Figure and Ground
Every image we look at, whether in nature or made by the human hand is composed of forms & structures. We have to learn to identify and comprehend those structures. It may seem odd to talk psychology in a unit in photography. One associates photography most with chemistry, physics, optics, maths etc., and less with the arts and psychology.
However, an image-maker can learn much about making pictures by studying art, design and such branches of psychology as perception, motivation and learning theory.
The whole of our perceptual field can be divided into figure and ground. When we look at something, the main object/form we are able to distinguish is known as figure. The remainder is referred to as ground.
There are times when this phenomenon is not as pronounced. What governs our perception of figure ?
When we initially look at the illustration, we see black lines against a white background. However, as we continue to observe the figure, we may begin to see seven horizontal wide fence slats or white stripes. They are seen as figure. Furthermore, the closer together two elements are the greater the probability that they will be grouped together and seen as figure. It is not possible to have figure without ground; therefore, it is not possible to see six narrow slats and the seven wide slats simultaneously.
Gestalt Visual Organisation
The Gestalt School of psychology, established in Germany in about 1912 by Dr. Max Wertheimer. The German word gestalt means ‘shape’ or ‘form’. The Gestalt psychologists were interested in the relationship between the parts of an image and the whole. They contended that the whole is always different from the sum of the parts.
A person can choose to see each visual element (the individual letters) separately or as grouped to form a depiction of the Mona Lisa.
Our perceptual system groups adjacent dots that are similar in size, and shape. It is only after this organisation is achieved that we are able to see the image as an image. Some units of black dots are seen in one form; some in another. Some elements are seen together because they are similar in size, direction and shape. When viewed this image from a distance we perceive it as the Mona Lisa.
This grouping of visual elements is into a single figure is known as Gestalt.
The Gestalt psychologists were especially interested in figure-ground relationships and in the factors that help the observer to distinguish objects as patterns or figure. They proposed four principles of perceptual organisation:
3. Continuity; and
The Principle of Proximity
The Principle of Proximity is the simplest of the four organising principles. It says that elements that are in close proximity to each other are seen as grouped. In written text, words are seen as such because the letters of words are closer
together than the last letter of one word and the first letter of the next. The proximity of visual elements is the simplest factor accounting for the creation of visual ‘wholes’. We articulate a painting or a typographical design firstly by the law of proximity, visual elements close to each other in a picture plane tend to be seen together and become the coherent figures.
When the proximity of objects in three-dimensional space is considered, a new set of variables is introduced. When we observe proximity in photographs we can see ways in which objects arrange themselves:
1. Side by side
2. Up and down
The Principle of Similarity
Elements tend to be related if they have common qualities. For example, elements, which are of equal size, similar shape, running in similar directions, display corresponding colours, have similar values or similar textures tend to be grouped.
Similarity and Symmetry
Symmetry can be considered a special case of similarity. Visual elements that are symmetrical provide for visual balance. The more symmetrical an area is the greater the tendency is to group it and see it as ‘figure’.
The Principle of Continuity
The principle of continuity says that every linear element has kinetic inertia and is seen as continuing in the same direction and with the same movement. A straight line is seen as continuing as a straight line. A curvilinear line is seen as
continuing as a curvilinear line. A wavy line is seen as continuing as a wavy line with its original rhythm. Such linear continuation helps to form the image by creating groups of a simple order.
It is a most potent device in binding together heterogeneous elements and thus reducing the picture-image to the number of units, which can be fully comprehended in one attentive act.
The principle of continuity can also apply to the graduation or progression of colour in terms of hue, value & chroma. The eye moves along a direction of hue or value graduation similar to the way it moves along a line.
Continuity of Sequences
Another from of continuity is in visual image sequence, varying in their spatial as well as temporal arrangement. Motion pictures are good examples of this; the only difference is that there are fewer pictures in sequences with more abrupt
changes from the scene to the other.
These techniques of photography are an attempt to study motion. The following sequence of images shows the progression of an event.
The Principle of Closure
Forces of organization driving toward spatial order, towards stability tend to shape optical units in closed compact wholes. Goethe observed that the after-image of a sharp square gradually becomes rounded into a circular shape. A closed area appears more formed, more stable, than one that is open and without boundaries. In viewing these images, one fills in the gaps.
This factor of closure may act on flat dimension, generating from linear units, the experience of a closed shape. It may also unify further dimension. Inter-connections of points, lines, shapes, colours and values are closed psychologically into either flat or three-dimensional wholes. The factor of closure can become more significant than proximity or similarity.
Proximity: Visual elements that are in close proximity tend to be grouped together and seen as figure.
Similarity: Visual elements that are equi-distant from each other are
grouped according to their similarity and seen as figure.
Similarity & Closure: Increasing the distance between pair’s similar visual
elements facilitates their grouping.
Closure: Closed visual elements are seen as figures.
Close Proximity: Visual elements that are nearly closed and visually close
are seen as figure.
Closure & Contrast: Visual elements that are closed and contrast with
surrounding elements are seen as strong figure.
Continuity: Visual elements are grouped to form continuous straight or
- Rudolf Arnheim’s Art & Visual Perception
- Productive Thinking: The Gestalt Emphasis