The Art and Science of Depiction

Frédo Durand and Julie Dorsey

Spring 2001 MW 11-12:30 room 2-142

3-0-9 H-Level grad credit

The scientific, perceptual and artistic principles behind image making. Topics include the relationship between pictorial techniques and the human visual system; the intrinsic limitations of 2D representations and their possible compensations; and the technical issues involved in depiction: e.g. projection, denotation (choice of primitives - lines, points or regions) and tonal conventions.

The following talk highlights the motivations behind this class, from a computer graphics point of view.

And here is a more recent (and different) version given at Stanford (1 slide per page or 6 slides per page)



Open to undergraduate and graduate students.
Enrollment limited to 20.
Anyone interested in pictures (e.g. art history, visual arts, architecture, human perception, computer vision, computer graphics).
No prerequisite.



This is a 12 unit course, including 3 hours of class per week. Except for the first 3 weeks where only lectures will be given, the Monday session will consist of a formal lecture, while the Wednesday session will be devoted to student presentations about specific subjects (see below) and a 30 minutes discussion of the week's reading.



Grading will be based on the following assignments and on participation in class.
Reading and participation (10%)
1 small handouts, 2 books and some chapters or papers. Average should be around 100 pages per week. A 1 page summary of the reading and 2 questions for the discussion will be due each week.
Writing (10%)
2 small essays: an exploratory essay (4 pages, double spaced, see ideas) and a commentary on a picture with respect to the issues treated in class (2 pages, double spaced).
A report for the final project (length depends on the project)
Oral presentation (20%)
One talk: Paper, chapter or subject presentation
Final project presentation
Lab activity (15%)
Use of Photoshop
Use of a non-photorealistic rendering program (Piranesi)
Use of the commercial software Canoma to build a 3D model from an artwork
Final project (45%)
Depending on the background and interest of the students, computer software, 3D animation, video, multimedia document, mock-up, psychophysics experiment or essay.
Groups of 2 are preferable, but this is not a strict rule.
Project ideas will be proposed, but initiative is encouraged.
The projects will culminate to a report and will be presented to the class.

 Additional information

Assigment page

Extended Syllabus

Related links

Practical info, contact














There is no passive recording

Visions of light

Review of Computer Graphics
Ansel Adams example

Photoshop tutorial


What is a Picture?

Introduction to human vision

Photosurrealism (Apodaca)
Jet Lighter, overcoming obstacles (Allen)

Photoshop enhancement of a photo


Vision solves problems

Picture Organization and Gestalt

The colorblind painter
The man who mistook his wife for a hat


Decide talk subject


Gaze movements and focal points

Introduction to Color Vision


Art and Illusion (Gombrich)

Piranesi II


Limitations and compensations I

Bauhaus color harmony (Scott)

On the relation of optics to painting (von Helmholtz)



Limitations and compensations II

Byzantine icons (Konstantinos)

Limitations and compensations III

Colors in Nature (Barb)




Make-up (Amy)

Child development (Rhett)

Excerpt of Leonardo’s On Painting
Excerpt from Optics, painting and photography (Pirenne)
Solso chapter 1 and 2

Essay subject
MFA treasure hunt


Limitations and compensations IV: contrast

Balance (Ken)

Solso chapter 3 and 4

Essay subject


Patriot Day

Representation systems

Solso chapter 5 and 6

Essay outline


Linear Perspective

Drawing systems

Solso chapter 7 Essay
Project subject

Non-linear drawing systems

Denotation systems,
Line drawing
Solso chapter 8 & 9  Project draft

Tone & color system Photorealism and Non-Photorealism in CG       


Final Discussion

Project presentation

The Science of Art (Ramachandran)

Final project