Optical Illusions in Art, The Continuum, by Sandy Donabed

Optical illusions happen at the intersection of art and science. There is a physical reason for the illusion. It’s not ‘magic’ but instead a trick that the eye plays on the brain.

Once one understands how the eye sees things and how it misinterprets what it sees, the artist is free to appropriate the phenomenon into her own art. For example:


M.C. Escher, Relativity, 1953

And a ‘Relativity’ made from Legos:


Andrew Lipson, “Relativity” Out of Legos

The point of both the above is that they are ‘impossible’ shapes, stairs that go both up and down at the same time, stairs that can be either used from the top of the bottom, in short, an optical illusion.

Here is a link to Matthew Luckiesh’s 1922 book that has been put on-line describing all different types of Optical Phenomenon by chapter. The book contains graphs and charts as well as illustrations of many types of illusions. Matthew Luckiesh was Director of Applied Science, NELA Research Laboratories, National Lamp Works of General Electric Co. Some of the research done by Mr. Luckiesh was conducted during “The Great War.” The researchers’ task was to find the best ways to camouflage ships and airplanes.

See the same ‘impossible shape’ phenomenon in “The Melancholy of Departure” by Giorgio DeChirico (1888-1978):


This perspective was not meant to set the viewer in a secure, measurable space. It was a means of distorting the view and fooling the eye. Instead of one vanishing point in ‘The Melancholy of Departure’ (1914) there are six, and none is ‘correct’.

No wonder the Surrealists adored his early work and quickly took on its strategies. The “illusionist” painters among them, Dali, Ernst, Tanguy and Magritte all came out of early de Chirico.

Salvadore Dali,

Salvadore Dali, 1904-1989, was a Surrealist who fully devoted himself to developing his own way of working, which he described as ‘paranoiac-critical’, a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivation of delirious associations and interpretations’. It enabled him to demonstrate his personal obsessions and fantasies by discovering and meticulously painting hidden forms within pre-existing ones, sometimes randomly selected photographs and pictures or sometimes by appropriating work of other artists.


“The Persistence of Memory,” by Salvador Dali

de Chirico’s “metaphysical” constructions, such as above and later, ‘The Jewish Angel’ (which contained no Jewish references or an angel!), 1916, certainly influenced Max Ernst, the Dadaist, as they came out of the Cubist sculpture de Chirico saw all over Paris studios after 1912.

jewishangel.jpg “The Jewish Angel,” de Chirico


Max Ernst’s ‘The Hat Makes the Man’, 1920.

Max Ernst cut, pasted, and stacked photographs of men’s hats clipped from a sales catalogue to make phallic towers. This visual pun relates to Freud’s identification of the hat—the requisite accessory of the bourgeois man—as a common symbol representing repressed desire.

‘The Dadaist, said the German poet Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974),’is a man of reality who loves wine, women and advertising. ‘Dadaists’particularly liked the technique of photomontage, using illustrations and advertisements cut out of popular magazines. The Dadaists adapted the Cubist idea of collage to new purpose, that of making puzzling or strikingly incongruous juxtapositions of images and letters. Note the ‘impossible shapes’ again that couldn’t possibly balance in life.

The Surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte (1898-1967) combine convincing descriptions of people and objects in bizarre juxtapositions with a competent but pedestrian physical painting technique. The results question everyday reality, stand it on its head and present a new surreality.


Magritte, ‘The Discovery of Fire’

Surrealism subdivides into a second main type in the work of Yves Tanguy (1900-1955). The dreamlike visions that Tanguy produced from the unconscious layers of the mind contain carefully described imaginary objects. Known for employing ‘automatic writing’, there are no bizarre juxtapositions. His is a self contained world that convinces on its own terms as in a dream. In the work of this branch of the Surrealists, the surface of the painting tends to be flat and glossy: the viewer is reminded as little as possible that the illusion is composed of paint and the hallucinatory effect is thereby enhanced.


Tanguy, ‘Storm (Black Landscape)’, 1926

Joseph Albers

Joseph Albers was a German-American painter and graphic artist who used color and geometric shapes in his art. He studied art at the Bauhaus but left Germany in 1933 because of the Hitler government, and went to North Carolina to teach art. Then in 1950 he moved to Yale University to teach art. In his own art, Albers emphasized geometric shapes of strong, flat color. The way he mixed his colors emphasized the optical effects in objects. This can be seen in his famous experimental series “Homage to the Square” series. Albers worked on using forms to illustrate how changes in placement, shape, and light relate to changes in color. His work influenced both Op Art and the minimal art of the 1960s.


Victor Vassarelly (sometimes spelled Vasarely as well as other ways)

Victor Vassarelly, a Hungarian-born French painter, was one of the best known artists of the Op Art Movement. He was trained in the Bauhaus tradition in Budapest, but in 1930 he left Hungary to settle in Paris, France. By the 1940s his style of painting used geometric shapes with interesting color combinations. In the mid 1950’s and 1960s, he began to use brighter colors to show movement within his painting. In this ways, his art became optical illusion.

Here are three of Vassarelly’s paintings. You see how he creates the illusion of depth with his choice of color value

pasted-graphic-9.jpg* pasted-graphic-10.jpg pasted-graphic-11.jpg

(unknown titles and dates)

Because it’s fun to see, here is a site about Palm Painting with illusions of animals.


And finally,Optical Illusions in Quilt Art:

Solomon’s Puzzle, P4 Tesselation


More Quilt References, (because this all refers back to cloth finally)

Caryl Bryer Fallert’s Optical Illusion Quilts

Karen Combs books on Amazon

Optical Illusion Quilt Books

Some Very Cool Visual Phenomena and Optical Illusion Links:

75 Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena

A blog of collected contemporary illusions.

ColorCube examples of different illusions

Julian Beever street art

Tattoo and Painting Blog


Assorted architectural painting illusions (scroll down)

Architectural Illusions

Al Seckel’s Homepage of Illusions, Perception & Cognitive Science

Some Old Standard Illustrations with good explanations.

Complete explanations of Perceptions


Lady of the Lake, P4M Tesselation

And of course, if you don’t have enough illusions, there is always Photoshop!

When Graphic Artists Get Bored




2 Responses to “Optical Illusions in Art, The Continuum, by Sandy Donabed”

  1. 1 Sandy January 25, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Thanks, Joanna. I barely touched the subject at hand. There are so many illusions employed in art, I had to draw lines somewhere so tried to follow a direct route of painters who influenced each other over a period of years. I hope to expand this thought string into another article some day to cover more territory! Hope you can follow some of the links when you have time.

    And Thanks, June, for finding and adding an image of ‘The Jewish Angel’! See? Like I said, no angels, no Jewish references, weird, eh?

  2. 2 joannavan January 25, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    A lot of great insight! Did you also know that the Roman’s used a lot of “Trompe-l’oeil” in their art? There is a really great optical illusion in the Jesuit church in Vienna

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