When you look at a painting, what do you think you process first - the painting's content or its style? According to Dorothee Augustin and colleagues it is the content of a painting that we register first, with dazzling speed - within 10 ms (less than a hundredth of a second) - while processing of a painting's style comes later, from 50ms onwards.
Non-expert student participants were presented with pairs of paintings that differed in either their content, their style or both. Content included trees, flowers, a house or a man. Different styles were represented by one of four artists: Cezanne, Chagall, Kirchner or Van Gogh.
The pairs of paintings were presented for either 10ms, 50ms, 200ms, or 3000ms (3 seconds), and the participants' task was to say how similar the paintings in each pair were to each other.
After just 10 ms exposure, a pair of paintings were rated as more similar to each other if they had identical rather than contrasting content, but style had no bearing at this brief viewing time. This suggests content but not style was already being processed after 10ms exposure.
With 50ms exposure, content exerted an even larger influence on similarity judgments and style also began to play a part. Beyond 50ms, content exerted no more of an influence, suggesting all content information had been extracted by this stage. However, style continued to exert a growing influence beyond 50ms, with paintings matched for style being judged as progressively more similar with increasing viewing times, relative to paintings not matched for style.
The researchers said their results were "astonishing" if you consider that artistic style is presumably reflected in "visual or sensory features including colours, brushwork, and treatment of lines" - features which would appear to correspond to the most basic visual elements of a scene that perceptual theories say are processed first, long before whole object recognition kicks in.
The research also shows that even people without any expertise in art are impacted early on by the artistic style of a painting. "If we consider style the characteristic of art," the researchers concluded, "this characteristic needs some time to unfold - but still, it unfolds quicker than you may think."
AUGUSTIN, M., LEDER, H., HUTZLER, F., CARBON, C. (2008). Style follows content: On the microgenesis of art perception. Acta Psychologica, 128(1), 127-138. DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2007.11.006