Wednesday, January 6, 2010

the space between

figure 180

In Design Observer, last fall, Michael Bierut posted a piece titled The Figure/Ground Relationship and it made me think about Rudolf Arnheim. The piece hit home because of the amount of important class time I’ve given to students about the relevance of the in-between spaces.

I’d also like to credit, Professor Roy Behrens for piquing my interest in Arnhiem. Thanks also to Paul Hanaoka for his “inkblot” animated short completed in the motion graphics class last spring.

The following is one of Arnheim’s insights:
Painters take care to verify the shape of interstices by forcing their eyes to reverse the spontaneous figure-ground effect. This requires training, because the naïve observer sees such areas as shapeless parts of the underlying ground. He pays no attention to them, and finds it difficult and unnatural to do so. When individuals being tested were asked to copy the pattern of Figure 180 as accurately as possible, many reproduced the shape and size of the crosses and squares quite well but entirely neglected the fact that the inner edges of the squares lie on the same lines as the outer edges of the crosses. The relations were not seen as a part of a pattern. Even in the Rorschach ink blots, in which figure-ground reversal is facilitated by structural ambiguity, positive use of the interstices is said to suggest a diagnosis of negativism, stubbornness, doubt, suspiciousness, or even paranoid trends. The artist controls such areas in order to assure the unity of the work on the frontal plane and also to enhance the subtle interplay between the positive figures and the negative, half-hidden shapes, which, within their limits, contribute to the expression of the total composition.

Passage from the chapter on “Space” in Art and Visual Perception, a Psychology of the Creative Eye. Pages 190–192. Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954 / Fourth Printing 1964.

animation courtesy of Paul Hanaoka

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