Figure/Ground Transformation,

BD fig grnd2


Your task is to morph the figure and ground relationship from Clear Figure on Ground through 3 stages of Figure Becoming Ground to Figure and Ground Reversal, another 3 stages of Figure Becoming Ground, and finally to Clear Figure on Ground again. Create visually even, progressive changes between each step.

Essentially, you are telling a story. The story is first about a clearly seen figure shape that gradually, logically and sequentially changes to a stage where both the ground and itself are equally visually important halfway through. Then, from this middle step, the story continues morphing with the ground now becoming gradually, logically and sequentially more important. Finally, at the end is a clear figure in the opposite color of the very first step.

The three main states of the figure and ground visual relationship are:

1.   clear figure on ground—may be described as generally having all or most of the following characteristics:

  • it is possible to name the shape (ie. 4 or S or square or triangle, or house, etc.)
  • central within the ground (centered)
  • it is a completely closed shape (not cropped)
  • primarily convex
  • if colored, is usually warm in color
  • textural, patterned, or detailed
  • is vertically oriented
  • object-like
  • regular shapes

2.   figure becoming ground examples (mostly identified by the use of implied line)—may be described as generally having all or most of the following characteristics:

  • usually makes use of implied line in some way
  • some parts of the ground contain elements of figure (see above)
  • light color nuance
  • some shared elements
  • illusion of transparency
  • coincident line

3.   figure/ground reversal examples (mostly identified by the use of shared contour)—may be described as generally having all or most of the following characteristics:

  • shared contour, shared or adjacent edges
  • tends to become an overall flat pattern
  • sequential alternating of attention
  • heightened sense of visual tension
  • both are equally namable shapes
  • MC Escher-like tessellation pattern
  • optical illusion


Do this by creating a grid of nine vertical rectangles, each 2 x 3 inches in size on a mat board of 11 x 14. (this will create a 2 1/2 inch border all around your 6 x 9 inch overall design). Then pick a letter from a real typeface as step one. This letter will be a clear black figure on white ground. Then move to your last rectangle, step 9, and pick a numeral from the same typeface making it a clear white figure on black ground (the reverse of step 1). Then move to the middle step, #5, and create a fig/grnd reversal there. (this step will have characteristics similar to a Yin/Yang design and make use of shared contour). The final part of the assignment is to create the transitional steps at #’s 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 that will be examples of figure becoming ground, each at various amounts, as each step progressively morphs to the reversal step in the middle of the overall grid design.

Your final design should be arranged like this (it may be either horizontal or vertical);

fig grnd layout

Your key to success with this assignment is an understanding of the difference between simply morphing a shape from one thing to another and the more complex situation where, in addition to a shape morphing, there is also a gradual change in the way that the black and white areas of the design are perceived. The figure is first perceived as being strong, but step by step becomes progressively weaker while the ground is progressively activated at the same time. Gradually, they reverse one another in the way we perceive them.  Do not draw the lines between each rectangle.

To help you regulate the even  speed or change from one step to another throughout the entire morph, cut out each individual rough marker drawing so that you can place the series in one line. Do this to compare evenness. Then, place step 1 next to step 9, 2 next to step 8, 3 next to step 7 and so on. In this way you can compare the figure/ground relationships. They should be the same for each of these pairings.

Finally, consider the entire composition as a whole—a complete Gestalt. The viewer should first see the entire 9 rectangles as one complete whole design or picture.

Final Craftsmanship:

As with all assignments, your ability to execute your final design with care, neatness and precision is essential. Maintain very high standards for yourself in this area. As an example of precision look closely at the following image. It shows a piece of wood being cut by a saw blade following a pencil line. Notice that the saw does not cut down the center of the line, but rather on one side of that pencil line. In fact, it leaves the pencil line. This is because the saw blade has a thickness, called a kerf. This is just as any drawn line will also have a thickness determined by the drawing instrument being used. In the case of the kerf, the saw blade cuts the wood on the waste side. If we were coloring in a shape first outlined by a pen we would do a similar thing. We would take into account the thickness of the pen being used and draw the outline so the outer edge of the inked line would define the precise dimensions of the shape. This would be more precise and an example of the level of craftsmanship you should strive for throughout all aspects of your final presentation.


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