I recently noticed that I was making some images that had a reversed figure/ground relationship, in terms of lightness. That is, the main subject was light with a darker surrounding, rather than the more common dark with a lighter surrounding. For example, compare the first picture with the one below it, which I showed last week.


Although we’ve all seen those visual illusions based on ambiguous figure and ground, I realized I’d only seen this discussed in terms of geometry and shape, never lightness (or tone). So I decided to haul out a few classic examples and see what your reactions are. If you want to be unbiased, examine the pictures before reading the text following.

Is there a difference in what you see first in the images below?



The vase/face illusion may not be the best example. At least for me, it switches fairly rapidly between the two possibilities. But does one dominate for you? Is it the same when light and dark are reversed?

black-on-gray.jpg white-on-gray.jpg

The pair above is sometimes used to illustrate our different interpretations depending on brightness. Typically, the black square is perceived as something lying on or covering the gray surface, whereas the white square is seen as a window to something below or behind the gray. Tyler Green noted something related to this in a recent post about Picasso-Matisse mutual influence.

In the two Eschers below, do you notice the same animals and objects first? Can you tell which is original and which reversed?



In the art that you make or like, is there a predominance of one lightness relation of figure and ground? Do you think there’s a prevailing tendency in your daily perceptual world?

(P.S. The original Escher is second.)