Are portrait artists superior face recognisers?


As a portrait artist, a question I'm sometimes asked is whether I can recognise more in a face than other people. And to be honest, I can't answer that question because I don't know what it's like to be you with your eyes!

However, it is something I think about, in those times when I'm painting and my mind trails in many wonderful directions. I do study the faces that I'm drawing or painting so that I can portray them in the most realistic way possible. I look at those faces for hours, continually throughout the portrait so that I can get accurate and fine details.

So I hit the books, because I'm only one small ant in this entire world! And here's the best article I could find:

Outlining face processing skills of portrait artists: Perceptual experience with faces predicts performance.

Reference: Devue, C., & Barsics, C. (2016). Outlining face processing skills of portrait artists: Perceptual experience with faces predicts performance. Vision Research, 127, 92–103. https://doi-org/10.1016/j.visres.2016.07.007

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Most humans seem to demonstrate astonishingly high levels of skill in face processing if one considers the sophisticated level of fine-tuned discrimination that face recognition requires. However, numerous studies now indicate that the ability to process faces is not as fundamental as once thought and that performance can range from despairingly poor to extraordinarily high across people. Here we studied people who are super specialists of faces, namely portrait artists, to examine how their specific visual experience with faces relates to a range of face processing skills (perceptual discrimination, short- and longer term recognition). Artists show better perceptual discrimination and, to some extent, recognition of newly learned faces than controls. They are also more accurate on other perceptual tasks (i.e., involving non-face stimuli or mental rotation). By contrast, artists do not display an advantage compared to controls on longer term face recognition (i.e., famous faces) nor on person recognition from other sensorial modalities (i.e., voices). Finally, the face inversion effect exists in artists and controls and is not modulated by artistic practice. Advantages in face processing for artists thus seem to closely mirror perceptual and visual short term memory skills involved in portraiture.

3. Results and discussion

3.1. Evaluation of drawings by independent judges

We conducted Wilcoxon signed-rank tests to compare ratings by the independent judges of drawings made by artists and controls (see average ratings in Table 1). Regarding Faithfulness, faces drawn by artists were judged as more faithful than those drawn by controls, Z = 3.06; p < 0.005; r = 0.65, as were houses, Z = 3.06; p < 0.005; r = 0.65. For artists, as well as for controls, houses were judged as more faithful than faces, Z = 2.98; p < 0.005; r = 0.63, and Z = 3.06; p < 0.005; r = 0.65, respectively. In terms of Aesthetic value, faces as well as houses drawn by artists were judged as more aesthetic than those drawn by controls, Z = 3.06; p < 0.005; r = 0.65, and Z = 2.99; p < 0.005; r = 0.64, respectively. Artists’ drawings of faces and houses were similarly aesthetic, Z < 1, but controls’ drawings of houses were judged more aesthetic than their drawings of faces, Z = 2.67; p < 0.01; r = 0.57. Examples of drawings are shown on Fig. 2.

Fig. 2. Photographic models and examples of portraits/houses drawn by artists (top black frames) and controls (bottom grey frames). Drawings are the two most and the two least faithful in each group, with their mean rating shown in a box. Ratings (range from 1 to 7) were made by 12 independent judges who were blind to the drawers’ artistic practice.

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What an interesting read! I find these studies absolutely fascinating! And then remember how there's ALWAYS room for improvement in art practice!

Much Love,

Tam xx