Figure/Ground: Alex Hagen

The concept of figure-ground is the relationship between the positive and negative space in art. Our perception of images is determined by the edges of the subjects within them and is thus a very important aspect of graphic design. The concept of figure-ground can be grasped with the idea of layers: the bottom layer (negative space) would be the ground layer, with the figure layer on top (positive space). Negative space can be shaped by the positive space, as shown in this piece called “Optical Illusion”, with its edges defined by the positive space.

This piece called “Optical Illusion” was taken by photographer Sha Sha Chu. Features effective use of negative space to create recognizable shapes.

In this piece, the various alternating columns aren’t very interesting to look at. This pattern becomes much more interesting when you take a closer look at the image. When looking at the negative space, the silhouettes of people talking with their heads close together can be discerned. The way that the various curves and changing thickness of the columns lend themselves to the shaping of the people in the negative space makes this a good example of figure-ground in a three-dimensional format.

I believe that the primary purpose of this piece is more ornamental rather than practical, except to serve as an example that art can take form in unexpected ways. The use of effective negative space introduces a new depth to this otherwise simple pattern of columns that might otherwise make it unmemorable. Now that I’ve seen the silhouettes of the people, an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed is that my eyes glide right over the columns! It’s become difficult to see the columns as positive space, and for my eyes, the figure-ground relationship in this image has flipped. It might perhaps be an interesting idea to have different types of people look at this kind of art, and see how differently wired brains interpret this image differently. For example, perhaps someone who is a very literal thinker may never see the silhouettes without outside assistance, while a free-thinking artist may have trouble seeing the columns instead of the shadow people.

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