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Leonardo, Vol. 11, pp. 227-235. Pergamon Press Ltd. 1978. Printed in Great Britain. THE ECOLOGICAL APPROACH TO THE VISUAL PERCEPTION OF PICTURES* James J. Gibson** Having rejected the picture theory of natural perception we can make a start on picture perception. To see the environment is to extract information from the ambient array of light. What is it, then, to see a picture of something? The information in ambient light does not consist of forms and colors but of invariants. Is it implied that the information in apicturedoes not consist of forms and colors but of invariants? That sounds very odd, for we suppose that a picture is entirely composed of forms and colors. The kind of vision we get from pictures is harder to understand than the kind we get from ambient light, not easier. It should be considered at the end of a treatise on perception, not at the beginning.It cannotbe omitted, for pictures are an essential part of human life as much as words. They aredeeply puzzlingand endlesslyinteresting. What are pictures and what do they do for us? THE SHOWING OF DRAWINGS For countless centuries, certainly since the cave men, the artist has been making a drawing, showing it to his neighbor and asking him what he saw. Some time around a century ago the psychologist thought of presenting a drawing to his observer under controlled conditions and finding out what he perceived with systematic variation of the drawing. This made the procedure an experiment with an independent variable and a dependent variable consisting of the verbal (or other) response. But actually the artist was experimenting with perception all along, as much as the psychologist, even if not formally. Thisancient procedure iseasytocarry out but it isnot a good way to begin the study of perception, for the observer is never quite sure how to answer the question ‘what do you see’. A drawing does not have ecological validity. I use ‘drawing’in a general sensewhich includes a scribble form, or pattern as well as a picture. It is the procedure that perceptionists use, however, on the assumption that a form on the retina is the basic stimulus and that form perception is the primary kind. A drawn form on paper is also said to be a stimulus, loosely speaking, and thus an experimenter can ‘apply’ it to an animal or a baby aswell asan adult. But is this a good way to begin the study of perception? My ownfirsteffort in psychologywasan experiment on the perception of drawings [11, and I have been puzzling about such experiments ever since. My subjects had to reproduce the figuresthey were shown, but you can have them recognized, or matched, or described in words, or *An abridgedversion of Chapter 14 in the forthcoming book entitled The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception to be published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston MA, U.S.A. **Psychologist, Dept. of Psychology, Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, U.S.A. 221 completed from a part You can present line-drawingsor silhouettes, closed outlines or open, nonsense figures or meaningful ones, regular forms or irregular ones, simple or complex forms, scribblesor depictions, namelessblobs or specific representations, hen-tracks or alphabetic characters, cursiveletters or printed letters, upright forms or inverted forms, ‘good’forms or ‘bad’ forms. All these variations and many others have been tried out. The results are disappointing. After hundreds of experiments nothing decisive has emerged about visual perception, only perplexities. Wherein lies the meaning? Does a drawing have an intrinsic meaning or only an arbitrary meaning? Are there laws of organization that apply or only laws of association? Are there significant forms as such or only forms that represent objects? Can forms represent solid objects or only flat objects. If the former, how? Meanwhile ofcourse, modem artists of various schools have also been experimenting.Their drawings and paintings are said to be non-representative,or non-objective,or non-figurative, or sometimes abstract, but the question is what do we see? The artists have tried out awiderrangeof variations than the psychologists, not having to worry about explicitness,and a whole crowd of professional art critics has come to exist trying to make them...


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