The ‘Context Effect’

‘Context effect’ is a term used within cognitive psychology and refers to the study and subsequent description of the influence of environmental factors upon an individual’s perception of a stimulus.

In addition to perception, cognitive psychology also investigates other such processes as thought, attention, language use, memory, problem-solving, and creativity.

‘Top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ design are both terms used within the disciplines of neuroscience, cognitive neurosciences, and cognitive psychology to describe the flow of information as it is processed.

More specifically, from a psychological perspective, ‘bottom-up’ processing (or data-driven processing) is carried out in one direction: beginning with the stimulus, information is received by the retina and moves to the visual cortex. Successive stages in the visual pathway carry out increasingly complex analysis of the input.

‘Bottom-up’ processing theory suggests that perception is based on innate mechanisms that have arisen through an evolutionary process, learning is not required.

‘Top-down’ processing refers to the use of contextual information in perception. For example, handwriting which is difficult to read becomes easier to understand when it is read, as complete sentences, in conjunction with surrounding words.

Higher cognitive information, either from past experiences or stored knowledge, is required to make inferences about what we perceive. Perception is, according to ‘top-down’ processing theory, a hypothesis based on prior knowledge.

Consequently, the ‘context effect’ is viewed as ‘top-down’ information processing.

De Ville and Foster inform us that ‘the meaning and significance of art is linked to the context in which we experience it’ (1997, p. 9), whilst Hopper suggests that ‘it is clear that meaning is affected by context – where you meet the work of art will shape, to some extent, your knowledge of it’ (Hopper, 1997, p. 18).

Additionally, Shore suggests that ‘the context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaning a viewer draws from it’ (Shore, 1998, p. 26).

Whilst the ways in which the ‘meaning and significance’ of art may be influenced by context are beyond the scope of this particular post (for example, what art, in what context?) and are an area for further investigation in its own right, the implications of certain physical characteristics of a context upon the interpretation of art placed within that context are easier to elucidate.

Colour constancy, for example, is a principle which suggests that the context in which an object is seen influences how we perceive the colour of that object. It is a feature of the human visual system, and ensures that colours remain relatively constant irrespective of varying lighting conditions.

Additionally, colour constancy serves to demonstrate that the senses involved in perception are not infallible.


Figure 1: ‘Checker Shadow Illusion’ (Adelson, Edward H., 1995)

The ‘Checker Shadow Illusion’ (fig. 1) was created by Professor Edward H. Adelson (MIT) in 1995. The illusion is such that the area labelled A appears to be a darker colour  than the area labelled B. However, within the context of the two-dimensional image, they are of identical brightness (that is to say, they would be printed with identical mixtures of ink, or displayed on a screen with pixels of identical colour).

As a result, certain aspects of the environment into which works of art are placed for viewing are generally recommended.

The following extract is taken from the post ‘Putting “Context” into Context’ (14 April 2017):

Lighting should be subtle in order to avoid hotspots, prevent degradation of art by accelerated aging and assisting with lightfastness. Additionally, from an artist’s point of view, subtle, diffused lighting has significant advantages over strong, specular light. The diffused characteristics of reflected light bathe art in a light which allows subtle colour changes (hue or saturation) and contrast (determined by the difference in the color and brightness of an object compared to other objects within the same field of view) to be perceived accurately and with repeatability.

The background should not be a negative draw on the available light. Ideally, the colour should be neutral (grey works especially well). As a guide, dark walls make paintings appear lighter.

The background environment should enhance the artwork, by drawing attention to it rather than competing with it or being a distraction.

That being said, subtle colours enhance soft artworks, whilst art which is more graphic and has bold lines works well with a contrasting background.

A particular colour from a painting can be chosen and used to create an accent wall, drawing attention to that painting, in which case other walls would be a different colour.

In terms of finish, a matt or satin finish is best so that any reflected light comes from the art, not the surrounding environment. It should also reflect the overall mood of the collection.

In terms of relevance for my photographic practice, the interaction between my photographic images and any context in which they may be presented is an area of particular interest and as such is an area for ongoing research.

The intention is not for this post to provide extensive answers to any questions associated with how art and its environment interact. It is, however, intended as a starting point for further investigation – a reference point from which to navigate, fixing some key points in my mind as a precursor to that investigation, not least of which are the models used to illustrate the flow of information as we process our environment.



De Ville, Nicholas and Foster, Stephen (1997) ‘Space Invaders’, in De VILLE and FOSTER (ed.) Space Invaders. Southampton: John Hansard Gallery

Hopper, R. (1997) ‘Introduction to Part One’, in De VILLE and FOSTER (ed.) Space Invaders. Southampton: John Hansard Gallery

Jones, Jonathan (2011) ‘What Colour Should Gallery Walls Be?’ in The Guardian (21 October 2011) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: Saturday 8 April 2017)

Kloss, Kelsey (2016) ‘How to Choose the Best Paint Color For Your Art Gallery Wall’ in Elle Decor (12 April 2016) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: Saturday 8 April 2017)

McLeod, Saul (2008).’Visual Perception Theory’. [online]. Available at: (accessed: 19 July 2017).

Shore, S. (1998) The Nature of Photographs Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

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