Figure-ground (perception)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Figure-ground organization is probably best known by the faces-vase drawing that Rubin described. This drawing exemplifies one of the key aspects of figure-ground organization, edge-assignment and its effect on shape perception. Notice in the faces/vase drawing below, the perceived shape depends critically on the direction in which the border (edge) between the black and white regions is assigned. If the two curvy edges between the black and white regions are assigned inward then the central white region is seen as a vase shape in front of a black background. No faces are perceived in this case. On the other hand, if the edges are assigned outwards, then the two black profile faces are perceived on a white background and no vase shape is perceived.


Figure-ground is used to help artists and designers in composition of a 2D piece. In its basic sense, it refers to a cognitive ability to separate elements based upon contrast, that is, dark and light, black and white. Many times this definition is expanded from a simple perception based on contrast to include abstract (i.e. non-visual) concepts such as melody/harmony, subject/background and positive/negative space.

The famous optical illusion image depicting both a vase and two profiles of a human face (the Rubin vase) is often used to illustrate the concept of figure ground: Depending on whether the white or black color is seen as the figure (forefront) or the ground (background) the brain will interpret the picture as two different images, and it may be difficult (or even, according to gestalt psychological theory, impossible) to perceive both meaningful images simultaneously. There is a tendency to switch rapidly between both 'readings' of the image. The Flag of Canada has also been cited as an example of figure-ground reversal, in which the background edges of the maple leaf can also be seen as two faces arguing.

Figure-ground reversal may also be used an intentional visual design technique in which an existing image's foreground and background colours are purposely swapped to create a new image.

Types of figure-ground problems

There are three types of figure-ground problems:

  1. The figure and the ground compete.
  2. The figure should be the ground and the ground should be the figure.
  3. The figure and ground create an optical illusion.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Figure-ground (perception)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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