March 05, 2024 TOPICS

[Ambitious Graduate Students] In Pursuit of a New Style of Art Appreciation—Using psychology of art to shed light on how we perceive artworks—

Megumi Nishikawa (3rd-year doctoral student, Graduate School of Human Science)

If you have ever been to an art museum, you may have thought it felt dark. Is this really a suitable environment for art appreciation?

Megumi Nishikawa (3rd-year doctoral student, Graduate School of Human Science) is conducting research from a psychology of art perspective to shed light on the mechanisms of human perception in pursuit of a new style of art appreciation. In this interview, we talked to her about her research while tracing the path that led from her hobby of art appreciation to treating art as a subject of study.

Exploring the question of how things look to the human eye

Nishikawa’s specialization is the psychology of art, a relatively new field of study in Japan in which research has only just begun. Dictionary of Psychology (translated and edited by Tamotsu Fujinaga et al, 2013, Heibonsha) defines the psychology of art as "a research area that analyzes human cognitive and emotional processes when engaging in artistic activities (e.g., creation and appreciation), where art refers to language arts, such as poetry, novels, and plays; plastic arts, such as painting, sculpture, and architecture; expressive arts, such as dance and drama; and sound arts, such as music and sound effects.”

In her research, Nishikawa has focused mainly on how the plastic arts, especially paintings, are perceived by the human eye, and she has been studying environments and methods that enable viewers to view artworks more effectively.

“Although researchers have generated a vast amount of research findings on the preservation of materials, it seems to me that research on the viewing environment and methods is still lacking. What does a viewer feel in certain environments when looking at a work of art? This is the mechanism I am trying to elucidate using experimental techniques from psychology.”

To prevent deterioration, fading, and discoloration caused by light, oil paintings, watercolors, and ukiyo-e are displayed in a darker environment than everyday space in accordance with the brightness standards set by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Wondering about this, Nishikawa conducted an experiment to evaluate the impressions viewers have of painting by changing the brightness of the lighting. What she found was that relatively dark lighting that is currently used seems to be suboptimal for highlighting the beauty of artworks and making them more appealing to viewers. In fact, she often felt the same way when viewing exhibits.

“Before, I have felt that the actual exhibited works looked dull compared to the vivid colors of the works in the brochure. I think it is a waste not to be able to enjoy the true beauty of artworks directly, so I am going through a process of trial and error in search of a better viewing environment to see if I can come up with a new way to exhibit works.”

After that, Nishikawa studied the sensitivity of the eye to determine whether security lights that can be seen clearly even on dark nighttime streets could serve as effective exhibit lighting in her pursuit to achieve more optimal lighting. However, Nishikawa, who had hoped to deploy her research in real-world settings, chose to take another approach as it was not realistic in terms of both cost and protecting artworks to change the current lighting in art museums. While considering various methods, she came across a lens that could adjust light conditions.

A new idea: Special glasses that control light of specific wavelengths

Nishikawa turned her focus to the NeoContrast™ lens. This lens, which was developed by Mitsui Chemicals for middle-aged and elderly people and cataract patients, is attenuating light at wavelengths around 585 nm. Although previous studies had shown that cutting light at 585 nm resulted in particularly vivid and clear reds and greens and increased sensitivity to contrast, no one had ever applied this technology to art viewing before.

However, Nishikawa thought that even in relatively dark art museums, if viewers wore glasses with these special lenses, they would be able to see paintings more vividly and beautifully without having to change the lighting or other environmental factors. After trying the glasses herself and checking how paintings looked at several art museums, Nishikawa sensed their potential and proceeded to build the environment for her experiment.

“Most of the previous studies on the relationship between lighting and the impression of paintings ran experiments with light boxes (miniature exhibits covering about one square meter), but for my study I created a large viewing space by myself to reproduce the actual viewing environment as much as possible. By doing several fieldwork sessions at an art museum, I also looked into the actual brightness and color of the lighting as well as the degree of unevenness in the brightness of different parts of the painting. I installed the light fixtures that are actually used in art museums, and repeatedly considered whether it would look incongruous as part of the viewing environment.”

Viewing space used in Nishikawa's experiment

For her experiment, Nishikawa had participants wear glasses with special lenses and look at paintings. The participants evaluated beauty, vividness and so on, on a seven-tiered psychometric scale and then quantified scores for how paintings looked. She found that the way viewers saw paintings did not change much even when they wore the special lenses. Although the results for impressions of the paintings were contrary to her expectations, she also gained a new finding.

“In terms of how color looks through the special lenses, I found that most colors like yellow, blue, and purple were perceived as more vivid, in addition to the vividness of reds and greens as previous studies had indicated. In addition, the measurements I took using a device to measure vividness revealed that there was almost no difference in the physical vividness of color with and without the lenses, so it suggested the effect of special lenses on colors was illusory. Going forward, I will continue to conduct research where I use these lenses to cut light at 585 nm as I attempt to unravel some of the mysteries about how people see things.”

Putting herself in the shoes of those involved with art

Nishikawa has been conducting challenging research that has created a stir in the world of art research, such as proposing a completely new style of art appreciation using special lenses. She says she began doing this research because, more than anything else, she loves museum spaces. During her undergraduate program when she studied abroad in the United Kingdom, Nishikawa says she visited numerous art museums and was fascinated by their exhibition environments.

“For example, the National Gallery in London uses bright red wallpaper as a symbol of the museum, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum, paintings and sculptures are arranged to complement each other, creating a space unlike anything I have ever seen. It was during this time that I came across my current research field: the psychology of art. After returning to Japan, when I visited Japanese art museums, I felt that the exhibition lighting was darker than that in other countries. Current exhibition configurations allow visitors to appreciate art, but I wanted to propose an even better viewing environment, which led me to my current research.”

Nishikawa is conducting her research with the hope that it will someday be put to use in art museums. This is precisely why she tries to put herself in the shoes of curators, researchers, and others who deal with art and exhibitions on a daily basis. Rather than imposing the insights gained through her experiments on those working in the field, she engages in her day-to-day research in an effort to leave behind findings that can serve as suggestions toward the common goal of “delivering rich artistic experiences for everyone.”

Trailblazing new paths that transcend disciplines and borders

While Nishikawa's empirical approach has brought something new to the field of art, she also values the actual voices of the participants in her experiments. Everyone has their own way of feeling about a work of art, and surprising discoveries and new facts are often revealed through words as well as data. By confronting both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of her research, Nishikawa believes she can take her research in new directions.

“The Graduate School of Human Science has faculty who specialize in the many subfields of psychology, so I am able to receive opinions on my research from a variety of perspectives. At first, I mainly collected data using psychometric scales, but on the advice of faculty from different disciplines, I also began to ask participants for an introspection report, a detailed report of what they thought and felt during the experiment. I think that being in a place where I can access knowledge from a variety of disciplines has allowed me to deepen my research.

Nishikawa gives a lecture at the University of Cambridge's museum (The Fitzwilliam Museum)
Nishikawa gives a presentation at the Visual Science of Art Conference in Cyprus

According to Nishikawa, she has also learned many things by traveling overseas. With assistance from the Ritsumeikan Advanced Research Academy (RARA), she studied affective neuroscience at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea during her second year in the doctoral program. In the third year of her program, she studied in the United Kingdom, where she gave a lecture on her research at the University of Cambridge's museum and University of Bristol, and she also gave a presentation at the Visual Science of Art Conference in Cyprus. In this way, she is deepening her insight while pursuing her research life with an enterprising attitude.

Nishikawa continues to demonstrate great promise in her research, including being selected by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for a DC2 Research Fellowship. In 2024, she says she will embark on a new challenge while continuing her research as a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow.

“After I earn my degree in 2024, I plan to launch a consortium on the Osaka Ibaraki Campus that will engage in activities to use psychology to solve problems at art museums. In particular, I believe that psychological experimental methods can make a significant contribution to investigating how the general public perceives exhibits, in addition to the viewpoints of specialists such as curators and researchers.”

The future of this pioneering researcher is full of possibilities, and we plan to keep tabs on her to see what she does next.

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