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Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing 1st Edition

39 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0810904064
ISBN-10: 0810904063
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Editorial Reviews Review

What is it that makes the work of Monet, van Gogh, da Vinci, and Warhol so visually arresting? How do our eyes and brains coordinate to perceive line and color?

Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone addresses these and many other questions in Vision and Art, a lively look at the science underlying art. She writes accessibly, but with plenty of technical depth, on such matters as the nature of light and the visible spectrum, the organization of visual-image processing, the structure of the vertebrate eye and brain, and individual and culturally conditioned perceptions of color. Using well-known works of art as case studies, she offers fascinating bits of trivia (on, for instance, how pastels are made and why purple dyes are so rare) alongside practical information for artists (for example, how high-contrast contours and evenly distributed luminance attract the eye).

The result is a literate, lucid blend of art and science that will appeal to artists and connoisseurs alike. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Harvard Medical School neurobiology professor Margaret S. Livingstone explains how great artists exploit the functions of the human eye and brain in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing. Livingstone, whose biological explanation of why the Mona Lisa's smile appears enigmatic stirred much interest when it appeared in the New York Times, here offers a detailed explanation of how elements like perspective, luminance, color mixing, shading and chiaroscuro produce certain effects in art works. She discusses da Vinci's use of contrast, the illusory three-dimensionality of Impressionist paintings and why Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie gives the impression of motion.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Harry N. Abrams; 1 edition (May 7, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0810904063
  • ISBN-13: 978-0810904064
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 0.9 x 11.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #689,612 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

100 of 103 people found the following review helpful By Michael Reding on September 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a really neat book but the title is a misleading. It doesn't cover all visual art but concentrates on oil painting. The author is a neurophysiologist at Havard Med who can actually write intelligbly, entertainingly and accessibly about her field and how it intersects with 2 dimensional art. It is not an easy read. The book is chock full of visual illusions, detailed illustrations, carefully chosen paintings from the last 500 years and quotations from the scientists who have studied light, color and vision. The last chapter covers electronic media in the form of computer and TV screens and was particularly good but seemed to lack integration with the rest of the manuscript. Overall, this book is delighfully dense. Take some time and savor it.
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67 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Coleman Yee on June 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Some teasers on the back cover:
"Why do Claude Monet's fields of flowers seem to wave in the breeze?"
"What is the secret of Mona Lisa's smile?"
The first two chapters cover some scientific fundamentals- how light and the human vision works. While this is all very scientific, every effort is made to make it understandable, with plenty of full-color diagrams illustrating the concepts. While these 2 chapters are not the easiest to read, they're not rocket science either, and provide a valuable foundation for the rest of the book. Not essential but VERY useful.
Things start to get interesting toward the end of the 2nd chapter, when we start to understand what a red/green colorblind person sees. But the best stuff starts to come in the third chapter ("Luminance and Night Vision"). Plenty of interesting illustrations are provided in this chapter (like red cherries in a blue bowl, where the cherries appear brighter or darker than the bowl depending on the ambient light, or flickering polkadots), and continues until the rest of a book, making it a truly fascinating read.
Oh, and the explanation on Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile is very convincing.
I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in both visual art and science.
I also recommend it to anyone who's interested in science and how things work- you'll appreciate some art pieces a lot more after reading this book.
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57 of 61 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Margaret Livingstone has produced a book so very useful to visual artists that it may, in its density of ideas, seem definitive rather than evocative. But evocative it is. As we learn from studying it, Livingstone's book offers implications that may be developed by any artist who reads it in almost any direction. One might take as an example the very rich Chapter 8, with its notions of luminance as a balance for the salience, or pushiness of certain colors - how Leonardo handled it, how Ingres handled it, and how today's painter or digital image maker might go even further. The size and shape of the book allow for illustrations that work on the eye at the right scale. And there is an overall visual loudness to the book that is jarring and satisfying.
The author gets to the structure of our visual systems, makes them very clear, and tells us things that are lasting and verifiable. Her spirit of personal experimentation shows in the book, and makes us think that looking inquisitively at the world will pay off.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Richard D. Zakia on October 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book that every teacher of photography and serious photographer should read and study and re-read. Although the book contains no photographic examples, there are plenty of examples in famous paintings to support the visual research Dr. Livingtson so clearly writes about. The examples in paintings are easily transferable

to a number of familiar and famous photographs.

Ever wonder what Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were so successful with the black-and-white photographs but not with their color photographs? I have, and her book has provided me with insights into this and other photographic practices.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Peter R. Dinella on February 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A very good book with great pictures that demonstrate key vision concepts. Near the end of the book, however, I started to skim the chapters because it became too tedious to read - very technical book overall.

I bought a used copy and noticed "student underling" in the first chapter, but an abrupt end to underlining in the second chapter. You know what that means: "This course is not what I expected; I'm dropping out!"
The student and I feel the same way, but I got a lot further.

Buy it, but I found Robert L. Solso's book The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain to be a far more exciting read. That one is a five star easily.

Another more engaging book covers many of the same things as Livingstone's but in a more readable style: Visual Intelligence by Donald D. Hoffman.

So, if your interested in vision, etc. I'd start with Solso, then move to Hoffman, and lastly to Livingstone.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Michael Gadaleta on September 26, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am now confident that I can make intelligent comments to high society folk at any art gallery. And I'll do it in a way unlike they've heard before.

My natural attraction to the arts left me searching for answers beyond artistic techniques. As much as I thought it was impressive how impressionist painters could portray a scene using thick brushstrokes, I wanted to know what was going on in my head when I looked at it. As a current undergraduate neuroscience student, I was drawn towards the ability of the subject to explain everyday phenomena. I chose this book hoping to come closer to discover why I thought a painting was good from a biological rather than emotional standpoint. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning things such as: why your brain perceives Claude Monet's rivers to flow or how Leonardo da Vinci's two dimensional paintings seem to appear in three dimensions.


Margaret Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, successfully articulates her research on visual systems on a level that can appeal to a broad audience. Her approach to communicate her research through the blend of art and science is an effective method. Although it helps to have some exposure to entry level physiology, all that is necessary to enjoy this novel is an interest in the subject. More complex technical information is easily digested with the help of the examples of famous artworks and real world phenomena that follow it. However, I am surprised that this novel did not highlight any sculptural art examples. Dr. Livingstone's tone along with suggested exercises and optical illusions promotes reader participation.
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