Laws of Seeing: Gestalt…and Whatnot

February 7, 2010

While I trudged through Wolfgang Metzger’s exceedingly dense book, Laws of Seeing, I came to the increasing realization that we humans take what we see for granted.  When we look at a bird in a tree, or a pencil lying in between some books, or a caterpillar on a leaf, there are numerous forces at work within our eyes and minds that dictate what we see.  We just don’t realize it.  This subconscious world of seeing Metzger writes about is based on the laws of Gestalt.  As I mentioned in my previous post, Gestalt is a German word akin to the concept of “wholeness” or “shape.”  It is how we perceive things visually.  The sum of the parts is greater than the whole, so to speak.  Metzger structures his book such that each chapter explores a different aspect of these laws, from Proximity to camouflage.  It is quite heady, but helps make one more aware of the world around us.

Metzger was one of the Gestalt theorists in Germany, a group of psychologists who decided to analyze why see what we see.  They were quite an intellectual group, whom I can imagine sitting around for hours discussing various aspects of Gestalt.  Riveting, I’m sure.  This mode of thinking is quite evident as one reads Laws of Seeing, since Metzger methodically goes through each chapter in a very patient, explanatory manner, as if he were discussing it with a colleague.  The book is loaded with pictorial examples of the subjects, which aids much in comprehension.  The first few chapters deal with basic Gestalt principles, using mostly 2D examples to illustrate his points.  He explores Proximity, which is how our brain organizes shapes based on how close they are to each other; Closure, which is how our brain can finish off an object despite parts of it missing; Similarity, which is how we organize objects based on how similar they are to each other; Figure and Ground, which is how we perceive “whole” shapes versus their background; and, finally, Continuation, which is how our brain can finish off or follow an incomplete image, if enough visual clues are given to continue the shape in a new direction.  Later chapters explore more complex Gestalt ideas, such as camouflage, spatial perception, and how angles of light can affect what we see.

This may not sound like bedtime reading to most people, but I did find some chapters particularly fascinating.  Maybe it was just that those chapters were written more accessibly.  The first chapter into which I became truly engrossed was chapter five, concerning camouflage.  In it, Metzger goes into great detail about how different types of camouflage work throughout the animal kingdom.  It was here that I truly realized how universal Gestalt is.  Other animals are affected by it, too – animals most people would dismiss as “unintelligent.”  If a particular kind of caterpillar bends its body in the shape of a twig, using light color on its bottom to look like the sky, it will actually bend its body to match where light is coming from, to keep up its camouflage.  The caterpillar couldn’t exactly do calculus, but even its most basic survival instincts rely on Gestalt principles humans took thousands of years to formally recognize.  Another example is the cuttlefish, which uses highly complex skin pigments to camouflage itself, relying on Similarity with its environment to avoid predators.  I find it simply astounding how such “stupid” animals use Gestalt to their benefit.  Most humans aren’t even that smart.

As an aside, thinking about the theories of camouflage Metzger puts forth made me more conscious of my own 3D work.  At one point, an acquaintance of mine who is in the gaming industry told me that, at that time, the work of mine that he saw didn’t stand out enough.  In one of my 3D scenes, he said, the props’ and the ground’s colors were too subdued, and blended in with each other more.  Now, after reading chapter 5 of Laws of Seeing, that makes sense.  I wasn’t using enough contrast of color in my design, so, by the law of Similarity, the objects looked too much like their environments.  I have since attempted to remedy this, and keep it in mind at all times when I’m texturing an object.

The other chapter which stuck out in my mind was chapter six (hmm, perhaps Metzger was hitting his stride about this time in the writing process).  Here, Metzger discussed how tangential vs. diffuse light can affect what we see.  Any photographer can tell you this as well.  Light from an angle will naturally hit all the grooves in an object, making something seemingly smooth, like paper, look rough.  It makes for more dramatic shadows, and can bring out subtleties in objects which enhance its details.  This can also create optical illusions.  As an example of this, Metzger uses a topographical map, one version of which is flat, and one version of which is physically bumped to create the illusion of terrain.  When the light comes from the upper left, valleys on the bumped map which are parallel to the direction of illumination appear flatter than they really are, since they are receiving more direct light.  On the original, lined topographical map, this illusion is not there.  Upon conclusion of this chapter, I actually stopped and stared off into space for a bit, pondering how light does indeed affect how we see things.  Like I’ve been saying all along, the effects of light are usually unconscious for people, unless they’re artistically-minded.  The lighting of a building is a whole science unto itself, and the lighting of statues in museums is also a unique art form.  It really does change the way we look at something.  For an object like a statue, the light may be slightly diffuse, so as to emphasize the statue’s form instead of its imperfections.  Hmm.

Again, I thought about my 3D work when I read this.  Since lighting is a key aspect of level/scene design, it is crucial to understand how tangential light can make an object appear different from a direct light.  In fact, many professionals light their scenes before applying textures, to know if a particular object will be washed out or not.  This affects how they create the texture.  It’s subtle, but it can save work and make for a more realistic scene.

So, after having read this rather long, intellectual work, I can now say that my awareness of all these things has been heightened.  At the very least, if that’s all I can say even ten years from now, then Metzger’s done his job.  I’m not a psychologist, but, as a designer, Gestalt will factor heavily into my daily life.  I might re-do a texture for an object or re-work a scene’s composition because I realize that, from a certain angle, Gestalt rules have been violated.  Camouflage in particular is relevant to me at this stage in my career (trying to get into the video game industry), as I mentioned earlier, but all the principles will come in handy in the future.  To be honest, I won’t remember the vast majority of the details.  I probably won’t even remember all of the principles of Gestalt.  But I will incorporate them into my design work flow, which will help bring my work to its highest potential.


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