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Figure vs Ground

According to the Verywell Glossary of Psychology Terms,

Figure-ground perception refers to the tendency of the visual system to simplify a scene into the main object that we are looking at (the figure) and everything else that forms the background (or ground).


The concept of figure-ground perception is often illustrated with the classic ‘faces or vases’ illusion, also known as the Rubin vase.


Depending upon whether you see the black or the white as the figure, you may see either two faces in profile (meaning you perceive the dark color as the figure) or a vase in the center (meaning you see the white color as the figure).  . . .                           

What Is Figure-Ground Perception?  (Cherry 2016 )

Cherry continues and that definition is well worth reading in entirety.

ProkofievMandeltreeiter2, Color by V. Jigour, CC BY-SA 3.0

By Klaus-Dieter Keller (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Click image to enlarge

ProkofievMandeltreeiter2, Color by V. Jigour, CC BY-SA 3.0

The late Dolores LaChapelle considered the figure-ground phenomenon in her book on deep ecology (LaChapelle 1988).

She credited David Abram, subsequent author of The Spell of the Sensuous (Abram 1996), for pointing her to James J. Gibson’s book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Gibson 1979), which apparently compiles Gibson’s life work at Cornell University.

Judging by LaChapelle’s quotations, Gibson’s book offers deep and typically heady insights on perception.  One example she cites embodies Zen simplicity.

LaChapelle (1988) notes that European perspectives fail to pay attention to the space between objects in nature.  “Japanese art, however, depends on this space.”  She quotes Gibson below.

For example, we arrange flowers in space whereas the Japanese arrange the ma or space between flowers; while we see a hole as merely the absence of objects, the Japanese perceive it as the relation between objects.

       (Gibson 1979)

Click image to enlarge

By Gryffindor (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gryffindor (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

For every inside, there is an outside.  

       Alan Watts

In his “Autobiography at Matsue” talk, Alan Watts observes the further distinction between Western art perspective point(s)/ lines/ grids that orient the artwork to a single observer/ observation point, versus Eastern art that presents entire landscapes in a way that one might never actually see them, yet the whole environment is encapsulated in a way perspective drawings can never achieve.  

When we play at shifting our perspectives we open up the possibilities of parallax view.


Further Exploration:

Abram, D. 1996. The spell of the sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world. Vintage Books, New York.

Cherry, Kendra.  (2016).  What Is figure-ground perception?  Verywell Glossary of Psychology Terms

Gibson, James J. 1979. The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

LaChapelle, D. 1988. Sacred land sacred sex – rapture of the deep: concerning deep ecology – and celebrating life. Finn Hill Arts Silverton, Colorado.

Watts, Alan.  (late 1960s).  Autobiography at Matsue  

Watts, Alan.   Numerous audio and some film recordings available now or in the future via and