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The Figure-Ground Relationship

When using vision, the eye sees one thing at a time. The object of focus is ‘figure’. The rest of the perceptual field that falls into the background, is ‘ground’. The figure-ground relationship is one of several principals referred to as the Gestalt principals of perception. 
The concept of figure-ground is not limited to vision. It applies to sensory experience in general. Life is filled with figure-ground discrimination. Preference, culture, and desire guide what becomes figure and what becomes ground. It is inherent in consumer decisions. When you become interested in something, you see it everywhere.  

In photography, the figure-ground relationship is talked about in terms of Positive and Negative space. In television, it is the Signal-to-Noise Ratio.  It is estimated that the brain receives 40 million sensory inputs every second. It is the figure-ground relationship that helps us make sense of the world.

Here are some daily life examples of how figure is distinguished from ground:
  • At a sports game or a concert, you have to pay attention to a person’s voice to distinguish it from the background noise. (Sound)
  • When you sip a glass of wine and notice its different characteristics.  (Taste)
  • When you run your finger along a smooth surface and feel a scratch. (Touch)
  • When you look at clouds and see recognizable shapes. (Sight)
  • In a food court with lots of different smells, you pick out the smell that connects with memory. (Smell)
  • When you notice a particular behavioral characteristic or tendency in someone. (Emotional)

How Figure-Ground can be used in Photography:

When creating images, there is usually a central concept (figure) within the frame (ground). Here are some concepts to keep in mind to forward creative intention:

The figure appears closer to the viewer, even when they are both on the same plane.

Figure and ground are seen one at a time. When you see faces, the goblet falls away and vice versa. The goblet or faces become figure, depending on what you are looking at, the other becomes ground. Figure has shape, ground holds it.

High Contrast image by Roger Remingtom

Elements can be concealed or disguised by making them blend into the background. Military camouflage design is a good example of this. Also, many artists use this technique to hide meaningful symbols in their work. When figure can’t be distinguished from ground, the image is unstable, until figure is established. You see this in use with internet memes that ask if you can spot the odd symbol in a field of similar icons.

Figure stands out when ground contrasts. Complimentary color harmonies use this rule.

Figure gains story context when ground supports. In this long exposure image, the waves tell the surfer’s story.

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Jamuna Burry

Exploring ideas on creativity through digital art.