Project 3 – Research Point: Optical Effects

Artists enhance and elaborate the effects, whereas scientists contract and constrain them.” (Nick Wade, 2003)

Optical effects are based on visual perception associated to observed constraints and conventions. Pascal Mamassian (2016) explores in his article about ‘Ambiguities and conventions in the perception of visual art‘ how the human eye and mind of the observer resolves ambiguous scenes in everyday perception and comparing them with the differences in visual art. Sensory information is inherently ambiguous and it gets resolved in everyday perception mainly from prior knowledge whereas in visual art mainly from conventions for visual depiction.  For Mamassian an important task of visual arts is to resolve ambiguity but not all as the artist wants to the observer as well to contribute to the experience in a personal way.

Some conventions in visual art that enforces clarity are: linear perspective, compositional concepts (golden rule), seeking for balance, seeking for meaningful information (e.g. high contrast edges and vanishing points attracts the attention of the observer). Often it gets close to Gestalt principles of organisation.

Aspects for ambiguity related to conventions:

  • Spatial space: This means the impact of the viewing distance from the work as spatial frequencies are visible in front of the work but diminish when moving away from it. One example that demonstrates the ambiguity of spatial frequency is by Salvador Dali  ‘Slave Market with the disappearing Bust of Voltaire‘ – click here) Here shadows are typically of low frequency and figure details of high frequency. In Dali’s work the perception switches between the nuns (details) and the bust (shadows)
  • Three dimensional layout: At times the linear perspective convention in a work tends to ambiguous perception as it depends on where he observer stands.  The work was done from the standpoint of the artist. One example that exaggerates the deformation of a different viewpoint is the painting by Holbein the Younger  ‘The Ambassadors’, 1533  – click here. In order to overcome ambiguity one can use  geometric shapes eg floor tiles (as in Renaissance paintings and in Dutch interior paintings) helps to overcome ambiguity. The Reverspective 3D paintings by Patrick Hughes are showing another aspect of perception of perspective linked to conventions.
  • Movement: At times depicted with superimposed images or a figure in contrapposto pose, or as a result of small involuntary eye movements as see Bridget Riley ‘Fall’,1963 – click here.
  • Illumination and Color: In conventions light source are often from above and left.  Color perception depends on illumination, not only during the depiction of a scene but also while observing a finished work. Using color contrast can make an image less ambiguous and more independent of illumination conditions. Perception of color depends on the background and the shift is larger when the background consists itself of smaller regions rather than one large area (new researches from Monnier), chromatic channels contribute wealthy to 3D position and movement. Equiluminant areas helps to make objects to ‘shiver’ as in the work by Claude Monet Poppies‘. These effects are based on the theories by M.E. Chevreul’s and Charles Blanc.

On the search for how to improve luminosity in their paintings Georges Seurat and Paul Signac develops the concept of ‘Pointillism‘. The idea that juxtaposed tiny color blots would  mix perceptually into an image with high luminosity and chromatic intensity when be looked at from a distance. See my exhibition visit of Paul Signac (Schaffeld 24 May 2016) – click here.

After all this endeavour was not so successful, although the luminosity of the paintings were alright. Mainly because the color blots were large enough that they still could be perceived as separate blots. In case of really mixing optically with pigment paint (subtractive mixing) the luminosity would have be diminished because pigment paints tends mute each other when close to each other in hue, saturation, value. Only complementary colours are perceived as having the ability to increase luminosity (see Gage, 2007). Recent researches by Monnier (see Mamassian, 2016) demonstrated that the shift in color perception of a field under the influence of an inducing background field can be enforced when the background itself consists of multiple smaller rings. This may explain the visual perception of the paintings by Seurat and Signac as well as some works by Bridget Riley.

from: Mamassian, 2016

from: Mamassian, 2016

Visual perception related to colour were explored by Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) and Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970) in their colour field paintings (Schaffeld, 28 Feb 2016) – click here. Rothko worked with the subtlety of colour perception and its emotional response with burred edges and multilayering of color that enforces vibration. Barnett more with the colour contrast and size impression alongside uniform color areas.

The Op-Art movement (Optical Art) had a major interest in illusion and optical effects like movement inside the image as a perceptual response process. Their approach often started from graphic black and white work with strong illusionary effects. Later colour added another dimension to the perceptual process. Op-Art stresses the perceptual ambiguities in a painting as the human brain can not easily detect on aspect, form alone.

Main artists are: Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley, Jesús Soto, Yaacov Agam, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Julio Le Parc and François Morellet. (Oxford Art Online).

A good overview of OP Art and its relationship to Kinetic Art is shown in the YouTube video about Jesus Rafael ‘Jesus Rafael Soto walkthrough at Haunch of Venison New York‘, 2013.
Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]

  • Victor Vasarely (1908 – 1997) an Hungarian born abstract and geometric painter with a constructivism base.
    [all online image] Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]
    – ‘Vega-Nor‘, 1969
    Acrylic on Canvas (200x200cm)
    => a combination of colour and form to convey the perception of a distorted and warped image.

– ‘Keble-Gestalt‘ 1968
Acrylic on canvas (160x160cm)
=> a dazzling interplay of form and colour that confuses the observer related to ambiguity that counteracts with learned experiences.


  • Bridget Ridley (b. 1931). Riley is an important abstract and Op-Art artist influenced by Vasarely and who learned the basics for her abstraction from Georges Seurat and his exploration of juxtaposed colour blots into a new perceptual experience. The exhibition at Courthauld demonstrates the learning curve and and Riley’s interaction with the work by Georges Seurat. Especially with Seurat’s work ‘Bridge at Courbevoie’, 1959 that she copied and interpreted into a new painting by her own ‘Pink Landscape‘, 1960 – click here.  In a Youtube video Karen Serres (2015) explains Riley’s approach and her way into abstraction with reference to Seurat.
    Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]- ‘Cataract 3‘,  1967
    PVA on canvas (223.5×222 cm)
    [online image] Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]
    => Riley explores colour and movement in her paintings. Looking at those one can sense the movement due unstable images. At times it can make one quite dizzy.


Bridget Riley_cataract-3

Riley has a very accurate working approach that request great precision. Her large scale painting can take up to six months to finish.  She starts with small colour studies in hand mixed gouache paints to ensure exact hue and colour intensity as a vital step. For her final works she applies first a acrylic underlayer and works further in oil for the overprinting.

Another painting with intense colour inspired by ancient Egyptian art is:
– ‘RA 2‘ ,1981
Silkscreen on paper 108×94.5
[online image] Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]


Riley’s main interest is the perceptual process with emotional and visual responses. This developed over time from the black and white at times considered as ‘trompe d’ceil’ images build on disruption of stable elements towards the coloured paintings where the color itself is unstable and subject to its relations to juxtaposed colours. The constant instability of visual perception is based on rhythm and movement. In the following YouTube video from the 1960s Riley speaks about her work in this context.

Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]


  • Josef Albers (1888 – 1976) who at times is considered as an Op-Art artist always rejected this connection. He explored the nuances of colour perception based on saturation, hue and tonal values differences (Schaffeld, 20 June 2016) – click here.


Another artist who works with colour combinations that resonate which each other and in a similar two step approach as Riley (underlayer, over painting) is

  • Ian Davenport (b. 1966) with his ‘puddle paintings‘ (Schaffeld, 30 June 2016) – click here


  • Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923) an American abstract painter. Together with Kenneth Roland (see below) he is known for his ‘hard-edge painting’ and ‘geometric abstractionThe following two paintings do show his additive approach i.e. the parts of if are assembled at times in a random order. Here the colors are applied as ‘ready-mades’.
    – ‘Sculpture for a large wall’, 1956-57
    Anodized aluminum, 104 panels (348 x 1994 x 71.1 cm)
    [online image] Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]

Ellsworth Kelly_Sculpture for a Large Wall_1956_sm


=> This work shows how shape and colour interact with each other. As a ready-made the painting is the form and the wall is the ground as Elsworth explains (Falconer, 2015-p.134)

-‘Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II‘, 1951
Cut-and-pasted color-coated paper and pencil on four sheets of paper
(97.2 x 97.2 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]


Ellsworth Kelly_Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II_1951sm

=> the randomly applied color fields do mix together from a distance or with squeezed eye into a muted colour. A kind of optical mixing where the colour stays luminous as long as the colour pads can be seen separately.

  • Kenneth Noland (1924 – 2010) an American abstract painter know for his color field paintings. Her was considered at times as an abstract expressionist and later as a minimalist painter.
    – ‘Mysteries Afloat‘, 2000
    [online image] Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]

Kenneth Noland_MYSTERIES_AFLOAT_2000

=> target like shape of circular rings with hard and blurred edges. The image vibrates through difference in color saturation and complementary contrast of the sharp red and green circle in front of a blurred desaturated background. I am wondering how the the visual perception would be without the green rings and /or without the blurred edge of the pink circle

  • Sanford Wurmfeld (b.1942) Wurmfeld worked in his paintings with the relationship of  color value, hue, and saturation. His grid like structures resemble to the optical mixing approach as previously explored by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.

-‘Grey series’,
Available from: [accessed 23 June 2016]
Sanford Wurmfeld_grey series

In the context of optical effects the artist Agnes Martin (1912 – 2004) should be mentioned as well. Martin is a canadian abstract artist.

Her large scale pure abstract works at times quite mediative paintings do work with the effect of distance to the painting. Key elements in her works  (paintings, drawings, and printmaking) are space and internal emotional states. With a strong metaphysical and spiritual approach influenced strongly by Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Her works were covered by a fine pencil grid that disappeared in her later works from 1970s and were replaced by horizontal lines.


  • Colour per se is an unstable element and its visual perception depends strongly on the surrounding space and juxtaposed colours.
  • Interaction of colour and forms are ambiguous in conditions where learned experiences do not match any longer the experienced sensation.
  • With selective use of colour and shapes one can achieve a strong pulsating and vibrating effect. Either by colour contrast or by movement.
  • Whether edges are sharp or blurred impacts the way of visual perception of form and depth.
  • Ambiguity does play an important role for perception of movement (Bridget Riley) and visual depth perception (Noland) or form (Vasarely).


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