The most basic emotion any art can evoke is interest.

It doesn't matter if it's story, image, music, textile—our relationship begins with interest.

So that's a good place to begin: what is interesting?


If it feels strange to think of interest as an emotion, it's probably because it's relatively 'flavourless'.

If we think in terms of the Inside Out emotions we discussed in the previous lesson, we could say interest is closest to joy because they are both 'moving towards' type emotions.

But we are often interested in things that anger, disgust, frighten, and sadden us—so there's something more neutral and undefined about interest compared to other emotions.

It's like a base into which other emotions can be blended.

We're going to look at a series of images. Pay attention to how interesting you find them.

How interesting do you find the image above?

You probably said this is not interesting.


For one thing, it's a flat, half-empty carpark—hard to think of anything more boring.

Tonally it's kind of bland and grey and oatmeal and just generally blah.

You'd have to wonder, what is the point of this photo even?

That said, what if we added context?

  • What if we told you every single one of those cars was stolen?
  • Or if this was a top-secret test site for robot cars to drive around and try to park without crashing into each other?
  • Or if this car park was empty because this town is the scene of a zombie apocalypse?

Extra context can make something boring seem much more interesting.

Or what if you were an expert in carparks?

Speaking of context, this carpark is boring because you don't know anything about carparks.

But if you were a carpark expert like an urban planner, an architect, or a builder, then you might find this photo interesting in all sorts of ways:

  • Is it a good or bad example of a carpark design?
  • Is it well-built?
  • How should we deal with parking in cities?
  • Should cities be reliant on cars? 

So content is king, but context counts

The point of this discussion is to show you that art is a two-way street.

Even the dullest content can be transformed by context, plus we—as an audience—bring our own perspectives which can add context beyond that provided in the art.

And if you said you found this image fascinating in order to assert your independence and defy the sense that you were being manipulated into saying it's boring, then that just shows how meta, self-referential, and social that context can get. 

Is this image more or less interesting than the one before it?

You probably thought this was more interesting than the previous image.

But why? They're both empty carparks, right?

The second image has more interesting composition and tonal elements.

Both have a focal point in a corner, but in the first image the edges of the carpark sort of cup your eye and hold it in the center, whereas the second image uses lines to shoot your eye on a path backwards across the frame.

Along the way, the second image gives you a little pitter-patter rhythm of orange-dashed bollards and white parking lines angled in a pleasing herring-bone pattern

Plus there's more contrast in the black/white/yellow colours of the second image than the uniform grey of the first image.

So even if the content is boring, artistic technique—composition, shape, colour, rhythm, repetition, contrast—can create interest.

Is this image more or less interesting than the one before it?

This image was probably more interesting than the previous carpark image.


  • It has people. People are just more interesting than carparks. Even if you don't like or aren't interested in people, they will catch your eye if they're in frame. 
  • These people are also doing something: talking, gesturing, looking at each other. 
  • They're all pretty good-looking. 

So it's definitely more interesting than the carpark.

But is it interesting-interesting?

Like, would you want to spend any more time with this image? Or these people?

Probably not.

Why not?

Well, they are people and they're doing something, but it doesn't look that interesting:

  • They're just talking about some kind of nondescript work stuff, but who knows what: the monitor is empty; the notepad is blank.
  • Tonally the scene is bland and oatmeal-ish, like the carpark photo.
  • The idea of this dude holding court while these faceless women sit around pretending to be engaged probably isn't interesting to a lot of people.

So maybe it's more interesting than an empty carpark, but it's still not that interesting.

A sailor's yarn Henry Scott Tuke
Is this image more or less interesting than the one before it?

You may or may not have found this image more interesting than the previous one.

Why might you have found it more interesting?

Like the previous image, it focuses on one white male face, and it shows a conversation.

But the painting just has more contrasts:

  • We have a young boy and what appears to be an older man (a contrast in age).
  • The environment is strange, dark, the interior of an old boat of some kind (contrasting with the boys face).
  • The boy is on the floor, the man is seated (contrast in height).
  • The boy is not talking, he's listening, but his expression is hard to read: is he interested, tired, bored, concerned? The fact that we can't quite read it makes it seem more realistic in some way, we look longer trying to figure it out. (And his expression contrasts with the man's animation.)
  • The previous image was uniformly pastel-light; this image is dark with patches of brightness in faces and hands, collars and beams.
  • There's more texture and depth.
  • There's more variation in heights and angles.

All these elements combine to create contrast, motion, mystery... which all creates drama.

Why might you think the previous image of the people at the table was more interesting?

One reason might be that this painting is dark and if you see it on a small screen in a bright space, you might not see enough detail for the image to be interesting.

Another reason might be that you're more interested in looking at attractive people than at whatever this painting is, or perhaps you instinctively dismiss anything that looks too old or dirty.

It's interesting to imagine if these images were shown at equivalent sizes on opposite walls of a gallery, which one people would gravitate towards.

The chances are people would look at the brighter image first, but then get bored and turn to the darker image, where they could spend more time looking at details.

Is this image more or less interesting than the one before it?

You probably found this more interesting because it has conflict.

The last couple of images both had people and action, which added some amount of interest.

But this image has actual conflict, meaning competing goals, power dynamics, suspense and surprise—plus the conflict is pretty weird: what is that pelican on the left going to do exactly?

We find these kinds of conflict very interesting.

In terms of composition and tone, this image is simple and not necessarily more visually interesting than the carpark or the people talking at the table.

But the content probably jumps out at you more immediately than any other image so far.

Australian beach pattern Charles Meere
Is this image more or less interesting than the one before it?

You may or may not have found this image more interesting than the pelican, for all sorts of reasons.

Possibly the pelican image is more interesting because it grabs your attention more quickly and it has something weird and dramatic going on in it.

But then again, maybe the beach painting is more interesting because there are more people doing more things, there are more details to look at, your eye can roam around the picture studying it for longer.

The pelican photo has one big moment, creating an event you can react to; the beach painting has lots of small and medium moments, creating a world you can spend time in.

It has the same gauzy sand-blue-peach palette as some of the other images, but the bodies have more contrast and make all sorts of interesting, exaggerated shapes, like dancers.

There is action and activity, but no conflict. In that way it is more like the conversation images than the pelican brawl.

The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879 Alphonse de Neuville
Is this image more or less interesting than the one before it?

You probably found this image more interesting than the one before.

Like the beach painting it has lots of people, lots of activity, and it creates a world for you to explore. 

But additionally it has lots of drama and conflict—not just one big conflict like the pelican brawl, but many smaller (yet more dangerous, high-stakes) conflicts—plus it has a greater contrast of tones and colours than the beach scene.

The faces are more vividly emotional in this painting (though you would need to expand the image to see). At the beach, everyone is basically happy; here people are terrified, desperate, determined, intent—the emotions are all dialled up.

On the other hand

On the other hand, you might have thought "ugh a battle, who cares" or "ugh, colonialism, sucks" or "ugh, muddy, blah" and for any of those reasons found it less interesting.

Having seen all of these images, which one stands out to you as being the most interesting?

So what have we learned so far?

  • Interest is a gateway emotion; it's what gets us paying attention and responding in the first place.
  • Content is a primary source of interest.
  • Some content is more interesting than others: people, conflict, heightened emotions.
  • Context can change how interesting a piece of content is—and possibly we bring that context ourselves, from outside the art.
  • Execution can also affect interest: composition, tone, contrast, colour, rhythm, and so on—these elements can be made interesting in their own right.

So as a baseline, we can always ask ourselves whether a story (or any piece of art) evokes our interest, and if so how and why?