In the following linked image, you can see the eye movement traces of a subject examining a bust of Nefertiti (I came across this image while reading the following blog).

bust eye tracking

When I was in grade school, I often heard art teachers claim that they were "not teaching us to draw or paint or sculpt... but teaching us to SEE". From personal experience with human figure drawing, it appears to me that the most observable change that comes with practice in drawing the human form from observation is learning to pay attention to the most essential details.

My question: Is there any reason to believe that if we were to take a group of people who could be considered to have "visual expertise" (let's say they have years of experience with observational drawing), that we would find notable differences in the patterns of their eye movement traces when scanning an object such as the Nefertiti bust shown above... when compared with people who do not have such expertise?

If you believe that we would observe such a difference... what evidence and/or theory leads you to believe this? Otherwise, what evidence and/or theory leads you to believe that it would be unlikely to observe such a difference?


1 Answer 1


There is a substantial literature on eye tracking.

Skill acquisition example

One study that I am familiar with and is of some relevance is Study 2 in Lee and Anderson (2000, PDF). Specifically the study used eye tracking tools to examine how visual attention was allocated over time on an air traffic control simulator. The broad finding, consistent with skill acquisition theory was that:

Overall, as people become more skilled, they appear to be reducing the time they fixate on all the task-irrelevant regions while maintaining the amount of time spent on the task-relevant regions in the move unit-task. (p.305)

Thus, this study shows that at least on a task, as you would expect visual attention changes as a function of the development of expertise.

A specific study of eye movements comparing experts and novices

It seems obvious that when visually examining art, people differ in how they view it. It also seems plausible that experts viewing art may focus on different things to novices. After a little searching I found a study by Vogt and Magnussen (2007) that appears to directly address your interest:

In two sessions with free scanning and memory instructions, eye-movement patterns from nine artists were compared with those of nine artistically untrained participants viewing 16 pictures representing a selection of categories from ordinary scenes to abstraction: 12 pictures were made to accommodate an object-oriented viewing mode (selection of recognisable objects), and a pictorial viewing mode (selection of more structural features), and 4 were abstract. The artistically untrained participants showed preference for viewing human features and objects, while the artists spent more scanning time on structural/abstract features. A group by session interaction showed a change of viewing strategy in the artists, who viewed more objects and human features in the memory task session. A verbal test of recall memory showed no overall difference in the number of pictures remembered, but the number of correctly remembered pictorial features was significantly higher for artists than for the artistically untrained viewers, irrespective of picture type. No differences in fixation frequencies/durations were found between groups across sessions, but a significant task-dependent-group by session interaction of fixation frequency/duration showed that the artistically untrained participants demonstrated repetition effects in fewer, longer fixations with repeated viewing, while the opposite pattern obtained for the artists.

They also summarise existing research (see the article for more information):

Picture perception in artists and laymen has been compared in several studies on the assumption that artists view the world differently from others. ... In one 12-s recording session, Nodine et al (1993) found that artistically untrained viewers tended to spend more time viewing individual objects than relationships among elements in paintings... Other authors have reported different eye-fixation patterns in artists and non-artists viewing pictures. Antes and Kristjanson (1991) found that eye-movement parameters alone could differentiate artists from non-artists by fixation densities on less important aspects of paintings, with 'important' being defined a priori by one professional artist (rather than by the experimenters according to hypotheses). Zangemeister et al (1995) found that artists and sophisticated viewers used a more global scanning strategy than artistically untrained participants when viewing abstract pictures.


  • Antes J R, Kristjanson A F, 1991. Discriminating artists from nonartists by their eye movement patterns. Perceptual and Motor Skills 73 893 ^ 894
  • Lee, F.J. & Anderson, J.R. (2001). Does learning a complex task have to be complex?: A study in learning decomposition. Cognitive psychology, 42, 267-316. PDF
  • Nodine F, Locher P J, Krupinski E A, 1993. The role of formal art training on perception and aesthetic judgement of art compositions. Leonardo 26 219 ^ 227
  • Vogt, S. & Magnussen, S. (2007). Expertise in pictorial perception: eye-movement patterns and visual memory in artists and laymen. PERCEPTION-LONDON-, 36, 91. PDF
  • Zangemeister W H, Sherman K, Stark L, 1995 Evidence for a global scanpath strategy in viewing abstract compared to realistic images. Neuropsychologia 33 1009 ^ 1025
  • $\begingroup$ While there may well be a difference in the way artists scan pictures, the Vogt and Magnussen study can't be taken to show this. The problem is that their test images involved people in a variety of surroundings, and their "artistically untrained" subject group was comprised of psychologists, whose expertise would predispose them to look at the people... which is what they did. $\endgroup$
    – gwideman
    May 2, 2013 at 7:34

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