Vagueness and volume: Testing the perception of depth in images with linear, sharp, or blurred contours

Jeroen F.H.J. Stumpel, Robert Volcic, Maarten W.A. Wijntjes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In European painting, a transition took place where artists started to consciously introduce blurred or soft contours in their works. There may have been several reasons for this. One suggestion in art historical literature is that this may have been done to create a stronger sense of volume in the depicted figures or objects. Here we describe four experiments in which we tried to test whether soft or blurred contours do indeed enhance a sense volume or depth. In the first three experiments, we found that, for both paintings and abstract shapes, three dimensionality was actually decreased instead of increased for blurred (and line) contours, in comparison with sharp contours. In the last experiment, we controlled for the position of the blur (on the lit or dark side) and found that blur on the lit side evoked a stronger impression of three dimensionality. Overall, the experiments robustly show that an art historical conjecture that a blurred contour increases three dimensionality is not granted. Because the blurred contours can be found in many established art works such as from Leonardo and Vermeer, there must be other rationales behind this use than the creation of a stronger sense of volume or depth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of vision
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2024


  • art history
  • contour
  • depth perception
  • shape perception
  • vision and depiction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems
  • Ophthalmology


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