The Dutch painter Rembrandt pioneered a painting technique, reproduced in a study by a SFU professor Steve DiPaola, for guiding a viewer’s eyes through the painting using lighting, spatial layout and specific focal points.

New study claims Rembrandt tricked eyes to linger longer

June 24, 2010

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What’s the secret behind Rembrandt’s compelling portraiture? Steve DiPaola, a professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology, thinks he can explain the magic behind the Renaissance painter’s masterful artistry.

In a study published in the recent issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s journal Leonardo, DiPaola posits that Rembrandt pioneered a technique to guide a viewer’s gaze around a portrait, creating a special narrative and a calmer viewing experience.

Renaissance artists used various techniques to engage viewers; many incorporated then-new scientific knowledge on lighting, spatial layout and perspectives.

To pinpoint the factors that contribute to Rembrandt’s enduring appeal, DiPaola used computer-rendering programs to recreate four of the artist’s most famous portraits from photographs of himself and other models. By replicating Rembrandt’s techniques, he placed a sharper focus on specific areas of each model’s face, such as the eyes.

Working with a team from the University of British Columbia’s psychology department (where he is a PhD student), DiPaola then tracked 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 eye movements," says DiPaola.

"The transition from sharp to blurry edges, known as ‘lost and found edges,’ also directed the viewer’s eyes around the portrait in a sort of narrative. Through these techniques, Rembrandt is essentially playing tour guide to his viewers."

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

DiPaola notes that viewers preferred the portraits with the eye-guiding narrative to the original photographs with uniform details across the tableau.

"Whether he observed how his own eyes behaved while viewing a painting or he did it by intuition, Rembrandt incorporated an understanding of how the human eye works that has now been proven accurate," says DiPaola, who will present a public talk on his findings at the National Gallery of Art in London, England in July.

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