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Why do the eyes in some paintings appear to follow the viewer around the room, and how do artists achieve this illusion?

Manzul Rahim,
Lisle, Ill.

Viewing art is typically a one-way street. The feeling that a painting or photograph is also watching you can be both unnerving and awe-inspiring. Artwork, as well as many religious icons in churches and synagogues, has conjured the feeling in many viewers that something animated lies within the eyes that look back at them.

But this trompe l’oeil (literally, deceive the eye) is not that hard to see through. Art expert Alan Klevit, who writes the syndicated column “The Art Beat,” says you can encounter the phenomenon every day: Find a photo in your newspaper of someone looking directly into the camera. From any angle, the eyes will still be looking into the camera, and consequently, seeming to stare at you. The image is two-dimensional; if it appears to look at you from one angle, it will appear that way at every angle.

Klevit says the effect is carried off the same way in paintings. If an artist chooses to depict a person looking out at viewers, he or she will paint the eyes as if they were “gazing into the camera,” so to speak. The success of the illusion depends on the artist’s skill in portraying pupils that stare straight out. The more realistic the stare, the more power it has to captivate its audience.

Art and religion certainly aren’t the only realms to realize this power. Advertising uses it everywhere: Countless billboards and magazine ads feature people looking right at you, so that you will be visually arrested and will read the text. And, of course, one of the most famous trompe l’oeil images uses the illusion to instill patriotism-and adds a pointing finger to its pair of almost hypnotic eyes. While Uncle Sam says “I want you,” his whole demeanor says “I want to stare you down.”