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Statistical regularities of art images and natural scenes: Spectra, sparseness and nonlinearities

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image of Spatial Vision
For more content, see Multisensory Research and Seeing and Perceiving.

Paintings are the product of a process that begins with ordinary vision in the natural world and ends with manipulation of pigments on canvas. Because artists must produce images that can be seen by a visual system that is thought to take advantage of statistical regularities in natural scenes, artists are likely to replicate many of these regularities in their painted art. We have tested this notion by computing basic statistical properties and modeled cell response properties for a large set of digitized paintings and natural scenes. We find that both representational and nonrepresentational (abstract) paintings from our sample (124 images) show basic similarities to a sample of natural scenes in terms of their spatial frequency amplitude spectra, but the paintings and natural scenes show significantly different mean amplitude spectrum slopes. We also find that the intensity distributions of paintings show a lower skewness and sparseness than natural scenes. We account for this by considering the range of luminances found in the environment compared to the range available in the medium of paint. A painting's range is limited by the reflective properties of its materials. We argue that artists do not simply scale the intensity range down but use a compressive nonlinearity. In our studies, modeled retinal and cortical filter responses to the images were less sparse for the paintings than for the natural scenes. But when a compressive nonlinearity was applied to the images, both the paintings' sparseness and the modeled responses to the paintings showed the same or greater sparseness compared to the natural scenes. This suggests that artists achieve some degree of nonlinear compression in their paintings. Because paintings have captivated humans for millennia, finding basic statistical regularities in paintings' spatial structure could grant insights into the range of spatial patterns that humans find compelling.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Psychology, Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA


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