Finding Calm

Calm down! People like to make it sound as if a simple command can make one change from a state of agitation to feeling relaxed. But then again, maybe its easier than we realize to find peace of mind. 

As an artist, Im fascinated by lines found in nature, they are a major part of my subject matter. I’ve been told by those who have seen my seascapes that looking at these images provides a sense of calm. This made me wonder what the elements are in an image that trigger tranquility. Ive read that being outside in nature, the sight and sound of running water, the color blue, the smell of the ocean, the heat of the sun, and the motion and horizontal lines of waves all inspire calmness at the beach but a photograph removes four of our five senses. What is in the image of a seascape or landscape that we are responding to?

I took to the internet to see what research and data there was on the topic but I couldn’t find any. So I did some research of my own.

I put together a study using photographs I had taken and carefully selected to be similar in quality. The survey consisted of twelve sets of two images. I then approached a cross section of Los Angelenos (that turned out to be approximately 30% African-American, 30% Hispanic, 30% white, and 10% other) to look at these 12 sets and tell me which of the two images they found more calming. I surveyed 100 people, mostly strangers.  

Here are the results. If you’re feeling impatient and need to feel calm right now, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page to find what the majority thinks about finding it. 

Set 1: Lines

Set 1

Since landscapes and seascapes both have horizontal lines, I began the survey with these elements. Even though participants were asked to respond “A” or “B”, numerous people commented that they were uncomfortable with lines that weren’t straight or evenly spaced. I told them to please swallow their pain and go with their gut.  57% went with image A).

Set 2: Lines

Set 2

“I could never pick B) because of that incomplete line!” was the mantra for this set. It was a landslide for image A) at 93%.

Set 3: Lines

Set 3

Apparently image B) with its broken lines was not as troubling as an incomplete line however 73% went with A). Questions 2 and 3 are moderately positively correlated (Pearson r = .35). This means the people who said that they liked A) in Question 2 were more likely to say they liked A) in Question 3. 

Set 4: Sea Foam vs. Ocean Horizon Line

Set 4

At least 60 % of the participants let out an audible yet soft “Ahhhh.” They were relieved to be done with the images of lines... or maybe not. The horizon line in image B) triumphed at 94%.  

Set 5: Meadow vs. Native Plant

Set 5

Lines were still favored, but just barely, as the meadow, image A) was pick by 52%. There was a moderate negative correlation between this set and set 6. The people who chose image A) in this set were more likely to chose image B) in set 6 and vice versa. 

Set 6: Ocean Surface vs. Reeds & Horizon Line

Set 6

Three people said, “I could not select B) because alligators are in that water!” I told them the photograph was taken at a bird sanctuary in Los Angeles and that there were no alligators. They still could not select image B). Not everyone felt the fear of unseen danger as this images of reeds and a horizon line was more popular at 60%. 

Set 7: Cactus vs. Turbulent Water

Set 7

This set was upsetting to at least 85% of those surveyed because both of these images have a lot of energy and neither is calming. I included these images because I wanted to find out if color and the strong lines would win the day. They did not, only 27% were plucky enough to pick the thorns.

Set 8: Line of Clouds vs. Clouds

Set 8

Back to the comfort zone, the clouds forming the line across the image, A), was selected by 63%.

Set 9: Tree Pods vs. Lagoon with Horizon Line

Set 9

Even though the plant life was calming to many, the horizon line in image B) was favored by 91%. 

Set 10: Long-Exposure Seascapes

Set 10

Unbeknownst to the participants, the next three sets of photographs relate to the first three sets of images in that the first three sets of lines are the dominant lines of these images. In this set, B) was selected by 69%. What I found interesting about this is that the orange color triumph over the calming blue color. Also, you may remember in Set 1, A) was selected by 57%.

Set 11: Long-Exposure Seascapes

Set 11

The discomfort of the incomplete line in Set 2 seemed to vanish as B) in this set was selected by 60% (compared to 7% in Set 2). This time the color blue prevailed. 

Set 12: Long-Exposure Seascapes

Set 12

Even though both images are blue, the broken lines proved not to be so bothersome. B) came in at 54% (as opposed to 23% in Set 3).  

Although I’m continuing to explore these concepts in my work, here’s what the numbers of those surveyed say was most calming: Whether broken, incomplete, or uneven, horizontal lines in nature can be more important than color and the single most calming element of seascapes and landscapes is the horizon line. In other words, to find the very picture of calm — look to the horizon! 

*Special thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Hall for finding the correlations between sets 2 & 3 and 5 & 6.

© Susie Loucks 2019   All Rights Reserved