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.
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:
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.
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.
More on Elements of Art
- Sizing Up the Picture
- The Golden Ratio
- Symbolize This
- The Appropriateness of Appropriation!
- The Juxtaposition of This and That