plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos


Drawings, paintings and photographs all seem to be more or less static entities. With luck, they can last more or less unchanged for hundreds of years. It is therefore interesting, if disconcerting, when artworks appear to change drastically from day to day.

This sense that images are changing “on their own” was something I experienced with a recent drawing series on my handmade paper — the pictures below are a sample.


After I “finished” the series of ten, the drawings seemed to change each time I looked at them. Sometimes I was pleased with the result, other times I was unsatisfied, disappointed in my work. Why was everything changing, as if by itself?


One important factor was context; what order did I put the pictures in, what was the background? I spend a lot of time ordering and grouping the pictures to try to find combinations that worked well together. But even when I had the images in a set arrangement, I still found the results unstable: sometimes I found the images fascinating and would stare at them for a long time. The drawings seemed grabbed my attention and I had the feeling of being on the verge of learning something, of seeing something for the first time — the tantalizing feeling of being on the edge of discovery. Other times I didn’t like the drawings at all and couldn’t see anything in them. What could be going on?

After some thinking, I remembered that pictures that “change” by themselves are a well known phenomenon in psychology. For example, I remembered this image which I had studied during my days in visual science:


Can you see what the image depicts? If you can, you will always be able to see what the image represents, and it will be quite clear. If you cannot decipher the image, it should seem to you like a bunch of random spots. If, after looking, you then decipher the image, it will have permanently “changed” for you. This example was interesting to me with respect to my own drawings, but it was not a clear match obviously. I could see the forms in my drawings. The drawings changed repeatedly as well, not only one at a moment of recognition.

Below is another example of an image that changes. The image can be seen in two ways: as a pair of faces looking at each other, or as a vase. This famous illusion has the property that it will continually change with viewing; sometimes it appears as two faces, sometimes as a vase. There is no final stable state, as with the spotted image above.


Neither the faces nor the vase remain permanently dominate — that is the way the image is designed. The figure-ground relationships will continually shift. Below is another example of a multi-state picture, the rabbit-duck image. The drawing can be seen in two ways, but not both interpretations are possible at the same time.


These textbook examples show transitions between 1) no form (spots) and form; 2) figure and ground (face/vase); 3) two different interpretations of a figure (rabbit/duck). The transitions can either be oscillatory, or a one time transition. [These textbook examples are online here and here.]

Thinking about these images made me wonder if I have inadvertently made multi-state images as well. If so, the states are not as clear cut, and the transitions are not a simple match to the three textbook examples. The part that I find most interesting to think about is, what domain or domains are traversed when I see my own drawings in different ways? The concept of figure and ground is essential to understanding what is happening with the face/vase example. What concept (perhaps it doesn’t yet have a name) would I need to classify the changes that I observe with my own drawings?

Do you frequently experience this phenomenon of artwork apparently changing on its own? Does it occur more with your own work, or with the work of others? Is it better to try to make “stable” artwork?