From da Vinci to Monet: Understanding how artists can manipulate the human visual system

sky. The sun is really, in fact, just as bright (or dull, depending on your perspective) as its surrounding sky. Although it certainly stands out as the focal point of the piece, the sun is exactly the same brightness, or 'equiluminent' as the rest of the sky.

Part of the human visual system consists of the "colorblind" mammalian visual system (the same system found in cats and dogs). The mammalian visual system can see three dimensions, and recognize things that move (this is what we use to navigate our environment). As primates, humans also have an object recognition system that sees in color, recognizes faces and evaluates the environment. We use both systems simultaneously.

Artists like Monet understood this dichotomy in our visual processes and used it empirically to give the illusion of color and space. The two parts are sometimes called the "where" and "what" system. The "where" system is the "colorblind" part that allows us to orient objects spatially, whereas the "what" system lets us recognize and evaluate them.

Livingstone also readdresses the visual perception behind the Mona Lisa's unique and mysterious smile in honor of the painting's 500th anniversary.

Livingstone's previous study of the Mona Lisa appeared in Science (November 17, 2000) and explained the brain's processes in how and why we interpret the Mona Lisa's smile as so elusive and mysterious.

"The elusive quality of the Mona Lisa's smile can be explained by the fact that her smile is almost entirely in low spatial frequencies, and so is seen best by your peripheral vision," according to Livingstone.

da Vinci used the shadows from her cheekbones to accentuate the Mona Lisa's mouth, so her smile appears more pronounced when one looks at her eyes or the background; however, if you look directly at her mouth, the smile seems to fade.

"I'm demystifying the procedures that some artists have known about for years, but not debunking thei


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