The figure/ground relationship in the last project was obvious because the alphabet letter used was the only recognizable shape. The negative shapes might have been interesting but that is not enough to make them figure when there is such obvious subject matter. There are, however, other criteria for controlling a figure/ground relationship.

This lesson will explore the most important of these using the negative shapes from the last project to make compositions where they will be:

Negative shapes to another figure.

Form a positive shape(figure).

Be part of an ambiguous figure/ground relationship.



The red "negative shapes."

There are an infinite number of figure/ground combinations so there is no simple rule of thumb that will make it easy to control this phenomenon. What you notice is figure. To control figure you have to control attention. What is figure changes as you look around the composition, noticing different things in turn. When there is subject matter the nature of the objects and their relationship to each other will influence what will be seen as figure. In a composition that is abstract to the point where there are no recognizable objects (nonobjective) other criteria must be used to control what is figure.

Contrast and placement are the strongest tools for controlling attention. You will study how to use them in the emphasis lesson. There are three more fundamental concepts to learn first:

Simple: The mind wants to find the simplest solution to any visual problem. This is not because the mind is lazy but because the visual world is so complex that you could not cope with all of the information you take in without simplifying it to make it understandable. You will study more about this in gestalt. One factor for coping is finding simple shapes and shape relationships. Complex shapes may be more interesting but we are drawn to the simple shapes because they are the easiest to identify and to relate to.

In Gestalt psychology "good" shapes have the qualities: simplicity, regularity, symmetry and ease of being remembered. All things being equal, such shapes are more likely to be seen as figure. That means that complex shapes, especially ones that do not hold together well, are more likely to be seen as ground.

Singular: You tend to see only one figure at a time. Multiple shapes and complex shapes are less likely to be seen as figure. Simple shapes are singular -- they have unity. That may make them less interesting but it also makes them easier to relate to.

Multiple shapes are more likely to relate to the ground unless there is something that ties them together visually into a single form (like marching ants making a line).

Center: The center of the format is the first place you look in a composition. A shape that is in the center, especially a shape that dominates the center, is more likely to be seen as figure.

Shapes that are around the edges will relate more to the format and are usually seen as ground.

Use all three of these concepts and you have a single, simple shape in the center of the composition. The last project was such a composition. The letter designs would still be readable as figure/ground if the letters were not recognizable (turn yours on it's side to see). A letters is a single object that dominates the center of the composition. Some letter forms might not be simple, but the simplest of them are the most likely to be seen as figure. Some of the letter's ground shapes may be in the center of the format but shapes along outside edges all tend to be ground shapes.

Now you will make three different compositions using the "negative shapes" from the last project. All of these will be made on the same format shape and color as the first project. The shapes may be turned over but they may not overlap each other or go outside the edges of the format.

You will make the first two to see how the above information helps dictate what will be seen as figure and what will be ground. You will keep the third experiment for your book.

One of the advantages of collage is that you can try many possibilities before committing yourself. Try to see how effectively you can accomplish each of these objectives before moving on to the next. Show each version to your instructor so he can see how well you understand the concepts.

Reassemble your original letter design using your "negative shapes" to make sure you have all the pieces.


The "negative shapes" in a new negative shape configuration.


Use the "negative shapes" to make a new composition where the shapes are still seen as ground. That means you will make a figure shape (the background color) with the "negative shapes,"but not the same shape as the original figure. The figure should be a single shape, as simple looking as possible, in the center of the composition. That means that the "negative shapes" should all touch the outside edge of the format or nestle into shapes that do. Try to avoid shapes that float or protrude into the center space.

In the example to the left the black should be seen as figure -- actually as two figures (the little horizontal bar on the left is also figure). The red shape that loops near the bottom is also likely to be seen as figure because it makes a simple, easy to notice shape. The black lines are left between the red shapes so you can see what the original "negative shapes" look like.

Anyone that looks at your composition should say that the figure is the color of the background paper and the "negative shapes" are still negative shapes. Try it. Ask two people what they notice as figure in your composition (what color is figure?).


The "negative shapes" as positive shape(s).

Try a second composition using the "negative shapes." This time turn them into the figure and let the format color be the ground. This is the opposite of the previous experiment. Keep the "negative shapes" in the center and try to make them into as simple a shape as you can. Avoid areas where the background color shows as a shape in the midst of the figure you are making. That shape will be seen as figure. Work until it is clear that the new shape is figure.

In the example to the left the red shape in the center of the format is the figure (the black lines would not show in your composition). The black all around the edges stays as ground except on the right side where it protrudes into the red. It does not hurt that the red touches the outside edge some, but it would be more likely to be seen as figure if it did not.

Ask two people what (color) is the figure in your composition.

Now that you have some experience making the same shapes into both figure and ground you will make them into both in the same composition.

Use the negative shapes from the previous project to make a composition where all of the shapes are both figure and ground in turn. Display the results on the page opposite the figure/ground project so that they are seen together as a set.

Student example #1

Student example #2

Student example #3



If you did the first project well you already have a set of attractive "negative shapes" that will be easy to make into figure. The problem is to turn the format (color) into figure. To do that you have to divide it into simple, attractive shapes by the placement of the "negative shapes."

Touch all of the "negative shapes" to each other so that they form new shapes out of the background. Try to make as many of these new shapes as you can. Let the edges of the shapes flow across the composition in a graceful and rhythmic way.

When you are finished ask two people what (color) is figure. They should say both colors are figure and both are ground. Experiment with alternate configurations until you have an interesting composition that where the figure/ground relationship is ambiguous.

Label this project AMBIGUOUS F/G and put it in your book on the page facing the figure/ground project (see the bottom of that project's page for a diagram).

There will be some kind of figure/ground relationship in every composition you make. One of the best things you can do for your designs is to try to make them as interesting as possible. The best way to do this is to make the ground function as a significant part of the image.

This can be controlled by making the amount of the ground appropriate to the situation -- not too much and not too little.

  See how M. C. Escher uses figure/ground in his print "Sky and Water."    
You can make the ground interesting by making it into simple, attractive shapes. That is what you should have done with this project. It is also what you should have done with the Figure/Ground project. If you did, this last project was easier to make.

The ground can also be made more interesting by filling it with the right color(s) and/or texture(s). Color can be an effective attention controlling device, especially if you consider value contrasts. Texture decorates a surface and can make it more (or less if you wish) appealing.

The concepts that you learn in this course will put you in charge of what viewers see when they look at your images. You need to learn how each works and how to use them in a variety of situation. The concepts taught will build on each other. You need to use each one every time you design to be effective.


© 2006 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.