Understanding Visual Perception through Gestalt

Once the western world began to claw its way out of the middle ages, artists and scientists began to study and describe those common elements found in painting, drawing and sculpture that contributed to the beauty of a work of art. A number of the more observant of these people wrote about their observations, the result of which allowed them to formulate the Elements of Art and the Principles of Design, which we will discuss later. Late 19th and early 20th century science, particularly human psychology, turned away from the purely visual and inward to the mind, and how the human species perceived its world and therefore its art. Inherent in this was why the Elements of Art and Principles of Design worked. They found there was something within the subconscious that accepted these foundations as more than just visual signals. There were qualities common to the elements and principles that could be laid out, anticipating how the brain would likely react to certain input. These qualities were codified into the principles of Gestalt. It should be noted, that Gestalt tells us what happens but cannot tell us why. There is no science demonstrating physiological triggers for what happens. This is seen as a shortcoming to the psychologist, but that is not our focus here, perception is. So we must accept the empirically proven principles of perceptual Gestalt to understand artistic perception.

To define Gestalt we turn to Wikipedia’s quote from the writings of David Hothersall:

Gestalt psychology or gestaltism (German: Gestalt – “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”) is a theory of mind and brain of the Berlin School; the operational principle of gestalt psychology is that the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. The gestalt effect is the form-generating capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves. In psychology, gestaltism is often opposed to structuralism. The phrase “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” is often used when explaining gestalt theory.”

The Wikipedia article goes on to explain:

“The concept of gestalt was first introduced in contemporary philosophy and psychology by Christian von Ehrenfels (a member of the School of Brentano). The idea of gestalt has its roots in theories by David Hume, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, David Hartley, and Ernst Mach.”
Max Wertheimer’s unique contribution was to insist that the “gestalt” is perceptually primary, defining the parts of which it was composed, rather than being a secondary quality that emerges from those parts, as von Ehrenfels’s earlier Gestalt-Qualität had been.”

Pay attention to this last sentence. It means that the principles of art and the elements of design are by-products of the “Gestalt Effect”. Without the effects of Gestalt on the mind we probably wouldn’t have the visual arts in our world. It is the profound influence of our minds quest for order and logic that allows us to view an image and find balance, beauty, motion and emotion within the walls of the frame. Not everyone is as acutely aware of these harmonies as others, and those of us who understand the need to create beauty should feel fortunate and grateful for the gift.

The study of Gestalt in imagery is the investigation of how visual information is segregated and grouped, in the mind. For the photographer it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Approach them concepts allowing the formation of the Principles of Art and Elements of Design. They are not a set of guides on improving the success of an image. The Principles and Elements are. One should use the ones that work for that moment, in that image, and ignore the others. They are all choices on can make to improve the message.

It needs mentioning here a bit about the way the human eyes interact with scenes in the field of view. To begin, only a small area of what we see is in focus at any one time. Detail only exists in the central few degrees. This area centers on the middle of at what our eyes are pointing. All other information becomes more out of focus the farther toward the periphery of our vision it gets and the farther it is in depth from the focal point. We only see indications of large shapes and color in the periphery. We imagine we see everything in focus because the eyes are constantly moving about and focusing on various small parts of the scene as they do so. This allows us to construct a more complete scene in our brain, but unless we have eidetic memory, it is never complete. This is why we think we know what a scene was like but can never recall all of the elements of the scene. For now, the important thing to remember is that the eyes are constantly shifting from one point to another and seldom stay in one place for more than a fraction of a second. The usefulness of understanding this will become apparent as we move on.

Next Time: Ganzfeld


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.


One comment on “Understanding Visual Perception through Gestalt

  1. […] Time: Gestalt and Visual Perception Share this:ShareEmailPrintLike this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. This entry was posted in […]

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