a Sciart project


Our project explored the creative process in non-representational art and was a collaboration between the artist Debbie Ayles and the scientist Arnold Wilkins at the University of Essex. It has resulted in several studies in collaboration with Dominic Fernandez, published in Perception. The images used in Study 1 and Study 2 can be downloaded as pdf files. The images are shown in the order they appeared in the experiments, followed by a listing of the mean ratings for each image.


The project concerned the fact that certain contemporary art, particularly op art, is judged aversive by some observers and can give rise to complaints of headache. The art that “catches the eye” can end up “hitting the head”.


The use of eye-catching design in advertisements on television has reached the stage where it has become necessary for the broadcast control authorities (initially ITC and now also BBC and ITU) to issue guidelines for programme makers so as to avoid the broadcast of video material that provokes seizures.


These guidelines are limited to televised material and consider only seizures, not headache. We have developed a simple index that can indicate how aversive an image is likely to be in the hope of extending the guidelines to aversive reactions other than seizures and to visual stimuli other than video material.


Many artists use migraine as inspiration (see the collection and analysis by Dr. Klaus Podoll ) and the artist Debbie Ayles is one of them. Sometimes observers have reported that they find her paintings aversive and that looking at them gives them a headache.    Some of Debbie Ayles' paintings contain aspects of spatial periodicity and colour contrast, which, in geometric patterns, would induce visual stress.  The spatial parameters of stimuli that induce visual stress have been described in detail but hitherto only with respect to geometric patterns. The project has demonstrated that similar considerations apply to more complex images. 


The project is now completed, and has resulted in an exhibition “Striking the eye” held at the University of Essex Gallery from 15-22 July 2006.

The exhibition includes a scientific poster describing the findings. 


The Migraine Action Association has supported the project which was funded by a Sciart Research and Development Award from the Wellcome Trust.