Perception of Art

Example of an asymmetric abstract black-and-white pattern

Example of a symmetric abstract black-and-white pattern

Several basic visual factors like symmetry, complexity, contrast, curvature, color, and lines can influence aesthetic experiences of simple patterns, but also of artworks. In the 1970s, the seminal work of Berlyne (1971) focused on the influence of factors like novelty and complexity on hedonic evaluation. He proposed an inverted U-relation between arousal (positively related to novelty and complexity) and hedonic value. However, this relation was later criticized, and is today viewed more as an exception than as a rule. Concerning symmetry, Jacobsen and Höfel (2002) found that it has the highest correlation with aesthetic judgments of beauty of abstract black-and-white patterns, while complexity is the second highest correlate. Furthermore, some authors argued that perfect symmetry could be somewhat boring or sterile. However, Gartus and Leder (2013) demonstrated that slight deviations from symmetry are (on average) significantly less liked by naïve participants than fully symmetric patterns. In general, symmetry processing is so fundamental that reactions to it can also be studied in the brain (see Bertamini & Makin, 2014, for an overview). In contrast to Berlyne’s theory, variegated results have been found for the relation of complexity with aesthetic preference. In an attempt to explain these divergent results, Nadal et al. (2010) proposed a three-factor model of complexity, where each factor has a different relation to beauty perception. It is also worth noting that previous experiences can influence complexity perception and aesthetic processing. For example, Tinio and Leder (2009) demonstrated that familiarization can generate contrast effects for complexity: Massive familiarization with simple stimuli led to increased beauty ratings for complex stimuli and vice versa. Concerning curvature, it is quite clear that humans prefer curved objects (Bar & Neta, 2006). However, this preference is not independent of content and negative emotional valence can overrule it (Leder, Tinio, & Bar, 2011). Image quality can also affect aesthetic experiences. For example, Tino, Leder, and Strasser (2011) showed that degradations in contrast, sharpness, and grain led to additively decreased aesthetic judgments, but the effect also depends on type of Image.


Lines and colors can be regarded as basic elements of artworks. In a WWTF-project on Lines and Colors ( an interdisciplinary team of art historians and psychologist aim to understand how single elements of artworks influence the effects of the artwork in total. The question would be: Is the sum more than its parts? When a line is seen as dynamic and a color as positive would putting them together in one artwork then lead to an artwork that is dynamic and positive? Or is there something that happens when putting the elements together that leads to a different effect for the overall artwork? The goal is to asses to what extend colors and lines contribute to the effect of artwork.  As a second area of interest, it is investigated how people differ in the effects that single elements of artworks and total artworks have on them. Here, art knowledge (expertise) and culture can be relevant factors. Therefore, a questionnaire to measure both, knowledge of art, as well as interest in art is developed in the project. To study effects of culture, our hypotheses are tested both in Austria and in Japan in collaboration with Keio University in Tokyo.


Bar, M., & Neta, M. (2006). Humans prefer curved visual objects. Psychological Science, 17(8), 645–648.

Berlyne, D. E. (1971). Aesthetics and psychobiology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Bertamini, M., & Makin, A. (2014). Brain activity in response to visual symmetry. Symmetry, 6(4), 975–996.

Gartus, A., & Leder, H. (2013). The small step toward asymmetry: Aesthetic judgment of broken symmetries. i-Perception, 4(5), 361–364.

Jacobsen, T., & Höfel, L. (2002). Aesthetic judgments of novel graphic patterns: Analyses of individual judgments. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 95, 755–766.

Leder, H., Tinio, P. P. L., & Bar, M. (2011). Emotional valence modulates the preference for curved objects. Perception, 40(6), 649–655.

Nadal, M., Munar, E., Marty, G., & Cela-Conde, C. J. (2010). Visual complexity and beauty appreciation: Explaining the divergence of results. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 28(2), 173–191.

Tinio, P. P. L., & Leder, H. (2009). Just how stable are stable aesthetic features? Symmetry, complexity, and the jaws of massive familiarization. Acta Psychologica, 130(3), 241–250.

Tinio, P. P. L., Leder, H., & Strasser, M. (2011). Image quality and the aesthetic judgment of photographs: Contrast, sharpness, and grain teased apart and put together. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5(2), 165–176.



Andreas Gartus: 

Eva Specker:

Helmut Leder: