The Mystery of Portraiture: Why Do the Eyes in Paintings Seem to Follow You Sometimes?

Oil portrait with mysterious elements, like the painting’s eyes following you, is not just a thing of the past. Take the iconic artwork, Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci, for example. The famous portraiture is known for its enigmatic eyes that seem to be looking directly at you and follow you as you move. Leonardo was not the first to create such a painting, but it is so closely associated with him that this effect is also known as “the Mona Lisa effect.

With more and more talented artists in this world, you can buy custom portrait and have an iconic painting just in your living room – or anywhere else. Let’s take a look at how the eyes of portraiture add to the oil painting to make it mysterious.

How Perspective Changed Art

In the fourteenth century, “perspective” was introduced to art. Filippo Brunellesco, an Italian artist, was overseeing construction of the Baptistery in San Giovanni when he realized “perspective”. Following this discovery, a linear perspective – a technique that uses a single point as the focus – became popular in the art industry. From a linear perspective, all lines in a painting go to a common point, and it creates the impression of depth and distance.

The Game of Light and Shadow

Along with perspective, artists also used light and shadow to create the illusion of depth. Coming back to Mona Lisa, many have studied the famous painting to figure out the scientific reasons for the effect. In our real, three-dimensional world, shadows and light shift with movement, which is not the case in a two-dimensional portrait. Which is why it feels like the eyes are looking at us and following us. Leonardo Da Vinci’s mastery of shadows and lighting makes that effect prominent in his work.

Because the perspective, shadows, and light on the painting don’t change as you move around, it creates something of a mild optical illusion in your brain such that the eyes will seem to follow you as you move around.

Art as an Illusion

Many artists use linear perspective and the interplay of light and shadow to create paintings that look alive. However, the medium which a painter uses exists in only two dimensions and ultimately, all depth created is a trick, an optical illusion, and this illusion gives rise to other illusions – including eyes that follow you.

When an oil portrait is painted looking away from you, the light, shadow, and perspective don’t allow the person in the painting to ever look at you, no matter how much you move around.

Paintings with ‘the Mona Lisa Effect’

Examples of this mysterious effect include some famous artwork like Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in a Velvet Beret painted in 1634, Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier painted in 1623, and Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man painted around 1843.

Another famous example is the iconic British World War I recruitment poster, with Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, facing forward and pointing a finger, along with a glaring stare.

The Science Behind it

In 2004 by a team of researchers from Ohio State University wrote a paper on the “near” and “far” unchanging points of the 2D image. James Todd, the co-author of the paper, said, “The idea is simple – no matter what angle you look at a painting from, the painting itself doesn’t change. You’re looking at a flat surface. The key is that the near and far points of the picture remained the same no matter the angle the picture was viewed from. When observing real surfaces in the natural environment the visual information that specifies near and far points varies when we change viewing direction.

When we observe a picture on the wall, on the other hand, the visual information that defines near and far points is unaffected by viewing direction. Still, we interpret this perceptually as if it were a real object.

The Debate of the Mona Lisa Effect

According to a team from Bielefeld University in Germany, no one has ever done a rigorous test to see if the Mona Lisa effect even applied to the Mona Lisa. They conducted their own tests, and the team published a paper that said, “There is no doubt about the existence of the Mona Lisa effect—it just does not occur with Mona Lisa herself.”

This study found that the woman in the framed painting is actually looking out at an angle that’s 15.4 degrees off to the observer’s right — well outside of the range that people normally perceive when they think someone is looking right at them.

There was no plan or intention of creating this effect. When painting any figure with a fixed gaze looking at the viewer, the Mona Lisa effect becomes natural. The oil painting is a flat two-dimensional representation, it cannot change in perspective as we move around it. The directional cues are fixed which is why it always gazes at us. This phenomenon has often said to make the painting come “alive” but it is anything but that.

Browse through some of the portraitures that make you feel that you are being followed.

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