Simplicity Hypothesis

posted in: Blog | 5

Ernst Gombrich proposed the simplicity hypothesis as an explanation of how perception operates.  We scan a territory and selectively attend to just a few objects because, we recognized a pattern of redundancies. Selective attention gives us all the information we need to make our hypothesis of what is present.  This recognition frees us from attending to every object, noise, smell, touch. Similarity accelerates perception. It gives us visual efficiency but, it is error prone.

We simplify perception by recognizing redundant pieces and discount having to look at everything or everywhere to make a secure conclusion about what we are seeing, hearing, touching etc. We simplified what was present by relying on redundancies.

Artists and everyone else from chefs to architects rely on this simplicity hypothesis.  It is a form of the etcetera principle.  We don’t look at all the designs in the fabric or  all the trees in the forest or all the flowers in the garden.  We just look for redundancies and conclude the etcetera principle is at work.

Anomalies interrupt the flow of redundancies and indicate that change has happened; that new information lies here.  Consider example 1 of a necklace from 1660.  You will not take the time to focus on each link if they are redundant.  You will focus on the most anomalous link (the pendant) and contrast it with a surrounding link or two, not all of the links. Their redundancy spares you that effort.

Example 1. Necklace from 1660,

Next, consider the example of a flower photograph in example 2.

Example 2. The rose photo,

Here again you notice redundancies in the shape of the curves and the pattern of stacking curves. Unless you slow your visual process down you will not notice that this photo is double layered set of the same flower which feels richer in detail than a single image of the flower because,  it has more redundancie.  The flower image does not feel particularly strange because, you rely on the etcetera principle to make your conclusions (hypothesis) about the meaning of what is perceived.

An anomaly can be so distracting that it interrupts the flow of redundancies and causes us to look  principally at the just anomaly.  We stop scanning and focus.  After this focus period we lose interest and move on.  Only if there is a flow of subtle changes in the redundancies do we slow down to relish the patterns rhythmic transitions…in jewelry, music, painting etc.  If there are no changes in the redundancies no matter how colorful and splendid they initially appear we lose interest.  If you pick up a kaleidoscope you will be initially impressed but, soon lose interest.

Observe the photo in example 3. There is an anomalous central tree which is bigger than its neighbors.  We immediately notice its marked difference from the surrounding tree patterns.  We concentrate on it to the detriment of the entire visual field.  In example 4 I cloned this central tree anomaly out.  Now you experience the image more coherently.

Example 3.  Photo with large central tree,

Example 4. Photo after cloning out the central tree to build a more cogent image with more subtle variations in the redundancies.

In example 5 you see a cluster of wind-bent sea grass. You will not look at each individual strand of grass to conclude what is present. You can rely on redundancies and the simplicity hypothesis to confirm that you are looking at a thick stand of sea grass.  This reliance on redundancies and our willingness not examine each strand to guess what is present is a useful strategy for artists.  It also explains what DaVinci meant when he said, “The pursuit of detail diminishes the experience of detail”.  If we paint every strand the image will appear less real than if we summarize the cumulative effect of the strands and present only a few of them.

Example 5.  Photo of a stand of sea grass illustrates the etcetera principle of perception.

Examples 6, 7, and 8 illustrate a step-by-step process for building an image based on the etcetera principle.  I begin with a few forms whose edges separate them from the blurrier background. The pattern of the edges is found first in areas of greatest contrast (light vs. dark).  Once you have concluded what these similarly described edges represent then, you no longer probe the blurrier areas.  You hypothesize them into existence. As each step presents greater differentiation and less redundancy I risk losing visual coherence through too much individuation. I tried to stop short of that state in example 8.

Example 6, Leafy Matters, step one,

Example 7, Leafy Matters, step two,

Example 8, Leafy Matters, present state.

With the next examples 9 and 10, notice that the first step is represented by example 9. Here the image has many redundancies with variations. They overlap and blend.  The image has more instability and therefore, a greater sense of motion than image in example 10. In example 10 we see the sharper separation of redundancies stabilizes the image but also, reduces its energy. If my goal is for a sense of quiet serenity then this may not be unfortunate.

Example 9, Autumn Pond, step one, dynamic with overlapping redundancies,

Example 10, Autumn Pond, step two, quieter image with fewer overlapping redundancies and greater autonomy in shape clusters.

I invite you to my lecture “Visual Thinking, Deeper, Broader and More Inventive” on Sunday 4:30-6:00 PM February 25th at Silvermine Arts Center in New Canaan, Ct. call 203 966 6668 ext 2 or visit

Join me this spring at the Huntsville Museum of Art (Huntsville Alabama) for a Master Workshop there, Natural Elements: Painting with the masters, Old & New Techniques with David Dunlop”.  The workshop is part of the Museum Academy program. Thursday May 3rd – Sunday May 6; 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Register on line at or call 256 535 4350 ext 215.


5 Responses

  1. Barbara

    I really enjoyed this post and learned something new, the etcetera principle. I would love to attend your informative and entertaining lecture. Is there a way to tape it (and even sell it, as I do not live near CT)? I really admire your work and analyses. Thank you.

  2. Barbara Joan Smith

    I want to thank you for your program, “Landscapes Through Time” Yesterday I watched your informative and thoroughly enjoyable presentation on Renoir!

    Thanks for keeping me on your email list !!!

    With great admiration,
    Barbara J. Smith

  3. Michael McBride

    I learn so much from these lessons. Your knowledge of art, the working of the eye/mind/soul trinity is unlike anyone else I have followed.

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