The sensation of a paintings eyes following you may have more to do with your own eyes than with those of the portrait. Psychology professor James Todd of Ohio State University investigated this well-known effect and discusses it in a co-written article published in the journal Perception. Todd explains that interpretation of paintings is odd in that were having two perceptions at oncethe perception of the actual image on a wall and the perception of whats being depicted in the painting. We interpret the flat image as though its three-dimensional, he says. The pupil of the eye is what appears closest to you in a painting, and as you look at it from different vantage points, it doesnt change.
The following sensation doesnt work for all paintings. Todd notes that its important that the painting be looking straight ahead so that the pupil is in the middle of the eyeball. If a subject of the painting is looking off to the side, then of course the pupil would be in the side of the eyeball, but if the subject is looking straight ahead, it doesnt matter where youre looking at him from, the pupil is always in the middle of the eyeball.
Passing a real person in a hallway, the same isnt true. You wont see the pupil as being in the center of his eye unless youre right in front of him. But the picture, Todd says, is an odd case in that it doesnt distort in the same way a real object would.
Kathy Gulrich is a full-time artist and art coach living in New York City.