Gestalt: It’s All In Your Head

Have you ever thought about a word to much, perhaps while figuring out how to spell it or say it? Suddenly it seems foreign and strange. The word no longer falls seamlessly into a sentence, but the letters clump into what seems little more than gibberish. You find yourself obliged to ponder the intricacies and, quite frankly, weirdness that is language. Well, just as over-thinking a word can manipulate your perception of language, so can over-thinking a single form in a painting manipulate your visual perception.

It’s not uncommon for an artist to get stuck working on a single area of a painting for a while. And when you’re working on it, you’re staring at it, and staring at a little area can play tricks on your mind. Now, at this point, taking a break is your best bet to regaining perspective. Another idea: refer to the laws of gestalt, as they may allow the weary artist to predict how their viewers will interpret the visual data laid before them.

GESTALT: a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.  -Meriam-Webster dictionary

The term gestalt actually originates from the field of psychology. In the early twentieth century, Berlin School psychologists sought to understand how the human mind could make so much sense of the visual stimuli in this ever-changing, overwhelmingly complex world. Over the years, they developed a theory concerning the mind/brain and perception:

“the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The principle maintains that the human eye sees objects in their entirety before perceiving their individual parts, suggesting the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Gestalt psychology tries to understand the laws of our ability to acquire and maintain stable percepts in a noisy world. Gestalt psychologists stipulate that perception is the product of complex interactions among various stimuli.” 1

The gestalt-effect occurs when the mind generates form, or shapes, out of the complex stimuli bombarding the brain. Form, as in shape. In fact gestalt is a German word meaning “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.”

Gestalt theories seek to further explore the principles of perception, the subtle and innate laws of the brain that determined the way objects are perceived. For example, how can a viewer glance at an artwork and perceive which area is the background?

To sum it all up: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (although this is a mistranslation of original phrase by Kurt Koffka, “The whole is other than the sum of the parts”).

Although these theorists meant for this idea to apply to many areas of psychology, it is mostly used when discussing vision and perceptual organization. The principles developed in the gestalt theory are probably ideas you know and use subconsciously. (Just for kicks, several of the laws include a blue description from here. I think the wording makes them curiously profound…a nice little bridge between vision and psychology.)

Relationships and Grouping

figuregroundLAW OF FIGURE/GROUND: “people interpret a stimulus in the context of its background.”  A viewer tends to differentiate between the figure and ground (aka. an object and the area that surrounds it.) Look at the figure to the right. Is this a square sitting on a circle, or is it a circle with a square-shaped hole in the center?
principle-of-pragnanzLAW OF PRAGNANZ: (aka. Law of Good Gestalt, Law of Simplicity) (German language, pithiness): “suggests that individuals opt for relatively simple perceptions even when more complex perceptions can be derived.” The mind prefers to order things into the simplest form possible rather than deciphering complex combinations. Therefore,

”as individuals perceive the world, they eliminate complexity and unfamiliarity so they can observe a reality in its most simplistic form. Eliminating extraneous stimuli helps the mind create meaning. This meaning created by perception implies a global regularity, which is often mentally prioritized over spatial relations.”

Look at the figures to the right. If you were divide that top figure into individual shapes, would you divide them into simple shapes (like the middle figure) or complicated forms (like the bottom figure)?

gestalt_proximityLAW OF PROXIMITY: “suggests that things that are in close proximity to one another are perceived as belonging together.”  When spatially close together, individual shapes will appear to form a group or single unit.
principle-of-similarityLAW OF SIMILARITY: “things that are physically similar are perceived as belonging together or as forming a whole figure.”  When objects look similar to one another, the mind perceives those objects as more related than those that are dissimilar. Hence, the similar objects can be perceived as a group or pattern. Similarity covers visual characteristics, including size, shape, color, texture, material, surface. The flip-side of this law is important as well: if similarity occurs, a dissimilar element will call attention to itself and will become a focal point.
common fateLAW OF COMMON FATE: If elements move together, they are perceived as a unit (even if they appear individual when at rest).
CONTINUITYLAW OF CONTINUITY: “holds that people categorize stimuli into smooth, uninterrupted, continuous forms, rather than into discontinuous patterns.”  
Objects that are arranged in a line or a curve are generally perceived to be more related to each other than those “out of line” objects. The eye is compelled to follow the path of least resistance, if you will, so it tends to prefer smooth contours rather than irregular, abruptly changing contours.
principle-of-closureLAW OF CLOSURE: “states that people tend to perceive incomplete patterns as being complete.”  Ah, closure. Even though the mind may only receive a portion of the visual data, it fills in the gaps and perceives a whole shape.

“Closure is dangerous, volatile, seductive, hypnotic, and even playful. It works to show us an image that does not actually exist before our eyes; it reaches into our experience and into our psyche to create a fiction and compels us to believe it. From these results we construct our opinions, assumption, understanding …our reality.” -Andy Rutledge2

Look at the figure to the right…there’s a triangle there, right?

past-experience-principle LAW OF PAST EXPERIENCE: Sometimes elements are grouped together because the observer grouped them together in past experience. (Draw your own psychological conclusions.)  For example, if you were asked to split up the top shape in the figure to the right, you would probably split it up by whole letters. Why? After years of reading those letters, it’s hard not to immediately recognize them.

Which is Figure, Which is Ground?

symmetry 1 symmetry 2SYMMETRY CUE: The brain tends to perceive objects as symmetrical shapes around a central point. Areas surrounded by symmetrical borders tend to be considered figures on a larger background/landscape.
smaller-areaSMALL AREA CUE: When two figures overlap, the smaller of the two is perceived as a figure while the larger is regarded as ground.
surroundednessSURROUNDEDNESS: An area that seems surrounded by another is usually considered the figure. 3
contrastCONTRAST: In general, lower-contrast objects appear more distant than higher-contrast objects. 3
concaveCONVEXITY CUE: Convex shapes tend to be considered figures. 3
ELEMENT CONNECTEDNESSELEMENT CONNECTEDNESS: Objects that are visually connected by other elements are perceived as being more related than elements with no connection. 3
wide baseWIDE BASE: Regions with a wide base are more likely than regions with a narrow base to be seen as figures. 3
lower regionLOWER REGION: The lower of two regions separated by a horizontal border is more likely than the upper region to be seen as the figure.3 (Think LANDSCAPE!)
 protrusionPROTRUSION: A region that protrudes into a contiguous region is likely to be seen as the figure. 3

Sadly, this theory does not explain WHY things happen, only that they DO happen.


1. “Gestalt Psychology.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 06 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 June 2013. <>.

2. Rutledge, Andy. “Gestalt Principals of Perception.” 9 Dec 2008. Web. 14 June 2013. <>

3. Peterson, Mary and Elizabeth Salvagio.  “Figure-ground perception”. 2010. Scholarpedia, 5(4):4320. Web. 14 June 2013. <>.

Todorovic, Dejan (2008) Gestalt principles. Scholarpedia, 3(12):5345. Web. 14 June 2013. <>.

Detrie, Thomas. “Gestalt Principles and Dynamic Symmetry: Nature’s Design Connections to Our Built World.” Arizona State University. 20 Nov 2002. Web. 14 June 2013. <>.


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