A very golden painting of a very golden retriever.

Perception in Art

Today I’m going to talk about something that I think is important to keep in mind if you’re an artist or visual designer, and that is perception. Perception is a concept that can make or break a piece. It controls how we see, interact with, and understand a work or creative idea. It is one of the foundations that governs how our work is related to by our viewers, and it can make all the difference.

First, we have to define what perception actually is. Perception is how the viewer’s own personal experiences, culture, and view point, affect how they understand and relate to an art piece. It is essentially how a viewer understands or defines a piece of art for themselves personally. It is a very individualized experience, and each person that views a piece of artwork has their own unique perception of it. However, there are many ways that we as artists can use the tools we have available to us to guide the viewer into the perception we are attempting to convey. All art pieces are two way streets. They are a combination of both the artist’s perception, and the viewer’s perception. So today, I am going to talk about some of the various tools that we as artists have available to us in order to communicate the idea we want to portray clearly and concisely.


One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of altering the perceived understanding of a piece is color. In my opinion color is one of the most powerful tools that we as artists have available to us. It can make or break a work, and allows us to mix and match a bunch of different ideas and emotions all into one piece. Since this article is not about color theory, I am not going to go into a ton of detail, but just know that color can have many positive and negative impacts on a work. It can change the mood of a piece, the emotional impact, the setting, and even the entire context. It is what governs how people interact with the piece on an subconscious level.

I will use this painting as an example:

A very golden painting of a very golden retriever.

Right now the above is most likely fairly neutral. It is a painting of a dog, and does not particularly portray much on either extreme of perception. It’s not particularly sad, or happy, and it’s not particularly exciting or melancholy. It doesn’t evoke many ideas other than perhaps a feeling of reverence for a long lost pet. (Although that may be different for you! and that’s the tricky thing about this, there is no absolute in any of this, because everyone perceives differently). However, if I were to start changing it around, you’ll see that a few tweaks to the color can completely alter our perceived idea of the painting.

In this version of the image I have increased the blue saturation. It may come off as much more melancholy and depressing. There may be more tension in the image, or there might be some sort of underlying negative feeling that occurs to you while viewing it.

In this version I have completely eliminated almost all color, and left it mostly grayscale. This image may evoke an old feeling, or it may feel like the dog is waiting for something to happen or someone to return. Perhaps it also feels melancholy due to the stark contrast between the lights and darks.

Finally this version of the image may feel more happy and perhaps even regal. It may seem like the dog is valiantly sitting upon her throne. She may seem like she’s in a much better place than the previous two.


The point is, that each one of these images most likely has a very different effect on the viewer simply because I changed the basic colors that were prevalent in the image. The colors used in a painting have the ability to significantly affect our perceived understanding of the painting’s message. There is so so so much more I could talk about regarding color theory, and I think I will release a series of articles on it in the future. But the main point for this tutorial is that color has a significant impact on perception.


Perspective is another tool that can seriously change how we perceive a work. It can completely alter the impact that an image has on a viewer, and can change the emotional state that the work portrays. Everything from the angle of a person’s head, to the overall angle of the viewer’s position on the canvas have a huge possibility to change how things are understood. For example, if I were to paint a portrait of a person I could paint it in a few different ways. I could paint the portrait looking up at the person, looking down, or even straight on. I could perhaps do it sideways, or from behind. Each one of these different ways of portraying the subject can change how our viewers relate to the subject.

The painting of the subject looking down on us may make them feel high and mighty, it may create the idea that the subject is important and powerful, while the painting of us looking down on the subject may minimize the subject’s impact. It may make them seem like they are struggling or perhaps depressed. It may make them seem evil or uncomfortable to be around. The painting of a subject directly on level with the viewer may create a sense of equality and understanding, it might make the viewer more easily able to relate to the subject and put themselves in its shoes. Finally, the portraits created at different angles (side, back, etc) could create an aura of mystery around the painting. It may make the viewer understand the subject as mysterious, fearful, aloof, or even thoughtful.

There are many other ways that perspective can affect the perception of a work, so these are just a few examples to get you started with thinking about it.

Details and Setting

Another aspect of design that can affect perception are the details of the piece and the setting. The amount of detail in a work can change how a viewer feels about it overall. The detail can also change how a viewer understands and relates to the objects in a piece. Setting on the other hand mostly deals with how a viewer relates to the objects and subjects in the piece, however it can also have an affect on mood and tone. I put these two design aspects together here, because I feel they have very similar ways of interacting with the viewer.

Here’s an example (Yes they’re really bad drawings lol, but they still get the point across):


To start out, take a look at the picture above. You may see a landscape with a bright orange sun on a completely clear day. However, it isn’t exactly clear what the piece represents entirely. You could see a ball in a pool, or maybe something floating down a river. Your perception of the piece has been not only affected by the colors of the work, but also by the amount of detail put into it and the setting.


Now, if we add some more detail, we can see that the picture is actually of an orange on a table that is on a green carpet. Just by adding or subtracting a few details we can significantly change the way we understand and relate to the piece. Additionally, by changing the setting, say altering the color of the table to brown, putting the orange in a grocery store, or re-positioning the table’s perspective, we can do even more to convey the idea we wish to portray. This is a very important concept when considering abstract especially abstract work, because there is a very fine balance between too much and not enough visual information.



Style is another way to alter the perceived understanding of a work. It may not seem like it, but style can make a huge difference in how a viewer reacts to a piece. Whether you are painting impressionistic, cartoonish, or post modern abstract, each and every style fulfills its own niche and goals. The very style that you choose to use can create the foundations for, and limit or open up the possibilities of all the different perceptive experiences you are able to create.

For example a cartoonish style will generally feel more upbeat, it will be taken less seriously and more lightly, where as a very detailed realistic style will typically be taken more seriously because it entices viewers to really take time to examine the piece carefully. Abstract styles can have a plethora of different effects on viewers, ranging from chaos to confusion to serenity. But whatever style a piece is chosen to be created in, just be aware that it can have an underlying affect on the overall message the work is attempting to convey.


This one may seem obvious, but the overall topic of a piece can have a major effect on the perceived message it has. If you are trying to convey a very specific idea, then topic can become increasingly important. For example, you probably don’t want to draw someone happily smiling and playing in a beautiful field of flowers if you are trying to portray depression. Additionally, you probably wouldn’t want to make the topic of your piece something fluid like music or dance if you wanted to portray an idea of foundation and settling down. Obviously these two examples are very subjective, and it’s very much on a case by case basis, but it is something I feel is important to keep in mind.

So what now?

Overall, as artists there are many different aspects of a piece that we can change in order to alter the perception of our viewers. We can change the color to affect mood, we can alter the detailing, the perspective, the style, and even the topic to change how we want to try and portray our message. There are most definitely many more design aspects that can be involved in a viewer’s perception, such as tension, rhythm, clarity, and balance, but for now these are just some of the bigger elements that have a huge affect on the piece as a whole.

Thank you so much for reading this article. Don’t forget to follow what drives you in life, and have a wonderful day!

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