posted in: Painting | 3

Perceptual illusions can present tantalizing ambiguities in painting. By the mid-20th century, as neuroscience and psychology began merging Richard Gregory identified and explained some of these illusions.  For example, Gregory proposed three different pattern-recognition illusions. One illusion is based on an alternating  Gestalt figure-ground relationship; that is, an object and the space beside it change roles.  Another illusion: the sensation of depth changes within an area.  And a third Gregory illusion:  An object changing into a different type of object. This is the familiar: one second you see a rabbit, the next you see a duck.

Cubists like Braque and Picasso experimented with the object-space and depth change illusions.  M.C. Escher is celebrated for demonstrating all three illusions. Here in example 1 you see George Braque’s cubist painting. Observe how the walls of buildings seamlessly become areas of space. Observe how the space becomes deep and infinite and then shallow and smoky as it re-attaches to architecture of becomes self-evident paint on the surface of the canvas.

Example 1. George Braque.

Example 2 presents the work of the early expressionist Egon Schiele whose painting of a village has areas of ghostly pale monochromatic architecture and other areas of solid warm color.  Observe how the areas of warm color occupy space differently than the paler more monochromatic areas. Notice the trees’ reflections (upper right) are stripped of color creating an arresting analogy for the relationship between the warmly colored buildings and the paler ones. The black water areas are not painted with horizontal strokes to encourage the shape to appear flat like a river.  As a result we see the mottled black areas as a flat painted surface or also as indication of  water (i.e. alternating identities within the same shape).

Example 2. Egon Schiele.

Example three illustrates how an area that behaves like positive shapes can reverse its role and become a background of negative shapes. Watch as the white lines and black lines alternate in their roles.

Example 3. Alternating Foreground and background illustration.

Another illusion (example 4) demonstrates how context can determine a sense of scale even though the shapes do not change. This is called the Titchener illusion. The circle surrounded by larger circles is the same measurable size as the circle surrounded by smaller circles.  But, the two circles do not feel as though they are the same size.  We determine scale by comparison just as comparing determines our sense of texture, touch, and color and all other observable phenomena.

Example 4. The Titchener Illusion.

I exploit these illusions to create ambiguities of identity and space in my work. Example 5 presents an example.  The fabric of the interweaving flora is broken by little interstitial space shapes.  In the lower are of the painting they are ultramarine blue. In the upper region they are lighter, both light pink and light blue.  These little light shapes can behave as allusions to space or, they the can float like pieces of lapis lazuli on the surface of the painting. They alternate their identity as space or substance.   Furthermore, because select Flora shapes are the same size and form as the background shapes they enhance the sensation of shapes alternating between being an object (flora) or space. Example 6 is a detail from the painting.

Example 5.  Flora with space or Cloisonné effects.

Example 6. A detail from image 5.

In November I have a series of workshops at Jerry’s Art of the Carolinas in Raleigh Durham, N.C.  from Friday November 11 through Sunday November 13th.   The Friday workshop, 9 am to 4 pm, “Painting Reflections in Glass, Water and Other Surfaces”. The Saturday workshop is also 9am to 4 pm “New Trends: Merging Paint the Digital Photography”. The Sunday workshop, 9 am to 4 pm “Abstracting Nature, from Meadows to Flora”.  To register call: 800 827 8478 ext 156. These

The three different workshops are described on this website under classes and workshops.

I have an exhibition of my work at the White Gallery in Lakeville, Ct at 342 Main Street.  Friday through Sunday 11-5 PM. 860 435-1029.



3 Responses

  1. hida berkelhamer

    I watch your post every week and enjoy reading it. I will not be able to come to class. I had injured my right foot last week and hope to come to some classes before the semester comes to an end. I miss classes terribly!!

    Thanks for your posts.


  2. Joann Clark

    Your instruction is always inspirational for me. Since I live in San Diego I’m always eager to hear your plan to teach out West. How about 2017?

  3. Therese

    I too love to see your email notification in my inbox. If I study your examples carefully and read what the concept is, then what you’ve created is masterly. It’s good also to view on zoom to get the full detail. I imagine a deep river of blue behind the grasses with the dappled shapes sometimes being the object and sometimes the river.

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