Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone – a book review


I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for when I decided to read this book, it was one tough read – felt like I was trying to sprint through mud.  Don’t get me wrong – it was a good read, packed with relevant information that artists can use in the technical aspects of their painting.  This was a science/analytical discussion about the biology of the human eye and relationship to art – I admittedly got lost a few times, but after re-reading certain sections I’ve started to understand and appreciate the fascinating correlations that Ms. Livingstone made in her studies.  I’m hopeful that over time I will be able to use some of the finer points in future paintings.

Per Margaret Livingston’s preface, “I am a Neurophysiologist who spend my time investigating why some nerve cells in our visual systems are sensitive to color whereas others are not.  In the process I have become particularly interested in something that artists have been aware of for a very long time:  that color and luminance (or lightness) carry different kinds of visual information.”

David Hubel, a colleague of Ms. Livingston, wrote the foreword, in it he states . . . “the book makes the point that art depends ultimately on our brains and that by understanding what goes on in our brains when we look at a work of art we can hope to deepen our appreciation of both art and the science.”

Look did the book get a little deep in places?  Yes and I won’t revisit those areas, but overall it was a good dissection of the eye and how we see art.  Margaret Livingstone provides a good discussion around the biology of the eye, light, color vision, luminance and night vision, stages of processing color and luminance, six clues to spatial relationship among objects, and finally color mixing.

Some of the techniques mentioned I use in my paintings; I’ve been learning the how, but I haven’t understood the “why’s.”  As an artist – for me, this is a very big deal.

My goal is to achieve new levels in my art.  I hope to accomplish this through learning new mediums, color, techniques, or understanding how science and outside influences can and do impact how/what we see and our experiences in looking at art . . . this book filled in the science connection for that last aspect.  I’ll go back and reread sections for a deeper understanding, because this book is helping to satisfy the analytical nature of my personality that wants to understand what happens when we look at art and how can I take advantage of that in my paintings.

Reading this book has been a time commitment on my part, but never worry there is a new painting in the works called, “Fall Reflections”  that will be completed in the next day or two.

Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing can be found on Amazon.

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About Mary

Oil Pastelist
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18 Responses to Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone – a book review

  1. Craig says:

    Mary – nice review. I love reading this sort of thing. Neurosciences was my favorite subject in medical school – except during hellatious exams! Might just have to round this one up.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Craig, so glad you liked the review! It was an interesting read and now knowing your love of science – you’re going to enjoy her research. I know it will help me think through the process of painting, from planning through critique at the final stages.

  2. Happy to know that you inspiration will serve to create another beautiful piece:)

  3. Wow! that seems complicated indeed. I am not sure if I will want to read this now, but for sure I will have the title in my list of books to read. Thanks for sharing Mary! very interesting! 😀
    By the way, I love science!

    • Mary says:

      Well Patricia, if you love science you’d love this book – probably nodding your head the entire you’re reading it. It was a bit for me to digest all at once, but I’m glad I took the opportunity to read it and now it’s back to painting. How’s is your Razz show going?

      • Do you mean the RAW show? heehee

        It is only one night, on the 25th of October, but I am ready. Well, I might need to paint a few more pieces for the show. Six of them are gone. I sold them! Yay! But first I need to do a small commissioned painting. I hope I will finish today, so I can post it.
        Happy painting!! 😀

  4. Forest So Green says:

    I think this book would be a wonderful reference to have and to refer back to sections someday in the future. It sounds interesting.

  5. doronart says:

    Mary you from all painters need another level…. great please don’t leave us behind.. Interesting to understand the way you have chosen to improve and thanks for letting us to see and understand your thinking on progress in art… I am sure you will get there and we all love to share it with you and meantime I wait to see your next one too.

    • Mary says:

      Hi Doron, so nice to read your comment. You know the bottom line is that most instructional art books address many of the same subjects w/techniques – w/o too many differences. Only in this instance someone has taken an opportunity to examine the how, from a scientific basis – how do we see art. Between instructional “how-to” books and a scientific study – it is up to the artist to interpret and apply when painting. I’m a curious person, when I paint I find I’m constantly questioning composition, technique, process, color, etc.

      As I paint the more my confidence grows, but the more I realize how much I need to grow. Painting gives me the experience and practice.

      • doronart says:

        I love your approach, the further I go the more I find I don’t know… sometime I feel. OK get on with it as that is how you will learn but other times when I meet knowledgable people that understand and explain… I feel I want to know more.. Beside I notice sometime when you work beside a person that have the exerinece you know what they do make sense. I took a scientific book on colours and I got lost.. I try to work more with my heart and guts feeling.. but often I know that with the knowledge and understanding I could do so much more.. one day.. I hope.

        • Mary says:

          Doron, I’m still in the learning stages of painting and w/o formal art education I’m working to fill in areas that I need in order to reach new levels. Along the way I’ve realized that I can read all the books I want, but painting is where I get my real education on color – mixing and blending, techniques and composition. Only painting will give me the practice I need for developing 3-d scenes (trees, water, sky, flowers, etc.) on a 2-dimensional surface.

          In my opinion, reading and watching only goes so far, the real education comes from actual painting – and that is what you have been doing. I’ve gone back and looked at a good number of your postings and your paintings have really progressed – that’s do to your hard work you’ve put into painting, that’s do to how you use your intuitive sense as you go along, that’s do to the discipline you have in frequency of painting whether plein aire or in the studio. A lot of good things are happening with your work and to me, it’s a very big deal and exciting to watch.

          Thanks my friend, I hope we re-visit at the same time next year – lets see how much we’ve done and how our work has progressed.

          • doronart says:

            Mary It is great to talk to you, sort of… Thank you very much as you give great encouragement and i agree with your philosophy. I also understand the direction you take and it will joy to see you acheive it in your work too. I feel great improvement in my work although some time I do some work which make me wonder what am I doing… but I believe it happen to all of us. Yet it is not a Tango as I feel more confident and move forward. I have few paintings here which I enjoy to look at and I could not do it earlier… But like everything else it what you put inis what you will get out. The most important for us both is that we doing something we love! Have a great weekend and I am sure we shall meet again some time next week…

  6. ĽAdelaide says:

    Mary, you are braver than I as I prefer to think its ” organic” or something and will just happen! 🙂 not sure that’s true tho. fascinating reading your post! thank you!

    • Mary says:

      Hi Linda, maybe a little of both right? You have to paint and practice to make any sort of progress, and also the analytical nature in me is like a child in asking the “why’s.” So this satisfies the childlike questions and painting allows me to discover. When I paint, much of what I’ve read are like little seeds that have been planted – sometimes if I listen, they sprout and nourish my thoughts as I work.

  7. Don says:

    Sounds wonderful Mary.

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