Monday, January 17, 2011

Pareidolia, Illusions & Art

Pareidolia, " a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse."

What do you see when you look at this image? (and don't peek at the title!)

Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912 
Oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 35 1/8 inches 
Philadelphia Museum of Art

This is a very famous painting by Marcel Duchamp. It caused a scandal when he first tried to exhibit it.
If it were untitled, what would you make of it? Can you see the figure? What are the clues that there is in fact a figure walking down stairs?

What about these?   

Hand study, 2010
Graphite on paper, 12 x 9 inches

These three images are all of versions of the same image. They are all representations of my hand. From top to bottom they are: completely abstracted; partially abstracted but somewhat distinct; realistic.

At what point does the image become distinct as a hand? At what point does the brain stop filling in the gaps and the deliberate execution of the image take over? Could you see that it was a hand by the second image?

One of the most interesting parts of this, to me, is that in actuality, none of these are hands. Not even the realistic drawing. They are all interpretations or manipulations. The bottom, realistic image is a drawing done from a photograph. The original digital photograph (which is also just an interpretation) was put through an editing program to enhance the image, which was then printed out. The final drawing is 'removed' from my actual hand at least 4 times.

This well-known painting always comes to mind when I think of the representation of actual objects in art:

Rene´ Magritte 
 The Treachery of Images, 1928-29 
Oil on canvas, 25 x 37 inches
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The text in the painting states “This is not a Pipe”. Magritte said of his painting, “The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture 'This is a pipe', I'd have been lying!” And it’s true. It is not a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe. Magritte smeared some paint onto a canvas in the shape of a pipe and, using color and tone, made the pipe appear as if it was ‘turning’ in space. He made it to appear as if it has ‘form’. But this is all a trick. It’s the most basic trick in representational art. But is it pareidolia? Well, it’s not random. The image was composed deliberately. So it isn't pareidolia. One of the things a representational artwork does have in common with pareidolia is that it can fool your brain. For instance, look at the image below:

Ralph Goings 
Ralph’s Diner, 1982
Oil on canvas, 44 x 66 inches

That is not a photograph. That is a painting. Presumably, a human being (named Ralph Goings) painted that.
Talk about fooling the eye! The detail, lighting and execution are so perfect that I can’t find any give-aways.  This painting is an example of Photorealism. Your brain (and mine) is fooled.

For a different perspective, this is a self-portrait by artist Chuck Close.

Chuck Close 
Self-portrait, 1997
Oil on canvas, 102 x 84 inches
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Now look at a close up of the right eye.

Close is one of my favorite artists. Earlier in his career he painted photorealistic portraits on a very large scale. Then, after a spinal arterial collapse, he became paralyzed from the neck down. After a time he was able to regain some use in his arms and hands, but now paints with a brush strapped to his hand. With the help of assistants, he now creates paintings like the one above, which have less precision than his earlier works, but still have the same effect. In the close-up of the eye, we can see the grids that he uses (and has always used) as guides. The little squares that make up the portrait are nothing but blobs and shapes of color that have the proper tone, which in turn force our brains to see the illusion of a three dimensional object when we see the painting from afar.

I think that the deliberate execution of all of the above-referenced artwork precludes any of them from qualifying as pareidolia-inducing, strictly speaking. I would argue that they are certainly illusions, in that they all trick our brains into seeing 3-D objects on a flat surface.

Maybe the only way to induce pareidolia through art is through deliberate abstraction. The painting below by Jackson Pollock is an example from the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Here, Pollock describes his method of painting, "My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting." and "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well." -Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956

The painting could have no orientation, no right-side-up. It is decidedly not figurative, and is more or less random. When standing in front of the massive canvas, it is possible to appreciate it on multiple levels. One could react to the emotions that the colors provoke or to the seeming manic energy of the splashes and dribbles of paint. Or, one can look for the faces, the animals hiding behind bushes, and many, things that are expressly 'not there'.

Jackson Pollock
Autumn Rhythm (No. 30), 1950
Enamel on canvas, 105 x 207 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Lastly, there are examples of artists using pareidolia as a mechanism for creating. 

The French Surrealist Andre´ Masson made use of a process called Automatic Drawing. While in a 'trance-like state' (brought on by sleep deprivation, or drugs), Masson would make a series of lines on canvas and then use those lines to spur his imagination to create images. Later he would randomly apply glue and then sprinkle sand which would adhere to those areas, which gave him another basis to 'find' objects and themes on which to elaborate. In the image below, it is possible to see that he chose which lines and forms to use in making the images of the fish and their surroundings. It is also possible to see the lines and forms on which he chose not to elaborate; lines and forms that seem to impede or get in the way.

Andre´ Masson
Battle of Fishes, 1926
Sand, gesso, oil, pencil & charcoal on canvas
14 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches
Museum of Modern Art, New York 

Many other examples of illusions in art had come to mind while writing this post. Artists like Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who is best-known for his food-based portraiture, directly exploited the propensity for our brains to see faces where there are none. Also, trompe l'oeil art (In French, literally 'to deceive the eye) endeavors to precisely live up to its name. Even my own artwork came to mind. When I posted this drawing, a friend of mine commented that "[it] looks like a demon is gazing out". My friend had seen something in the patterns of shadow in my drawing, which I did not intend. And now I cannot un-see it.
Apparently, there's a tiny demon in my hand. Whether I meant to put it there or not.


  1. What a VERY nice presentation! EXCELLENT Brian. Excellent!


  2. Thanks Hal! This one was a lot of fun to write and research. I even left out some other points that I had (it was long enough!)

  3. Thanks for a fantastic writeup

  4. Good day,

    I am an expressive painter, when I move and rotate a mirror just above the surface of my paintings,
    all kinds of very detailed figures appear. Can you tell me where I can find more information about this subject? On my website I published some examples. Best regards Carlo Bor