A study on the principle of Multistability, you might the part 1 at here. Rudolf Arnheim has been adopting several Gestalt principles into his book, Art and Visual Perception: A psychology of the creative eye. In the chapter of ‘Space’, Arnheim has discussed the figure-ground phenomenon and its application in art and design.
According to Arnheim’s text, Edgar Rubin identifies a number of factors about figure-ground phenomenon (Arnheim, 1969, p. 228). A surrounded area is viewed as figure yet its surrounding and unbounded area is regards as ground. By drawing two circles (Fig. 1), I realize that the internal space is easily to be spotted as the figure regardless the shading content. Arnheim (1969, p. 228) uses the sparkling stars as his illustration. The stars are generally perceived as figure yet the sky is recognized as background; however, this phenomenon could be extended once we perceive the stars as the pinholes, the sky becomes the figure and the bright heaven become the ground. Arnheim (1969, p. 233) addresses this phenomenon of multi-layers as the depth levels.
Even in the closed area, we could also perceived the narrower bands (Fig. 3) as figure by applying the factor of similarity (Wertheimer, 1923, p. 301). It’s important to note that, the ultimate ground is in fact the boundless surface of this blog, not the square/circle themselves. Another important point to identify the figure-ground situation is that “textures makes for figure.” (Arnheim, 1969, p. 229) The texture does prompt the figure’s appearance (Fig. 4). The theory is applicable to my project in which the texture can also make my figure to be more outstanding (Fig. 5).
In addition, Rubin indicates that we tend to perceive the lower one in the divided area (Fig. 6) as figure instead of ground (Arnheim, 1969, p. 229). This is related to the typical situation in our physical real life, where “trees, tower, persons, vases, lamps are often perceived under circumstances in which the ground, e.g., the sky or the wall, occupies more or less the upper part of the field.” (Arnheim, 1969, p. 229) But, if turning the Fig. 6 upside-down, we tend to treat the white part as figure. This is due to “brighter areas seemingly tend to be figure when other factors are kept equal.” (Arnheim, 1969, p. 231) This somehow links to Michel Eugène Chevreul’s law of simultaneous color contrast. Chevreul (1855, p. 15) argues that the same color might display different visual perception when placed on different type of background. The toning or hue of a color is the key factor to identify itself whether it is figure or ground.
Rubin also emphasizes that the simplicity of shapes, especially in symmetrical order, procures an area as the figure. (Arnheim, 1969, p. 231) As far as the shapes are concerned, the simpler one will prevail. Besides, Arnheim (1969, p. 231) points out “the convexity makes for figure, concavity for ground.” Although both shapes in the Fig. 8 are enclosed, they are treated perceptually in differently due to their concavity and convexity attributes.
Note also that the idea of ambiguity is not only found in the figure and ground, but also can be identified from a common contour (Fig. 9 and Fig. 10) that shared by multiple shape (Arnheim, 1969, p. 224). Arnheim (1969, p. 224) explains that “although (the common contour) physically unchangeable, its shape often looks different, depending on which of the two adjoining surfaces it is seen as belonging to.” Rubin regards this factor as the dynamics, in which “the recognition is always based on dynamics, not on the dead shapes as such, which are perceptually nonexistent.” (Arnheim, 1969, p. 224) Convexity and concavity are regarded as the opposite dynamics: one actively expands yet another one passively withdraws (Arnheim, 1969, p. 224). This type of dynamics are usually found from many contemporary ambiguous illustrations, e.g., Noma Bar’s Look Out (Fig. 11), Malika Favre’s The Kama Sutra (Fig. 12), etc.
Arnheim, Rudolf (1969) Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley CA: University of California Press
Chevreul, Michel-Eugene (1855) The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours, and Their Applications to the Arts. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans
Wertheimer, Max (1923) ‘Laws of Organization in Perceptual Forms’, Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt 2 (4), 301-350, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Wertheimer/Forms/forms.htm (visited 15/10/13)