The best books on visual perception

8 authors have picked their favorite books about visual perception and why they recommend each book.

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About Looking

By John Berger,

Book cover of About Looking

This is a book of essays about the act of looking, especially looking at photographs and paintings and animals and other people. Thus these are essays about history, memory, suffering, beauty, and the self. Berger had a generous spirit; he wrote often about the lives of peasants and spent the last forty years of his life in rural France. Berger gazed upon the world in all its forms with composure and curiosity. 


Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and ambivalence. How does that apply to the self? What does it mean to present myself to others? How do I appear to the world and how close is that to what I see myself to be? Are we ever truly seen—or willing to be seen? In a world where cameras exist everywhere and we are encouraged to record rather than simply be, how do we look in a mirror? Hannah Arendt said that we could tell reality from falsehood because reality endures. But I feel that nothing I experience endures; nothing remains the same, including the reflection. If anything lasts, it may be my own make-believe. Everything I write is, in some way, this question. Who is that?


I wrote...

The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

By Sallie Tisdale,

Book cover of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

What is my book about?

Reality television is easy to dismiss, but it is one of the most popular entertainments in the world. Despite a long history of sexist and racist casting and appalling cultural appropriation, Survivor thrives. As it approaches its 41st season in twenty years, the show remains wildly popular, franchised into many languages. The players watch each other, the cameras watch the players, we watch the show even as it absorbs its fans like an amoeba. Survivor is a superb example of how our culture has become one of the endless gaze. We live, watch, and imagine ourselves onscreen and off, and cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

By Betty Edwards,

Book cover of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

If you think you can’t draw, then read this book! It’s a bible for anyone wanting to draw, and is by all accounts “the world's most widely used drawing instruction book.” If you want to start drawing or have been unable to get much beyond a “childlike level,” the exercises in this book will help you gain those skills you have always sought.

I often use the “Upside down Drawing” exercise with my portrait classes; my students are usually astounded at how quickly and accurately they can produce a likeness! This is a fascinating book and whether you are an experienced artist or just starting, it will give you inspiring confidence and deepen your artistic perception.


Who am I?

I have always loved to draw ever since my Dad used to sit drawing with me at the kitchen table when I was little. At Art School we had to spend the first six weeks doing a daily life drawing class before being allowed to pick up a paintbrush! I then studied graphic design setting up my own business, at a time when, without computers, drawing was essential for presenting layout and design. Nowadays, I’m constantly instilling in my students the importance of drawing and sketching. Having been a professional artist all my working life, drawing has been a fundamental element in every way, and all the way.


I wrote...

Drawing for the Absolute Beginner

By Carole Massey,

Book cover of Drawing for the Absolute Beginner

What is my book about?

The book is a complete drawing course, designed to help you progress from simple techniques such as lines, circles, squares, and ellipses to capturing landscapes, figures, and buildings.

There are numerous simple step-by-step demonstrations as well as larger projects, and outline tracings are provided of the more complex drawings that you can transfer straight onto your paper. Most of the artworks in the book are created using pencil, but Carole also uses ink, ballpoint pen, pastel pencil, and water-soluble pencils to encourage you to experiment with other media too. By the end of the book, you will have learnt all you need to know to take your drawing skills further and become an accomplished artist in your own right.

Curvilinear Perspective from Visual Space to the Constructed Image

By Albert Flocon, André Barre,

Book cover of Curvilinear Perspective from Visual Space to the Constructed Image

This is my list so I wanted to include this book that was so key to me. This is an art book, but it's a very math-y art book with very few illustrations and almost no how-to step-by-step illustrations. It has pages and pages of “to draw a line from 30 degrees above the horizon and 15 degrees to the left of center etc. etc. etc.” text. It's a dense read, but it was the book that solved six-point perspective for me, which was a topic I'd been working feverishly on for a solid year and couldn't quite nail on my own. It really opened up my understanding of perspective, especially curvilinear perspective drawing. I owe this book (and Flocon and Barre) a lot.


Who am I?

Drawing and painting people has been my passion and my profession for a couple of decades now. Fine art, comic books, animation, illustration – as long as I'm drawing people, I'm happy. I love the challenge of trying to capture (or create) a living, breathing, thinking person on paper. And I love talking about art books with other artists. Which ones are great, which ones miss the mark, which ones have tiny hidden gems in them. This list is a mix of books I love, and books I heartily recommend.


I wrote...

Vanishing Point: Perspective for Comics from the Ground Up

By Jason Cheeseman-Meyer,

Book cover of Vanishing Point: Perspective for Comics from the Ground Up

What is my book about?

There are tons of books for drawing a red barn in a field or a still life with a fruit bowl and a wine bottle, but what if you want to draw Times Square as seen from the air? Or an Alien city or an underground labyrinth? Or anything else that only exists in your head (so far)? Where do you put the vanishing points? How many of them do you need? What if you want to do weird curvilinear-perspective fisheye-lens stuff? Vanishing Point is a perspective drawing book that focuses on drawing imagined scenes, as well as observed ones.

Art and Visual Perception

By Rudolf Arnheim,

Book cover of Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye

This is a classic book by German-born psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, in which he lays out the principles underlying our perception and understanding of works of visual art.  One of the major principles discussed is the human tendency to see the simplest form possible in any visual array. This ‘simplicity principle’ is also used to explain the intelligence and inventiveness of children’s art. In a brilliant chapter called Growth, Arnheim shows us that children are not striving towards realism; rather they are trying to create the simplest possible recognizable structural equivalent for the object they are representing.  The inventiveness with which children reduce complex forms to simple structural equivalents requires far more intelligence than mindless copying.  


Who am I?

I’ve had a life-long love affair with the arts. I intended to become an artist, but ultimately became a psychologist researching psychological aspects of the arts. My first book, Invented Worlds, examined the key questions and findings in the psychology of the arts. In Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, I wrote about gifted child artists. My Arts & Mind Lab at Boston College investigated artistic development in typical and gifted children, habits of mind conferred by arts education, and how we respond to works of art. The walls of my home are covered with framed paintings by young children, often side by side paintings by professional artists.


I wrote...

How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

By Ellen Winner,

Book cover of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration

What is my book about?

How Art Works explores puzzles about the arts (visual art, music, literature) that have preoccupied philosophers as well as the broader, reflective public: Can “ART” be defined? How do we decide what we think is a good or great work of art? Why do we seek out works of art that elicit negative emotions like sadness or fear? What’s wrong with a perfect fake? Does reading fiction enhance empathy? Does arts education raise test scores? What is particularly special about the visual art of the young child?  These puzzles are explored from the perspective of empirical evidence from my own lab as well as from labs of psychologists around the world.

Art and Illusion

By E.H. Gombrich,

Book cover of Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation

Ernst Gombrich's masterpiece, published in 1960 and still in print, follows the drive in Western Art from Ancient Greece and Egypt to the present day, to achieve the illusion of realistic appearance in pictures. Kenneth Clark, himself a most accomplished art historian and writer, described Art and Illusion as 'One of the most brilliant books on art criticism I have ever read." I too admire the way the book combines great erudition with a clear conversational style and an ability to move beyond the usual confines of art history. Gombrich uses findings from psychology to illuminate his argument, supported with a surprising range of illustrations, not just from the fine arts, but from advertising, photography, caricature, and cartoons. Brilliant indeed.


Who am I?

If I was asked to describe the central theme of my life's work in a phrase, it would be 'geometry in the arts'. I'm an architect originally, now a professor in London, and have always loved drawing and the art of perspective. In the 1990s I became fascinated with the idea that Johannes Vermeer used the camera obscura, an obsession that led to my book Vermeer's Camera. I'm now working on Canaletto's Camera. And I have ideas for yet another book, on perspective, to be called Points of View. I've chosen five books on these topics that I've found most thought-provoking and inspiring.


I wrote...

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

By Philip Steadman,

Book cover of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

What is my book about?

Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer's possible knowledge of contemporary optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an image for artists to trace. By analysing the perspective of Vermeer's paintings, I have been able to reconstruct his studio and provide exciting new evidence to prove that Vermeer did indeed use the camera.

Zoom

By Istvan Banyai,

Book cover of Zoom

This book never fails to astound me with its visual surprises. I have looked at it at least a hundred times, and each time I cannot stop turning the pages to see what is next, despite already knowing! The art is superbly drawn, and has the perfect amount of rich detail to savor while “zooming” before we come to a satisfying rest at the contemplative ending.


Who am I?

I love wordless books immoderately, and I also love books that have meta, surreal, or magical realism elements. This list combines these two features! I was personally so happy that The Red Book was described in a review as “a wordless mind trip for tots,” and I think all the books on this list would perfectly fit that description (and much, much more!) too.


I wrote...

The Red Book

By Barbara Lehman,

Book cover of The Red Book

What is my book about?

This book is about a book. A magical red book without any words. When you turn the pages you'll experience a new kind of adventure through the power of story. In illustrations of rare detail and surprise, The Red Book crosses oceans and continents to deliver one girl into a new world of possibility, where a friend she's never met is waiting. And as with the best of books, at the conclusion of the story, the journey is not over. A 2005 Caldecott Honor book.

Vision

By David Marr,

Book cover of Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information

David Marr shaped the field of computer vision in its early days. His seminal book laid the structure for interpreting images and one which is still largely followed. He popularised notions of the primal sketch and his work on edge detection led to one of the most sophisticated approaches. His work and influence continue to endure despite his early death: we missed and miss him a lot.


Who am I?

It’s been fantastic to work in computer vision, especially when it is used to build biometric systems. I and my 80 odd PhD students have pioneered systems that recognise people by the way they walk, by their ears, and many other new things too. To build the systems, we needed computer vision techniques and architectures, both of which work with complex real-world imagery. That’s what computer vision gives you: a capability to ‘see’ using a computer. I think we can still go a lot further: to give blind people sight, to enable better invasive surgery, to autonomise more of our industrial society, and to give us capabilities we never knew we’d have.


I wrote...

Feature Extraction and Image Processing for Computer Vision

By Mark S. Nixon,

Book cover of Feature Extraction and Image Processing for Computer Vision

What is my book about?

Computer Vision now helps society in many ways: we use face recognition on our phones and we can identify plants too (though we sometimes get fined when our number/ license plate goes past a camera too quickly). The advance has been due to faster computers, cheaper memory, better sensors, and better techniques. Back in 1997 I and Alberto found that no book covered feature extraction in-depth, so we rectified that. Our book is pretty much the only one describing computer vision via techniques for finding and describing shapes and structure. Many of these now find use in the systems applied in medicine and in industry – and in current deep learning-based systems. I’ll next be listing some of the great books that have moved this fascinating field forwards.

The Astonishing Hypothesis

By Francis Crick,

Book cover of The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul

This book, by the co-discoverer of the molecular structure of DNA, helped kick off the modern research enterprise that seeks to track and identify the neuronal correlates of consciousness, that is the footprints of consciousness in the brain. Crick argues that for tactical reasons, scientists should focus on more accessible aspects of consciousness, such as visual awareness, and provides an easy-to-follow introduction into the mammalian brain.


Who am I?

I am a neuroscientist best known for my studies and writings exploring the brain basis of consciousness. Trained as a physicist, I was for 27 years a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before moving to the Allen Institute in Seattle, where I became the Chief Scientist and then the President in 2015. I published my first paper on the neural correlates of consciousness with the molecular biologist Francis Crick more than thirty years ago.


I wrote...

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

By Christof Koch,

Book cover of The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread But Can't Be Computed

What is my book about?

In my latest book,The Feeling of Life Itself (2019), I define consciousness as any subjective experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted. How can the brain, three pounds of highly excitable matter, a piece of furniture of the universe, subject to the same laws of physics as any other piece, give rise to subjective experience? I argue that what is needed is a quantitative theory that starts with experience and proceeds to the brain. I outline such a theory, based on integrated information, and describe how it has been used to build a clinically useful consciousness-meter. The theory predicts that many, and perhaps all, animals experience the sights and sounds of life; consciousness is much more widespread than conventionally assumed. Contrary to received wisdom, however, programmable computers will not be conscious. Even a perfect software model of the brain will not be conscious. Its consciousness is fake. Consciousness is not a special type of computation—it is not a clever hack. Consciousness is about being.

Jumbo Book of Amazing Mazes

By Hayyoun Publishing,

Book cover of Jumbo Book of Amazing Mazes: Amazing Maze Activity Book Up Over 100 Mazes + Unicorn Themed Mazes

While Jumbo Book of Amazing Mazes lacks the high-end production values of my other recommendations, it does offer a whopping 175 colourful illustrated mazes, enough (probably) to last the whole summer holidays! The mazes are varied, with many of them incorporating other puzzle techniques, so you’ll find code-word mazes, quiz mazes, number-logic mazes, and riddle mazes in the mix, this is something I like a lot, and one of the reasons it made my list. This book is great value for money and better than many, if not most, of the similarly priced alternatives (many of which only include black and white mazes, something to be aware of).


Who am I?

I am an author, illustrator, and award-winning creative director. I have loved to draw and make things since a young age, mostly wacky contraptions (inspired by my love of the Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races cartoons). I’m also passionate about mazes, having spent many family holidays drawing mazes on a small whiteboard for my two boys to complete.


I wrote...

Mega-Maze Adventure!: A Journey Through the World's Longest Maze in a Book

By Scott Bedford,

Book cover of Mega-Maze Adventure!: A Journey Through the World's Longest Maze in a Book

What is my book about?

Not just a maze––the book itself is a maze! Every page (including the cover) has a portal hole cut into it, allowing the maze to run from page to page and make this the world's longest maze in a book. Every spread is a journey through an imaginative world: there's Robot World and Butterfly World, Ski World and Underwater World, Dragon World, and Skyscraper World.

Filled with hypnotic details, hidden surprises, fun facts, and bright, swirling, richly-colored details, every page is a compelling adventure. This maze book is the first of its kind, and a totally immersive, compelling, and challenging experience for young people (and their parents!).

The Mind's Eye

By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of The Mind's Eye

For me, thinking about blindness and the brain all started with an essay by Oliver Sacks called “To See and Not See” (An Anthropologist on Mars). In The Mind’s Eye Sacks picks up some of the threads of that earlier essay and goes deep into how seeing is not just a matter of having functioning eyes. From the pianist who could  suddenly no longer read music to blind people (like myself) who still consider themselves very visual, these neurological tales are intellectually intriguing and emotionally compelling. Sacks even includes his own journal of vision loss as one of the case studies. But whether he is the patient or the doctor, his distinct voice and personal connection to his subject matter has had a huge influence on my own writing.


Who am I?

Thanks to a degenerative retinal eye disease, I’ve lived on pretty much every notch of the sight-blindness continuum. While going blind super slowly I’ve engaged with the science of seeing and not-seeing as an  academic and artist for about 25 years. I like to say that there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted, there are just fewer of us. Besides teaching literature and humanities courses at NYU, I’ve lectured on art, accessibility, technology, and disability at universities and institutions around the country. I love sharing stories about the brain on blindness, and hope you find my recommendations as fascinating as I do.


I wrote...

There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness

By M. Leona Godin,

Book cover of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness

What is my book about?

From Homer to Helen Keller, Dune to Stevie Wonder, the invention of braille to the science of echolocation, There Plant Eyes probes the ways in which blindness has shaped our ocularcentric culture, challenging deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be “blind.” Blindness has been used to signify thoughtlessness (“blind faith”), irrationality (“blind rage”), and unconsciousness (“blind evolution”). At the same time, blind people have been othered as the recipients of special powers as compensation for lost sight, such as the poetic gifts of John Milton and  the heightened senses of the superhero Daredevil.

Godin—who began losing her vision at age ten—illuminates the often-surprising history of both the condition of blindness and the myths and ideas that have grown up around it.

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