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What Did You See in That Painting?

New research finds the eyes of children and adults are drawn to very different things.

Not long ago, I visited the Kerry James Marshall career retrospective at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. Following my usual pattern at art exhibits, I typically gave one of the large, busy paintings a quick glance to see what popped out at me. I then read the descriptive information posted on the wall, and finally returned my gaze to the canvas for a longer look.

In psychological terms, I was engaging in both bottom-up and top-down perception—instinctively responding to visual stimuli, while also putting these shapes and colors into an intellectual and emotional context. If that first function strikes you as a childlike response, new research conducted at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum suggests you're exactly right.

In a small-scale study, a research team led by Francesco Walker of Vrije University presents evidence that children and adults look at works of art quite differently, with kids focusing first on visually stimulating elements. Adults, in contrast, try to make sense of the thing from the get-go.

The experiment featured nine children ages 11 and 12, and 12 adults, none of whom had visited the museum before. While wearing eye-movement-tracking devices, all looked at five paintings (all by Vincent van Gogh, none famous) for 30 seconds. They then looked at them a second time after reading a short description of each painting.

One description read, in part: "Van Gogh painted this broken-down farmhouse with more than just brushes. For the roof, he used a palette knife.... You can see bits of bare canvas between the brushstrokes."

The results followed a clear pattern. On their first pass, "children initially focused on the salient regions of the paintings," naturally gravitating to the elements that provided the most visual stimulation. They only then turned to other, less immediately eye-catching features.

But on their second viewing, after reading the descriptive information, the kids' gaze drastically changed, the researchers write in the journal PLoS One. "Now areas with low salience values are inspected first," meaning that their eye movement was driven by the information they just read.

Youngsters are apparently able to view artworks with fresher eyes and fewer preconceptions.

"In contrast, the eye movement behavior of the adults shows relatively little change between Phase One and Two," they write. This suggests that even with no contextual information, adults immediately attempted to grasp of "the gist of the scene." Contrasts of color or texture were of less interest to them than details that helped them understand what was being represented, and how.

Perhaps this helps explain why so many adults are resistant to abstract art. If our impulse (whether learned or innate) is to place an image in context from the first glance, and we find that difficult, anxiety is a more likely outcome than appreciation.

Another of the researchers' findings was unexpected, but intriguing. Ten out of the 12 adults, but only two of the nine kids, reported they saw a "human figure" in Van Gogh's "Tree Roots" (which is, in fact, a sketch of a tree's roots). No such figure was mentioned in the information provided.

"This finding is consistent with the notion that people tend to see people, faces, or animals in naturally occurring patterns," the researchers write. The fact this tendency was not present in children suggests it is "mainly driven by top-down factors, such as expectations or experience."

Having yet to develop such expectations, youngsters are apparently able to view artworks with fresher eyes and fewer preconceptions. This raises the question of whether, as adults, we lose to some degree the ability to experience a work of art in a direct, visceral way.

Then again, perhaps the most impactful art results when the stimulating visuals kids are drawn to are used to make a thematic point. Marshall, an African American with a strong social conscience, seems to grasp this intuitively.

Check out his portrait of a black figure against a black background. Kids will gravitate to it because of the striking visual contrast created by his bright, white teeth; adults will be confronted by the provocative, troubling symbolism.