Gestalt & Perception in the Visual Arts

Gestalt & Perception in the Visual Arts

How perception affects our lives

Perception helps us interpret the world around us. We rely on it to understand our surroundings. For example, we develop ideas about an upcoming event based on personal and past experiences. We view the world through our individual perceptions.

Visually Communication

One of the primary forms of communication is visual communication. If you placed two people in a room for a week, neither spoke the same language; they would rely on physical gestures and drawing images to communicate. 

Body language is one of our most powerful forms of visual communication. We unconsciously rely on it to supply cues and information more than we rely on the spoken word. When talking, 60-90% of the message is communicated through body language, leaving the remainder attributable to the spoken word.

The commercial arts rely heavily on images to communicate with their audience.

Body language

The brain at work

Visual information is often altered once it travels from the eye to the brain. The brain simplifies preconceived information, eliminating the details that it deems unnecessary.

For example, consider a traffic stop sign. We know through learned behavior what a stop sign looks like and its meaning. When approaching a stop sign, you don't need to observe all the fine details to understand what the sign means or the action it requires. This is because it is a familiar sign, so you know to stop the vehicle.

Close-up of stop sign
Photo by Luke Van Zyl,

The distance from the viewer to an object affects how the brain interprets visual information. If you're half a block away from the sign, your brain understands its meaning. The same is true if you stand five feet from the sign.

Near a stop sign
Photo by Chris Benson,

But, if you were to observe the same sign while flying overhead in a plane, it would not be recognizable. Your mind would perceive it as a point on the ground.

So to summarize, the brain will "understand" familiar objects at varying distances, except for extreme distances.

Flying over a stop sign
Photo by Nathan Queloz,

Consistency of presentation

Perception begins at birth. Once born, we are regularly exposed to images and symbols. We become accustomed to certain visual consistencies. We develop expectations of how specific things should look.  For example, a stop sign has a particular size, height, and color. The symbols used for male and female public washroom signs. Most human faces have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.

Let's look at maps of the world. Generally speaking, world maps show the land as brown or green, while oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers as blue. Counties are identified with borders made of thicker lines. When individual states are displayed, the state borders are thinner.

British Library
Altered map from the British Library.

If we were to change the colors of the water (blue) to brown or orange, the color of the land to blue. If the thickness of the boundary lines was changed, made thinker and more organic, it would create havoc with our brains' preconceived idea of the map.

 Altered map from the British Library
Altered map from the British Library

 In his book Contemporary Color Theory and Use, Steven Bleicher discusses an experiment using a stop sign. The color of the sign was changed from red to green. Everything else remained the same, including the sign location.

Drivers regularly drove through the intersection without stopping. When pulled over by the researchers and questioned, the drivers often said they saw the sign, but because the sign was green, and green means go, they didn't stop—another example of consistency of presentation at play.

 Green stop sign
 Photo by Mwabonje,

 Cultural exceptions

Some perceptions are universal such as understanding the human face, while others are cultural. In western countries, the tradition is for brides to wear white. In China, the traditional bridal dress is red, but the color white is worn for mourning.

Chinese bride in traditional wedding dress.
Chinese bride in traditional wedding dress.

What is Gestalt?

The perception rules of design derived from Gestalt psychology, which was developed in Germany in 1912. Gestalt perception states the viewer can understand relationships between the different design elements using incomplete information.

We unconsciously take incomplete parts and develop a whole (image) in our mind.

We rely on the design size, form, value, and placement on the picture plane to understand the image. Each component of the composition depends on and affects one another.  In other words, the whole is comprised of its parts.

Selected Perception Concepts


Overlap  When shapes overlap one another, the shape lying "on top" gives the illusion of being the closest to the viewer.





Closure Closure is when an object is partially drawn, yet the brain reads the object as a whole. In other words, the brain fills in the form using the existing visual information. Enough information must be supplied for the brain to "jump to the right conclusion." We discussed this concept when discussing having enough visual information in the value blog.



Similarity When objects share similar features, they are interpreted as a group or set. Proximity helps to strengthen this concept.






Nearness or Proximity When objects are placed near one another, they are read as a group. The shapes can be similar or not; the closeness of the forms is what counts.



 Negative and Positive space

Figure & Ground  The mind perceives a figure (positive space) and a ground (negative space). This concept we studied when exploring negative/positive space.

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