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Climate, Illumination, and the Style of Western and Eastern Paintings

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journal contribution
posted on 14.02.2022, 11:04 by Isamu Motoyoshi

Classical painting styles are remarkably different between Europe and East Asia. Classic, post-Renaissance European paintings are approaching photorealism with its rich expressions of shading and highlights whereas paintings from northeast Asia consist of motifs drawn in faint shades and dark contours. Given recent findings that artwork follows the statistical regularities of natural scenes, it is sensible to hypothesize that western and eastern painting styles reflect the visual environment of the respective province. Here, we propose that the different climates of Europe and Asia produced different natural light environments that changed the visual appearance of objects, which in turn influenced painting style. Analysis of meteorological data and optical simulations show that directional lightfields in Mediterranean climates produce object images with variegated shading and sharp highlights. Cloudy and diffused monsoon-like lightfields, in comparison, produce line-shaped shading only around the deepest concavities and remove highlights as well as cast shadows. Image statistics analysis suggests that western and eastern painting styles mimic such differences in visual appearance. The style of classical artworks that have been appreciated in a particular cultural realm could partially mirror the implicit structure of images as constrained by the natural light environment of the corresponding habitat.