distance for long periods ie. painting or looking at a computer screen) where my eyes where not prepared for the onslaught of spatial differences in my field of vision. One marked example occurred one afternoon a few years ago when i was coming home after painting at Elam for about seven hours; was walking through a park with various trees and objects spaced at various distances before me. My vision was swimming and space completely flattened out before me, i still understood that i was looking at a 3D scene but it was as if my eyes, after looking at flat images all day and concentrating on manufacturing 3D illusions on 2D surfaces, had defaulted to the interpretation systems used for flat images instead of  the interpretation systems for a 3D scenes. I was consciously aware of certain visual cues, in particular occlusion and perspective, that told me where objects were located in space but at the same time the scene before me appeared very flat. If you havent had this experience yourself I liken the sensation to looking at a hologram.
A photograph captures the point of view (POV) of a camera, upon seeing the print the cameras POV becomes the observers POV. Building a sense of scale and orienting objects in the space using that scale and if included the horizon line in addition to visual cues available in 2D images (perspective, shading, occlusion, haze (aerial perspective). In this way we are able to interpret three dimensionality from the flat image. I liken what i was experiencing to viewing a photographic print, as if my point of view was that of the camera but rather than looking through the lens i was looking at the resulting photographs. The experience is fairly disorientating and certainly headache inducing but very interesting for someone that is invested in understanding images and vision. Possibly its my stigmatism that allows this state to occur, it happens naturally in the right conditions, i think it could be because the balance between the two images from my right and let eyes is pushed slightly out of kilter when my eyes become tired. So to compensate my visual systems rely more heavily on visual cues used for flat images (not so much stereopsis/relative motion) resulting in my  apperception of a visual scene being distorted. I spend a lot of time looking at images in the form of paintings and photographs, and also using the computer and watching tv, i wonder if this prolonged concentrated exposure to images has influenced how my visual system functions? Im sure other people will have had similar experiences.
I have tried to train myself to be able to control this perceptual shift a process that has reminded me of when i played soccer and i had to learn to look ahead but still see the ball at my feet using my peripheral vision. I have practiced shifting my perceptions back and forth between a 2D/3D. Previous to this year of study i have done this while creating paintings on canvas, seeing the image i was creating as completely flat then shifting to make the image occupy a three dimensional space within the canvas. This past year i have developed a process of making that has allowed me to experiment with the opposite, taking three dimensional objects in space and shifting my perception see the composition as a flat image.

Brief notes on: The Realism Continuum, Representation and Perception and some thoughts

The Realism Continuum, Representation and Perception
Stuart Medley, Edith Cowan University, WA, Australia
Hanadi Haddad, Edith Cowan University, WA, Australia

Abstract: “The realism continuum is a visual model that presents any image as a series of pictures, iteratively reduced in representation from its referrent. A continuum has been used before to gauge the effectiveness of educational instruction (Wileman 1993; Dwyer 1972; Knowlton 1966; Gropper 1963) or to explain the communicative potential of different comics stylings (McCloud 1993). Reference is made in new design theory to less detailed images being easier to scan for pertinent information and generally reducing demand on working memory (Malamed, 2009). None of these theorists explains how it is we can see the less-real-than-real in the first instance, even though we’ve evolved looking only at the real. This paper presentation shows why, psychologically we can see and understand distilled and abstracted pictures and also why our visual systems (the eyes and brain) actually prefer these to photorealistic pictures. The presentation focuses on two majortasks of the visualsystem and how these tasks are facilitated by pictures chosen from deliberate points along the realism continuum. Images of greater realism help to solve the homogeneity problem: distinguishing objects in the same class. That is, telling the difference between Tom, Dick & Harry. Images of reduced or distilled detail facilitate object hypotheses: distinguishing between classes of objects. That is, telling the difference between a person and any other kind of object or thing.”

“Reference is made in new design theory to less detailed images being easier to scan for pertinent information and generally reducing demand on working memory (Malamed, 2009).” with the question of “just how do we see and understand the image that is less-real-than-real in the first place?”

“We propose that images of greater realism help to solve the homogeneity problem: distinguishing objects in the same class; that is, telling the difference between Tom, Dick & Harry. Images of reduced or distilled detail facilitate accurate object hypotheses: distinguishing between classes of objects, for example, telling the difference between a human and any other kind of object or thing.”

The paper proceeds to describe Wilemans work in Visual Communicating (1993) in which he attempts “to cover the whole gamut of image types in terms of their level of realism .. His linear scale runs from ‘concrete’ at the realistic end to ‘abstract’ at the distilled end.”

“There are three major ways to represent objects—as pictorial symbols, graphic symbols, or verbal symbols”

“his work echoed findings in Goldsmith (1984) and Gombrich (2002) that the most realistic image is not the most communicative.”

“McCloud’s model, in Understanding Comics, does not echo Wileman’s approach … McCloud has ‘abstract’ on a separate axis to ‘concrete.’ Instead of “paring away detail” then leaping to a “purely symbolic image” as in Dyers linear model McCloud’s model has a concrete to iconic on an x axis and abstract to real on y axis. Separating “Non-iconic abstraction from iconic Abstraction and Text.”

“iconic abstraction is only one form of abstraction available […] usually the word ‘abstraction’ refers to the non-iconic variety, where no attempt is made to cling to resemblance or meaning […] this is the realm of the art object.” (pp.50-51)

“Lilita Rodman’s (1985) concept that abstraction moves images from the particular to the generic; from a focus on surface to a focus on structure; and from mimetic to symbolic.”

“however we interpret the facts, it remains true that all representations can be somehow arranged along a scale which extends from the schematic to the impressionist” (2002, p.247). Gombrich

“how realistically or otherwise they are depicted, affects how images are received, and therefore the meaning gained from them. ”

“suggests that detail found in realistic images that is not pertinent to the context or the message being delivered may be regarded as noise in a communication (Haddad, 1995). Where source, message and receiver are constant, a channel with noise (distraction) is less effective than one without noise (Bello, 1953).

The authors move on to there next point, “how can we perceive images that are not realistic?” noting that the above studies do not address this question.

“The most realistic image has been demonstrated not to be the most communicative (Malamed, 2009; Gombrich, 2002; Gregory, 1970). Line drawings perform better in this regard than photographs of the same things (Fussel & Haaland, 1978). This may seem surprising. If the human visual system has evolved among the real visual world, it should stand to reason that any means that can replicate that world accurately is the best means to communicate visual information to the reading or viewing audience. The photograph springs most readily to mind: as Susan Sontag explains in On Photography (1977), a photograph is ‘directly stencilled off the real’ (p.154). Yet we can see and understand images that have been abstracted or stylized through drawings of various kinds. This raises the issue of learned versus innate visual understandings; perhaps we must learn to see and understand the non-realistic image.”

The authors then mention studies of infants that suggest that our understanding of abstracted/reduced images may be preexisting. “presented with two dots and a line in a facial arrangement tend to spend more time viewing such an image than they would a ‘non-face’ configuration of the same graphics. This suggests that such an image is understood as representing a face (Morton & Johnson, 1991; Fantz, 1961).”

There are mechanisms in the brain that allow us to identify “less real than real images” found in nature ie. how we can figure out silhouettes and things een in the distance, also see in grayscale (low light situations like night).

“A group of faculties of the visual system, labelled by psychologists, ‘perceptual constancies’, explain that the brain knows what the eye does not. These mental workings override purely visual sensations to prevent the individual from mistaking unique sensations on the retina as unique objects. The visual system is not merely accepting of what presents on the retina, but in fact is measuring that presentation against what the brain knows of the world.”

‘Shape, size and colour constancies are examples of these mental mechanisms (Walsh & Kulikowski, 1998, p.492). Size constancy explains that an object is perceived as having the same size regardless of its distance from us. Knowledge of its size will override its presentation on the retina. Shape constancy explains that an object is seen to have the same shape regardless of orientation. Thus we see things ‘as they really are’ and are not taken in by variations in shape presented to the retina. Colour constancy explains that an object is perceived as having the same colour regardless of changes in light. That is, the brain assumes that an object is less likely to change its own colour than it is to take on different colours as a function of changes to ambient lighting. This connection between the two visual versions of the same thing is what allows us to see the less realistic as having a relationship to the more realistic.

Or rather, the less detailed can stand for the more detailed but in a more general way: the detailed version may be an individual we recognize; the less detailed we may simply regard as ‘a person’. The same would apply for the ideally lit figure and the silhouetted figure respectively. These mental faculties tell us that the real visual presentation of an object upon our retinas must be matched against existing mental information. Implicit in this is that the knowledge already gained of the world exists in some kind of visual form. This form does not precisely match any ‘real’ visual version of such an object but must contain a range of information from different viewpoints and under different lighting conditions.”

Visual constancies could also help explain why the various pictorial representation of objects from different cultures are still recognizable to people not of that culture (provided it is an object that both share).

“Fussel and Haaland (1978) describe how they put visual tests (containing images of “common objects” such as a tree, people, a chicken, etc.) before some 400 Nepalese adults who were unused to pictures. The study was done in order to prepare materials for instruc- tional booklets for illiterate villagers. The study group was shown 10 different things presented in six different styles. These styles, from realistic to distilled, comprised black and white photographs; black and white photographs with background removed from around the subject (‘blockout’); a line drawing with shading and internal detail (a ‘three-tone’ image); the same drawing without shading and with minimal interior detail; a silhouette: and a line drawing. Cumulative correct responses to all 10 of the pictured subjects were as follows: Three-tone, 72%; Blockout, 67%; Line drawing, 62%; Silhouette, 61%; Photograph, 59%; stylised drawing, 49%. The authors conclude that:

“the lessons to be learned from this part of the study would seem to be that the more detailed and realistic a picture is, the more effective it is. The so called ‘simple’ stylised drawings are evidently not simple in anything but appearance, making greater demands on the person trying to interpret them. (p.27)”

So perhaps in the western world, saturated as it is with images, we have pushed and developed out facility for interpreting images because they are everywhere and we need to be able to interpret them quickly and accurately. The other side of this ‘way of seeing’ is that we are now faster at recognizing reduced images (ie. line drawings) than highly realistic one (ie. photographs). The studies above have suggested that this is because the more ‘real’ images contain more information or ‘noise’ that slows us down, not to say that such information isn’t relevant (depending on motivations) we just dont require it to purely recognize an object in a general sense.

However the authors go on to say that the results for the highly real images were only marginally better than the stylized images and that the best results lay in between the two extremes.

“Perhaps the progression along the continuum is problematic because the visual system has more than one task to perform. Psychologists talk of ‘Object hypotheses’ and the ‘homo- geneity problem’ (Rhodes, 1996). What these mean, respectively, are ‘what kind of object am I looking at?’ and ‘which one of those particular objects am I looking at?’. The first is a more coarse problem of differentiating between classes of objects; is that a car or a house? The second is a more fine-tuned question intended to differentiate between objects within the same class; what model of car am I looking at?”

The authors “propose that the coarse problem is more effectively dealt with by communicating with less realistic pictures. And the fine problem more effectively dealt with using pictures higher in detail, more closely matching their real-world referrent.” Also suggest that Fussel and Haaland’s findings happened because the middle classification lay in the “sweet spot for the human visual system as a drawing that can solve both tasks.”

“Training in aspects of the image can change the way one perceives pictures (Noide, et al, 1993, p.219).”


The International Journal of the Image
Volume 1, Number 2, 2011, http://ontheimage.com/journal/, ISSN 2152-7857
© Common Ground, Stuart Medley, Hanadi Haddad, All Rights Reserved, Permissions: cg-support@commongroundpublishing.com


Notes on ‘Can you believe it?’ by Michael Diers, 2009, and some thoughts

Notes on ‘Can you believe it?’ by Michael Diers

Begins by describing an installation by Ilya Kabakov “Incident at the museum” accompanied by a sound piece by Vladimir Tarasov. Presented as part of an exhibition called ‘Vision du futur’ at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2000. The exhibit looked at “secular and religious visions of the future from Babylon till now.“ As one would imagine the objects “were magnificently presented. However, when visitors stepped through the curtains into the final room, they found themselves in a dimly lit space filled with plastic buckets, tin tubs and plastic sheeting, like a giant broom cupboard. Water was dripping form the ceiling into numerous judiciously placed containers.”  The viewers were at first “taken aback and disorientated” until one guy said “its art, its an installation.” The work “ the misery of the art business in provincial Russia and the related demise of a political utopia … central to the artistic ploy was to create an all embracing, immersive deception” Diers goes on to comment that “for the exhibition goer, finding himself in the completely convincing illusion of the gallery space was like stepping into the wrong film, and he was forced to re-orientate himself. In that brief moment of uncertainty , as the brain was urgently  casting around for some explanation, it bounded in seven-league boots through the history of art and the various stations of trompe l’oeil since antiquity – and was astonished to find that the Parrhasius effect still works today.”

Incident at the Museum or Water Music 1992, Installation view at Ronald Feldman Gallery

Parrhasius comes from the story of a contest between Parrhasius and another painter Zeuxis who were competing with each other to make the most naturalistic illusion in 58BC, Zeuxis painted grapes so real that birds flew down and tried to eat them. Confident in his victory he challenged Parrhasius to reveal his painting, in so doing making the Parrhasius the clear winner because his painting was already revealed; being an image of a curtain covering a canvas.

Diers continues, Tromp L’oeil has classical roots in painting reaching its height in the 16-17C in which artist created life sized still life’s to create the most naturalistic image possible artist examples: Juan Sanchez in spain, Samuel Hoosstaren in holland, and Cornelius Gijsbrechts in Denmark (images in that order):

La Condition Humaine (1933)

Diers compares Gijsbrecht’s work with Magritte’s, commenting on how both artists have used painting to “reference the iconic status of the picture …. that paintings can reflect both on themselves and on their relationship to the viewer.” I think what Diers is talking about is how the picture contains referents to objects that the viewer then interprets  ie. in Magritte’s work we are able to get a sense of space from the wall/window frame detailing, and can recognize curtains and a painting on a stand that reflects the scene through the window. Magritte’s composition also points out to the viewer that picture itself is an object; both a collection of materials (canvas, paint etc. ) and also a representation of the artists selection of details from a given point of view.

Diers then talks of a shift towrds sculpture when Tromp L’oeil is used by pop artists. As with Jasper Johns Ale Cans (oil paint and bronze, 1960) and Warhols Brillo Boxes (screen print on wood, 1964)

Moving on Diers comments that “in the early 1990’s there was a reawakening of interest in its techniques, aesthetics and philosophy.” Diers names Ilya Kabakov “one of the pioneers of rediscovery of what has become a widely used strategy.” At this point Diers also mentions artists RobertGober, Peter Fischli and David  Wiess, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Janet Cardiff, Guillaume Bijl, Christoph Buchel, Maurizo Cattelan and Ron Muek, ” all have their own take in their own media — sculpture, installation, video, photography — on this tool, where a moment of bewilderment puts strain on our perceptions and, in so doing, may deepen our appreciation of art and of the artistic image as a multilayered tangle of multiple aspects of perception and knowledge.

Peter Fischli and David Weiss
Detail of Untitled (Tate) 1992–2000
Carved and painted polyurethane
Courtesy Eva Presenhuber/Tate
© Peter Fischli and David Weiss


Robert Gober 

Mark Wallinger reproduced very accurately protest signs and photographs he had taken and exhibited them using virtually identical materials. The work was based on things from Haws Peace Camp, the real objects had been destroyed  months earlier, by reproducing and displaying the replicas Diers suggest that Wallinger created a “a political still life or historical painting ..  also highlighted the narrow aesthetic dividing line between art and reality.” Diers goes on to comment that this mode of replication differs from the methods of “Warhol’s brillo boxes and Fischli & Weiss’s coloured polyurethane sculptures.” This question of materials is in important, Wallenger uses the same materials as the originals to create replicas, Warhol silk screens images of objects onto wood constructed into the same dimensions as the original. For me this raises interesting questions with regard to my own work, as i am using actual objects in my works then adjusting them. My intention being that the resulting object represents itself, while simultaneously representing the painted image of itself. Engaging with the idea of the painted canvas  as an object and also as a device to house a visual representation of a concept. It interests me that these two disparate ‘truths’ can co-exist together so easily, and that in general we tend not to notice. Perhaps this is because we are so familiar with the constructs of painting and looking at flat images, upon viewing said objects the image takes precedence and the method of delivery takes a back seat, only relevant in terms of the quality of that delivery and perhaps the process behind the generation of the image, as opposed to the object itself. Just like a white frame around a A4 printed image disappears upon viewing it.  Where this proposal is      challenged is when the image and the object stand on equal footing. For example with Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed media collages:

Anyway, back to Diers who moves on to address the photographers using trompe l’oeil. In particular Thomas Demands 2003 Venice Biennale contribution, the clearing. 

It takes a moment of close inspection to realize that the work “absent of any frame” is really a photo of thousands of bits of crafted paper. The image is the same scale and perspective as the landscape behind it. Reminscent of Magrittes La Condition Humaine (1933) which i mentioned earlier, “is a depiction of the view from a window, partly hidden by a painting on an easel. The painting, a landscape, fills in almost seamlessly the view of the real countryside outside the window – on the same scale, in the same colours and with the same perspective so that picture and reality seem to have become one: an illusion that gives (visual) form to a long art-philosophical discussion.”

The work is “a lengthy, technically complex process of reproduction that had ultimately returned the image to exactly the same spot where it had started.” For me this relates back to the question of representation, the image blends with the nature behind it linking the image to the referent (which is the surrounding landscape), upon seeing the illusion the image gains a new referent (the complex process/materials). The skill of the illusion means the eye is able to slip between these two referents easily; balanced out by each other they come together, conflicting but also co-existing. One cant rule out the other. I think this is the true usefulness of the Tromp L’oeil, the ability to create a singular work refers to two different representations in a seamless flowing fashion, so that it is impossible to ignore either. In this way activating both the image and the art object. 

Diers last point is also relevant, “it is particularly the use of technical media that allows this picture to fulfill its ambition as a photographic image of a (man-made) image of a photographic image. As in antiquity, the element of deception promotes a self-reflective assessment of the medium and is, to put it rather grandly, beholden to the truth of the image – as it were, making free use of Max Leibermann’s maxim: “Nothing is less deceptive than appearances.”

Bruce Nauman: Manipulating the T bar and Muller-Lyer, and a few thoughts about vision

Above is link to a YouTube video by Bruce Nauman called Manipulating the T bar, the first section is Nauman moving around a large metal T bar, shot in black and white at different angles. The video does strange things to perception of space as he moves the T around. This work defiitely reminded me of line drawings and the patterns we are used to seeing that tell us whether something is receding or emerging towards us ie. the Muller-Lyer Illusion:

As the T bar is pulled into different orientations i find perception of space tilting because  i am using focusing on the T and using it to get a sense of space in the room. I find my eyes are doing this naturally probably because i am used to using these ‘lines’ to orientate myself in space just as in the Muller-Lyer Illusion.This way of understanding space is also probably why we can understand and perceive space in line drawings even though in reality black lines that wrap objects and separate figure/ground rarely exist.

It does make me curious about whether we are born with is me sort of facility to pick out these patterns in order to orientate ourselves and objects within space or if it something we learn through experience. It does make me think again aout the history of image making and the systems we have developed to generate the illusion of depth and space, things like linear perspective have come from analyzing what we see then creating a formula for regenerating that experience. The resulting regeneration creates an illusion of space in a line drawing, the fact that it is a drawing and not actually deep is clear because the formula doesn’t address other visual cues that provide us with information when viewing a natural scene ie. stereopsis and relative motion. From an early age children see 2D images and learn to interpret and produce them, this is something we have learnt to do since the first cave panting was slapped on a wall. Over years developing techniques and ideas, i wonder how this facility to create an image has effected the way that our eye function, vision is pulling order form the chaos; our eyes have specific receptors that pick up certain information our brains have developed mechanisms for interpreting that information and linking it to concepts that we have of things ie. a object that round, sphere like and red/green with a stalk is an apple. Our eyes see more than we perceive, our brains pick out relavant/useful information from a mass of visual materiel and that is what we ‘see’ at a basic level, the information is filtered again pre-consciously placing emphasis on certain details. Our attention centers fire at things that are ‘most relevant’ which seems to e mostly linked to survival/needs/wants, which makes sense if you think about evolution we would need to be able to pick out a tiger running at us faster than the swaying tree branches above it. This could also help to explain why there can be multiple diverse 2D representations of a tree, but people from lots of different cultures all still know it’s a tree. On that note though, i recently read about how there are some African tribes that live in a world based on curves and circles, unlike people in the western world thats full of straight lines and right angles, these tribes are unable to see depth in a perspective drawing that uses linear perspective. As we have developed image making, our visual system has picked out common patterns that have allowed us to rapidly interpret 2D images into 3D concept. These patterns are based on what we see around us and the history of images and image making that came before us. It is fascinating to me that these systems could be so malleable, the brain is constantly adapting to its environment, i wonder how differently we ‘see’ now compared to a thousand years ago, and how different again the people a thousand years in the future will see.

The last point i would like to note is that we are already translating a 2D image into  3D one, as the image that hits the retina is 2D and converted to 3D by brain using visual cues. We have been able to pick out some of them ie. perspective, haze (aerial perspective), occlusion, shading, stereopsis, relative motion but there is most likely more that we havent found yet. Once we do, how will that effect image making?