Consistent Emotions Elicited by Low-Level Visual Features in Abstract Art

Jorien Van Paasschen, Elisa Zamboni, Francesca Bacci, David Melcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is often assumed that works of art have the ability to elicit emotion in their observers. An emotional response to a visual stimulus can occur as early as 120 ms after stimulus onset, before object categorisation can take place. This implies that emotions elicited by an artwork may depend in part on bottom-up processing of its visual features (e.g., shape, colour, composition) and not just on object recognition or understanding of artistic style. We predicted that participants are able to judge the emotion conveyed by an artwork in a manner that is consistent across observers. We tested this hypothesis using abstract paintings; these do not provide any reference to objects or narrative contexts, so that any perceived emotion must stem from basic visual characteristics. Nineteen participants with no background in art rated 340 abstract artworks from different artistic movements on valence and arousal on a Likert scale. An intra-class correlation model showed a high consistency in ratings across observers. Importantly, observers used the whole range of the rating scale. Artworks with a high number of edges (complex) and dark colours were rated as more arousing and more negative compared to paintings containing clear lines, bright colours and geometric shapes. These findings provide evidence that emotions can be captured in a meaningful way by the artist in a set of low-level visual characteristics, and that observers interpret this emotional message in a consistent, uniform manner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)99-118
Number of pages20
JournalArt and Perception
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2014


  • Aesthetic experience
  • Aesthetic viewing
  • Emotion
  • Perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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