Do artists see their retinas?
Our perception starts with the image that falls on our retina and on this retinal image, distant objects are small and shadowed surfaces are dark. But this is not what we see. Visual constancies correct for distance so that, for example, a person approaching us does not appear to become a larger person. Interestingly, an artist, when rendering a scene realistically, must undo all these corrections, making distant objects again small. To determine whether years of art training and practice have conferred any specialized visual expertise, we compared the perceptual abilities of artists to those of non-artists in three tasks. We first asked them to adjust either the size or the brightness of a target to match it to a standard that was presented on a perspective grid or within a cast shadow. We instructed them to ignore the context, judging size, for example, by imagining the separation between their fingers if they were to pick up the test object from the display screen. In the third task, we tested the speed with which artists access visual representations. Subjects searched for an L-shape in contact with a circle; the target was an L-shape, but because of visual completion, it appeared to be a square occluded behind a circle, camouflaging the L-shape that is explicit on the retinal image. Surprisingly, artists were as affected by context as non-artists in all three tests. Moreover, artists took, on average, significantly more time to make their judgments, implying that they were doing their best to demonstrate the special skills that we, and they, believed they had acquired. Our data therefore support the proposal from Gombrich that artists do not have special perceptual expertise to undo the effects of constancies. Instead, once the context is present in their drawing, they need only compare the drawing to the scene to match the effect of constancies in both.