Thursday, 27 September 2012

Elephant No. 361: Rubin's Vase Illusion

I had always imagined that this kind of design would be a fairly easy thing to produce, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

Rubin's Vase—also know as the Rubin Face or Figure-Ground Vase—is a famous image featuring a pair of two-dimensional forms, which can be viewed in two different ways. Developed sometime around 1915 by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin, a selection of these types of images was later published in his book Synsoplevede Figurer ("Visual Figures"). The most successful of these was the vase, which has since been widely reproduced and imitated.

The original Rubin's vase illusion on the left, with an edited version on the right to
make the border more obvious.

The idea behind the vase illusion is this: when two shapes share a common border, the border becomes the thing that guides perception of the two shapes. This gives the viewer two possible interpretations of the image, although the brain can maintain only one at a time. This is because the border can only be seen as belonging to the central image or the side images, but not both at the same time.

Our brains instinctively classify what they see by assessing which object surrounds which. If a coin is lying on the ground, for example, you would likely pay more attention to the coin, and less attention to its surroundings. The brain thus naturally normally sees "figure" rather than "ground".

In a Rubin's vase image, however, there is no clear distinction between figure and ground, and both have equal validity. The brain must thus begin shaping what it sees. When the brain tries to see the entire design as a whole, without fully recognizing either image, it gets confused and starts discarding information until a pattern can be seen. In Rubin's day, images such as this were accordingly used as diagnostic tools.

Some people see simple columns in the photograph; others see pairs of
leaning figures.

To produce an effective Rubin's vase picture, the composite images should be flat, with little or no texture. Most modern illusions of this sort involve the traditional vase, with matching faces on either side, although there are more elaborate versions which involve fully painted scenes.

For today's elephant, I thought I'd produce two versions: one with two elephants facing one another, and one with a bunch of interlocking elephant shapes.

I thought it would be easy to produce these, but neither one was particularly simple. The one with two elephants facing one another was nigh on impossible, as you can see from my final paltry attempt.

I tried every angle of elephants, every shape of elephants, and every section of elephants, to try and get something reasonable. Because of the tusks and relatively smooth shape of the trunk, the vase idea didn't work, and even the insertion of an abstract elephant in the negative space between two elephants took some doing.

I eventually got two sketches that I thought would do.

The image with two elephants facing one another was simple to colour in. The one with six stylized elephants required grey in addition to black and white.

I don't love either of these and, having exhausted every design I could think of to arrive at the version with two facing elephants, I don't think I'll be trying this again anytime soon. At least not with elephants.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants like to swim, but tend to grow restless on sea voyages. In 1933, Princess Alice, a circus elephant in Australia, was being transported by steamer, along with a great many other animals. Swaying restlessly on deck, her feet chained, she was clearly bored out of her mind.

Feeling around with her trunk for something to do, Alice discovered an interesting tap. She played with it for a while, until she figured out how to turn it. It happened to be a tap controlling the supply of steam to one of the ship's winches, so when Alice turned it, it released the winch drum. The clatter of the spinning drum brought alarmed deckhands running to the scene.

The tap was quickly turned off, and order was restored. As soon as everyone had gone, however, Alice turned the tap on again. As one report said, "the wicked gleam in her eyes suggested that she was enjoying the commotion." Alice did this so many times that an engineer ultimately spoiled her fun by turning off the supply of steam from below.

Later, this same engineer was dozing in his cabin, when a snake-like object floated through the porthole, hovering near his head. Leaping out of his bunk in shock, he discovered that it was an elephant's trunk.

Alice at an amusement park known as Wonderland City, Sydney, Australia, ca. 1907.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Fauna & Flora International


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