Who doesn’t love a good optical illusion? My friend Priscilla Maine sent me an email with a link and an excerpt from an article about the spinning silhouette of a nude woman. A portion of the email said the following:
“This woman can make you ignore phone calls, small fires, texts from a lover, chocolate, the cold. And she won’t let you go until you realize you just wasted 20 minutes trying to change her spin direction, with your brain.”
Here she is, from an editor’s blog at the Scientific American:
I didn’t have the patience to stare at her for 20 minutes to see if she would change directions (she would only turn clockwise for me at first), so I went to the e-mail recommended “cheat” site to figure out how to see her differently. I found that if I looked down to one corner or another of the image and looked back, focusing on the negative space of the image instead of trying to use my imagination to insert details where there were none, she would change directions. Other people have figured out different ways to see her spin differently.
This illusion has to be one of the most fascinating I’ve seen in a while, and it plays on our perception of contrasting values, which is especially pronounced in silhouettes because we have so few distracting mid-range colors or concrete visual details to provide our brains with clues as to how to interpret an image properly. But this illusion also exploits how our brains interpret negative space. In art classes, we’re taught that negative space is the space around an object, but also the space that is between objects or between parts of an object. Learning how to “blind” yourself to the subject you’re trying to draw and focusing instead on drawing the shapes represented by the negative space around your subject can dramatically improve your drawing. Give that a try next time you’ve just about erased a hole in your paper because you can’t get the correct angle on an arm or leg.
Anyway, back in my teens, before I ever learned about negative space or how to use it as an artist, I drew a silhouette of a cowboy riding out through a gate, and that’s the only way I saw it until my sister asked if he were coming in the gate. In the gate? I looked again, and sure enough, I could see how she could see that he was coming in instead of going out.
You’ve probably seen the pictures of the “Rubin’s Vase,” which are the most common optical illusions that use negative space. Here’s the page on negative space at Wikipedia .
Is it a vase? Or is it a silhouette drawing of two people facing one another? For illusions such these, negative space seems to work best when that negative space has a high level of contrast and is in a recognizable shape, such as a face or hands.
So who created the spinning nude silhouette? I tracked her down to ProcreoFlashDesign of Japan. She was created in 2003 by Nobuyuki Kayahara. She spins much more quickly here, and for whatever reason (maybe because I’d spent a lot more than 20 minutes looking at her by this point), the faster speed helped me see her change directions much more easily.