Cognitive Daily

Are artists vision experts?

Today’s reading is “Artists as Experts in Visual Cognition,” by Aaron Kozbelt of the University of Chicago (Visual Cognition, 2001).

We need to incorporate many skills in order to make visual sense of the world. We must be able to discern objects even when we have incomplete visual information, pick out shapes from complex environments, and mentally rotate images to compare them with other images. All these phenomena have been measured by psychologists, and they have found that different individuals have varying degrees of skill at them.

What kind of people are best at these visual skills? Perhaps people who have had more practice with them, like artists. Kozbelt designed an experiment to answer this question. He sampled three populations of Carnegie-Mellon students: First-year art majors, fourth-year art majors, and first-year non-art majors. He then gave them several tests: vision tests that measured the tasks I describe above, and drawing tasks such as copying a photo, copying simple diagrams, or replicating a complicated drawing without lifting the pencil or making corrections.

Perhaps surprisingly, Kozbelt found that the first- and fourth-year art students were equally good at all the tasks, despite the expensive education the seniors had received. However, all the art students did better than non-artists in all the vision tasks, and they did better at all the drawing tasks except copying a photo (I’ll avoid the easy one-liners about “modern art”).

So apparently there is something to the idea of an “artist’s eye”: artists really are better at the visual tasks that all of us need to perform simply to get along in the world. Artists aren’t simply more manually dextrous than the rest of us, they’re actually more visually dextrous as well.

There are other examples of “experts” being better than novices at tasks related to their field. For example, Herbert Simon and William Chase found that Chess grandmasters can easily remember the positions of pieces on a chessboard after viewing it for just a few seconds. However, if the pieces are arranged randomly rather than in a position reflecting a real chess game, the experts are no better than novices. In these cases, experts have memorized a large set of possible cases, and can easily retrieve each one. However, Kozbelt argues that what artists are doing is different. Rather than a pattern, they have mastered a process.