Researcher explains the appeal of Rembrandt paintings

rembrandt flotw.jpg A researcher at the University of British Columbia claims he has figured out why Rembrandt paintings are so appealing to viewers.
Renaissance artists used various techniques to engage viewers, many incorporating new scientific knowledge on lighting, spatial layout and perspectives. To isolate and pinpoint factors that contribute to the "magic" of Rembrandt's portraits, DiPaola used computer-rendering programs to recreate four of the artist's most famous portraits from photographs of himself and other models. Replicating Rembrandt's techniques, he placed a sharper focus on specific areas of the model's face, such as the eyes.

Working with a team from the Vision Lab in UBC's Dept. of Psychology, DiPaola then tracked the 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, who is also an associate professor at Simon Fraser University and adjunct faculty at UBC's Media and Graphics Interdisciplinary Centre. "The transition from sharp to blurry edges, known as 'lost and found edges,' also directed the viewers eyes around the portrait in a sort of narrative."

..."Through these techniques, Rembrandt is essentially playing tour guide to his viewers hundreds of years after his death, creating a unique narrative by guiding the viewers' eye," says DiPaola. "This may explain why people appreciate portraiture as an art form.

UBC researcher decodes Rembrandt's "magic" [UBC]


  1. The link doesn’t work. But Rembrandt is actually a Baroque artist, not Renaissance. Since I can’t read the article, I don’t know how much detail the author goes into, but this distinction actually makes a huge difference in understanding how Rembrandt worked (i.e. the motivation, politics, etc.). Yes, it’s visual (of course) and psychological when considering why Rembrandt is appealing, but there’s more to it.

  2. Hi, I am one of the researchers on the project. And boingboing reader (weird to be on it). The url to the main research page is

    Yes the press release changed our phrase “artist in the early modern period” to Renaissance artist. Still the main gist on the art history side is that Rembrandt might have come up with this (using a part of himself – his eye gaze) technique by reacting to the Italian Renaissance artists (specifically Titan) – as Rembrandt like Picasso was able to critic others in his work ( see the article). On the science side we are claiming he intuited vision science in a quite a deep way. As well that artists guide your eye through a painting using these techniques, telling a narrative. We have a computer modelling system that acts like a human painter which we used to create output that we then used in the eye tracking experiments. “Painterly” – the computer modelling (non photo-realistic rendering) system has uses in gaming, autism, movies and alike – and we are doing work with it now in those areas.

    -Steve DiPaola

    1. I’ve never particularly understood what’s “mysterious” about the Mona Lisa’s expression, any more than any other random portrait’s expression. The linked article I’m afraid only adds to the pile of bunkum I’ve seen heaped on the subject.

      “Disappearing” smiles? Last time I heard, the supposed mystery was about motivation for her expression (something that generally isn’t obvious in any portrait), not whether she was actually smiling or not.

      He seems to have made up a mystery so he could claim to have solved it. Reminds me of the jimsonweed claims a few posts back.

  3. Whoa, Steve DiPaola was my prof in university! (I took an animation course in my fourth year.)

    Sorry for the random interjection, but I thought this was cool (as well as his current research project)!

  4. Flow, lost and found edges, narrative of composition, etc. etc. are all things illustrators and artists have talked about for years.

    Hes using the same terms used at art schools and for some reason he has more credibility in the same artistic deconstruction because hes a scientist?

  5. I can’t find the BB link, but there was recently a mention of eye tracking studies on art. Basically what they found is that high contrast, faces, and unexpected details tend to draw the eyes. But:

    “1. The eye does not flow in smooth curves or circles, nor does it follow contours. It leaps from one point of interest to another. Curving lines or other devices may be “felt” in some way peripherally, but the eye doesn’t move along them.”

    Areas of interest are fine, but in creating my own art and observing others’, in combination with eye tracking data that I’ve seen, I’m rather skeptical of the idea of ‘flow’ and eye-guiding. By making some areas of the image softer, the eye might not land there, but the motion is quite unpredictable otherwise.

  6. I am a painter, a drawing teacher, and a scholar of the history of drawing instruction, and I find this sort of ‘scientific discovery’…, umm, let’s say charming. Rather like a physicist forced to listen to an artist wax poetic about the Heisenberg Principle or Schrodinger’s cat.

    An analysis of the eye movements of any viewer in front of any painting might actually reveal the contours of the “eye-hand performance” of the artist. One uses one’s eyes rather consciously while making of such things, after all. And it takes two to tango (artist and viewer). But this is the most basic stuff of appreciating the art of painting, whether we are talking Titian, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Degas, Pollock or Frazetta. It’s not magic, it’s art.

    That we have developed parallel-processing, neuroanatomical visual systems for face recognition, color harmony, and for the identification of angular pitch, form, movement, etc. is now becoming of interest to science. But the real primary brain research has obviously been done, and is already hanging in the museums. Go test someone who still knows how to do it — not random undergrads –and save us all some time, please?

    1. Keep in mind that this is a press release which is quite different that our actual art/science article it is based on – much of what you are saying we discussed in the article including the art historical perspective. See the full article at the bottom of our research site under Leonardo paper.

      The ‘discovery’ stuff it just the way the press write’s stories, you will see in the article that we use science evidence (and historical data ) to support the notion of the genius of artists and give the art historians some extra data to do their job. Also the article attempts to support that fact the some modern painting techniques not typically associated with Rembrandt and the early modern period might have actually dated back to Rembrandt and his reaction to Titian and his Italian contemporariness. Details that unfortunately do not make it in savvy press releases.

  7. So the secret to success is…the basic composition skills you learn in Art 101?

  8. Thanks for the link… if I follow your argument, you want to find pre-20th c evidence for the self-conscious use and exploration of vision itself in the making of oil paintings. And by doing so, you want to add another leg (instinctively exploring vision and the visual brain) to the scientific stool that is commonly used to support the verities and value of art. I APPLAUD THAT. But the whole of the 17th century in Europe already applied for your job!
    Where are Velazquez, Vermeer and Hals? Vouet, Poussin, Champaigne and the French Academy?

    You have uncritically accepted a) the cult of genius around certain painters, b) the dialectical formalism of Berger, and c) the belief that artists act as solo protagonists to serve an art historical narrative dedicated to innovation, rather than one that relies on tradition, plays with it, and transmits new personalized knowledge about it to the young.

    What you overlook is crucially useful to your thesis: the social and intellectual history of art education (the bottega, atelier and academy), where visual skills and visual culture are cultivated, argued about and brought forth in the work of students. Michelangelo had Ghirlandaio, Titian had Giorgione, Rembrandt had Lastman. Since the Renaissance, everybody’s eyes have been guided and made aware by somebody else’s. Sharing insights about sight, drawing, color and the visual imagination are the very means and medium of teaching and learning the discipline, even if you pretend to be self-taught! Artists know it could not possibly be otherwise.

    Here’s a sketch of who-taught-who how to draw and paint, that I published in DRAWING in 2006. It is not meant to be comprehensive (it doesn’t track Flanders or Holland), merely to show the culture is cumulative, and unbroken:

  9. What interests me about this is not so much the ‘discovery’ of these methods, which are, as noted above, entirely customary in classical technique, but rather the difference in perspective offered by the scientific approach. He probably would have said “put the detail where you want people to look,” and studies like this simply reverse that and say “people look here,” proving him correct.

    It’s interesting to see how the human eye responds to this, measured in some rigorous kind of way.

    I do question how anyone can expect these things to be ‘discoveries,’ as this stuff comes up in any art lesson… After all, art is 90% craft, 9% intuition, and 1% luck (the ratio reverses for bad art). It’s mostly just hard work, and Rembrandt worked his ass off.

  10. Love the comments. I teach “art appreciation” and other variations on “culture for future technicians,” and I find that non-art majors are frequently responsive to mechanical explanations for artistic genius. Kind of like art historians. The more wonderful a painting is (with some obvious exceptions), the less there is to say about it. “Girl Wading,” for example, seems to me far more magical than, say, “The Night Watch,” but the latter gets all the space in survey texts.

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