June 2006
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Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing
by Ed Bateman

As artists it is often easy to forget how magical the things that we do really are. We are so deeply involved with the phenomenon of seeing that, to us, its complexity can become invisible and be taken for granted.

Human visual perception is the topic of Harvard Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone's book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. It is a science book that looks like an art book. Its format is large and is filled with lots of great reproductions of many of the big names, from Leonardo da Vinci to Chuck Close. (It should probably be mentioned that in the context of this book, all of the art examples that Livingstone uses come from the world of drawing and painting.) And it's published by Harry N. Abrams - a name familiar to buyers of art books.

The book begins with an introduction to the physics of light. This could be a dry topic but Livingstone spices it up with historic quotes and current practical examples such as how day-glo paints work and how rainbows appear on CDs and in oil slicks. She writes in a way that I find very accessible. You can tell that she loves her topic and isn't about to shortchange either the subject or the reader by over simplification. An abundance of illustrations (always a plus for those that are more visually oriented) makes for great learning.

From there she beings to look at the physiology of the eye and how it works in tandem with the brain. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of this but I found many surprises. For instance, did you know that we (and other primates) have two distinct vision systems consisting of separate light sensitive cells and brain processing? Rather than loading down the reader with technical jargon, Livingstone refers to these systems as the Where and the What System. The Where System is colorblind and is involved with motion, depth perception, spatial organization, and figure/ground segregation. It is similar to the entire visual system of non-primate mammals. The What System (a primate add-on) is a color system keyed into fine details and is used for recognizing faces and specific objects. Each of these systems has strengths and weaknesses but when combined they give us a rich visual experience.

With this foundation Livingston looks at how the brain processes visual information and how artists utilize that understanding. She uses the example of Claude Monet's Impression Sunrise as an example of how one image can be processed differently by each of the two systems. In Monet's painting a red glowing sun appears though a dense morning fog. To the Where System, the sun is invisible. She illustrates this with a black and white reproduction; and sure enough, the sun, which has a luminosity equal to the background, is nowhere to be seen. She argues that the visual disagreement between the Where System and the What System (which recognizes color) is what give the sun in Monet's painting its vibrating, jumpy intensity. To further her case she shows an altered version of the painting with the sun changed to a more "naturalistic" lighter shade and how it loses its vibrancy.

She goes on to describe the phenomenon of center/surround (I'm not even going to attempt a brief description of this) and how it applies to edge detection and contrast. Both of these topics are crucial to artists in their depiction of both static detail and of motion. She explains how and why using examples by Degas, Renoir, and Ingres.

With examples from Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Seurat, she shows how the eye (and brain, of course) deals with issues of contrast. An outdoor scene can have a contrast range that varies from black to white by a factor of a thousand. Yet artists can make a visual reproduction of this using paper and pigments with a contrast range of only twenty to one using techniques that are very similar to how the eye actually functions. That is no small miracle.

In short, Livingstone covers a huge amount of information spanning everything from how 3-D perception works to how we encode visual information not just with paint and pigment but for computers and TV. That she can do this in a way that is both relevant and interesting is a tribute to her writing and teaching skills.

Still, to an art audience, it is apparent that Livingstone is a scientist rather than an artist. She spends several pages delving into the mysteries of the Mona Lisa's smile. This must be a grand mystery to many people and a sign of da Vinci's genius but to most artists, I think this is a non-issue. Fortunately, she never quite steps into the trap that many scientists fall into when discussing art: looking at it as only a bag of perceptual tricks. The real interest lies in the fact that she can point to so much art (with gorgeous reproductions) as examples for how our vision systems work.

Artists are unlikely to pick up many new, practical tips - it's not a how-to book. However for me, the greatest thing about Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing is that it's a reminder of the sophistication of our visual system and how artists are sensitively keyed into a subject that scientists are only just beginning to understand. And that, really, is nothing short of magic.

Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing
By Margaret S. Livingstone
Publisher: Harry N Abrams
ISBN: 0810904063
Hardcover: 208 pages

Click on the book title links and use to purchase this book and a portion of your purchase will be donated to Artists of Utah.

Artists of Utah News
Our First Annual Frame Swap

Artists of Utah announces its First Annual Frame Swap, Saturday June 17th from 12 to 2 pm at Tanner Frames in SugarHouse.

The Artists of Utah Frame Swap is a chance for you to get rid of a frame you're not using anymore, pick up a frame for a steal, meet other artists and help Artists of Utah.

How It Works: It's pretty simple, really. From 12 to 2 anyone is invited to come to Tanner Frames in the Rockwood Studios building at 1064 East 2100 South. Have an old frame or two you're not using anymore? Bring it to the frame swap. Have no frames but need some? Come with some cash. Don't want to bother sitting around trying to sell your frames but need to get them out of the garage? Donate them to Artists of Utah and we will sell them and use the money for 15 Bytes.

Tanner Frames Moving Sale: In addition to the frames brought in by your fellow artists, there will be a number of frames and framing materials on sale by Tanner Frames at reduced prices. Tanner Frames is moving to a new location at the Artspace building on 5th West and has plenty of material it would rather not have to move. Ready-made frames of various sizes will be available as will packets of moulding ready to be cut to fit your piece. Bring the moulding to your favorite framer or have Tanner Frames put it together for you.

Join us Satruday June 17th from 12 to 2 pm and help us launch this annual event. Tanner Frames is located at 1064 East 2100 South, SLC in the Rockwood Studios Building (between Granite Furniture and Blue Boutique). If you have frames you would like to donate to Artists of Utah you may drop them off at Tanner Frames (801.483.2501) before the 17th or during the swap.
If you have questions contact Shawn Rossiter at

Exhibition Follow-up: Salt Lake City
What's in a Title?

Last month we reported on the Rio Gallery's Untitled exhibition, a collaborative effort between thirty Utah artists (who provided the artwork) and the public (who were invited to provide titles). There are still a few days left before the exhibit closes on June 9th if you'd like to match up your literary talents with the artists' visual ones. The public provided over four hundred titles for these thirty works ranging from tonalist landscapes to found object assemblages. Over the next few weeks we will be posting images of some of these works with a few of the titles provided by the public.

Our first example, is a work by Gary Barton.Which title do you prefer for this piece?
1) Football Stadium Massacre
2) Ray at the Daces
3) Canyonland near the City

We invite you to vote on your favorite title by going to


Salt Lake City artist Jeremy Herridge on the spot.

1) What are you reading lately?
I have never been much of a reader, I have always preferred picture books, but lately I have got into audiobooks on my ipod. Recently the books I have been listening to have been about self hypnosis and Chakaras, inner peace.

2) What hangs above your mantel?
Uh, well a large mirror. It is too hard to find a piece of artwork in my collection that I covet more than the rest.

3) What artist, living or dead, would you choose to paint, sculpt or photograph your portrait?
That is hard, but I think I would like Joel-Peter Witkin to take a photograph of me, but without any cadavers or his usual props.

Jeremy Herridge

15 Bytes is published monthly by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization located in Salt Lake City Utah. The opinions expressed in these articles are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of 15 Bytes or Artists of Utah.

Editor: Shawn Rossiter

Assitant Editor: Laura Durham

15 Bytes is published the first Wednesday of the month. Submissions are due the last Wednesday of the previous month.

You can contact 15 Bytes at


Tom Alder is a banker by day but in his free time explores his interest in Utah art. He is on the board of the Museum of Utah Art and History, organizes the yearly Zion's Bank Art Show, and is currently working on a Masters Thesis on Henri Moser.

Ed Bateman, a Salt Lake artist, received his MFA from the University of Utah and teaches there in the Arts Technology program. His biggest surprise of late is the discovery that the tools that he thought would direct his thinking to the future have led him to contemplate the art of the past.

Kasey Boone is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has been living in Utah since 1990. He has a BA in French and Cultural Studies. He is a self-described "orphaned post-modernist."

Van Lewis lives in Salt Lake City where he designs big houses to pay the bills. He studied architecture and history/criticism of art at MIT. He is currently working on an illustrated biography of food-saint Richard Olney.

Sue Martin has never been able to choose – art or writing – as her preferred creative expression so she does both. She holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.

Shawn Rossiter has degrees in English, French and Italian Literature. He is a full-time artist and founder of Artists of Utah.

Melanie Steele, a 25-year-old with a bachelor's in Print Journalism and Communications from Utah State University, is married to artist Ben Steele and lives in Helper, Utah. In addition to writing about the arts, she also organizes the Helper Art and Music Festival.