Gestalt – Grouping – Proximity, Similarity, and Closure


In physics, any two objects will cause a certain attraction force on each other. They call this gravity. A similar force exists in electromagnetic fields called magnetism. In Gestalt, the attraction force between shapes is Grouping. Just as in the sciences, the attraction force will not necessarily move the other element though there will be an implied, but real, attraction between the two.  Grouping is a major element in Gestalt and can be influences the visual center of an image.

The different types of grouping are: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and pragnanz. Each is discussed below.

Consider that much of this topic of Gestalt may seem overly simplistic, but it helps to explain the actions of the unconscious mind during the act of viewing and you will see later how it supports the Principles of Art and Elements of Design. If you find it difficult to see the visual relationships described, try closing the eyes and clearing the mind as much as possible, then pay attention to what the eye and brain first perceives in the first second or two when viewing an image.


Proximity grouping is the influence objects within close proximity assert on each other. Looking below you will see how a grid of evenly spaced objects is nothing more than a grid of evenly spaced objects. It has balance and logic. Therefore, it is comfortable to the brains and the eyes can rest on it easily.

In the second image, we still have a grid of objects, but the brain accepts each set of double rows as being a single group of objects, though of the same shape. There is still a balance in the logic; it is just a bit more complex. Proximity also works for dissimilar groups of objects, as shown below.

Proximity of shapes affects the visual relationships of shapes within a frame, but the illustration may be a bit too simplistic. In the illustration below we will mix it up just a bit to reinforce the notion.

We now see 3 shapes of blue and 1 shape of grey. How does your brain relate them into groups? Though it is a different color and shape, the strongest reading seems to be that the square is grouped with the 2 overlapping blue shapes. The single blue shape on the upper left is likely grouped with nothing.   Now, consider the grouping in relation to the whole page. A secondary reading may appear grouping all 4 object together when contrasted to the type and page layout. This occurs because there is no framing around the 4 objects presenting them as separate from the balance of the page. This changes their reference and logic, so the brain may see them in either light.

Having too many things in close proximity can affect the  image negatively. This leads to incoherence, not allowing for the eyes to find a comfortable point of focus.


Similarity grouping is the influence that objects of like shape can assert on each other. Repetition of shape within the frame creates associations. In the illustration below grouping is mostly by shape. Even though the columns are separated they still associate in the mind. Because they are similar in size and color the grouping seems to be weak.

Color can be used to reinforce Similarity. Most people would see the arrows in this illustration below as being of two different groups based upon their color alone. There is no proximity change needed to induce the effect.

Look at the more complex examples of Similarity in the next two illustrations.

In the  illustration above , the similarity is easy to pick up due to the sameness of the objects in the frame. The lines seem to be one group and the triangles seem to be another.

Now look at the same frame without the triangles. Can you pick out any groupings now? It isn’t as easy because all of the objects are similar. You might see the two adjacent lines on the left side (running diagonally to the right) as being a group due to the similarity of angle. You might also see the two lines running from edge to edge as grouped. There are a number of ambiguous groupings and what you do make out, appears depending on your momentary point of focus.

Comparing the two illustrations show some of the strength in using similarities to create groupings within the frame. Similarities can take the form of colors, as we have seen. They can also be shaped by textures, values, tones, movement, symmetries, etc, as seen below.

Similarity of shapes in an image produce repetition. Repetition in an image can be as strong an element in imaging as it is in music. But too much repetition can become boring, so the best repetition also has an amount of variation included.If you listen to classical music you will have often heard titles including the term, “Theme and Variations”. these are pieces where material structure is repeated while the form changes by changing the melody, rhythm, orchestration, etc. singly or in combination.

How many similarities, or repetitions, can you pick out in the portrait of three peasants by the German photographer, August Sanders? What variations do you find?

Young Farmers. From "People of the Twentieth Century." August Sanders, 1914

Young Farmers. From “People of the Twentieth Century.” August Sanders, 1914

Image Source

Keep in mind, too much similarity can cause quick exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Attention needs be paid to placement in this case. For example, an image of a single texture throughout the frame will be boring, while taking swaths of differing shapes or colors of the same texture, arranged in a pleasing way may not.


Closure is the brain completing what is suggested or implied. It takes the information available and completes it, though not all of the information is presented. Looking at the first illustration below you will perceive a circle, yet it is not a circle but a series of arcs. To make it a true circle the spaces between the lines need to be filled. But we perceive the figure as a circle because the brain performs closure for us. The brain is familiar with the shape and accepts it as whole. The graphic in the second illustration show two forms of grouping at work. At one level, the four triangles group into a star like form due to similarity. However, a square also appears where no square actually exists; the corners do not join. Again, the brain creates a closure of the form (The logo of the World Wildlife Fund seen on the page about figure and ground is an excellent example of closure at work). Notice in the third example how the suggestion of the square is less pronounced. This illustrates how proximity of elements will influence closure. Closure is most noticeable when the elements are near each other. The effect can dissipate with distance or if other shapes intervene. The resultant form suggested can also change. Notice in third illustration how the closure is beginning to describe a circle instead of a square.

Look at another example of closure below. In this case, the frame around the objects cuts off those portions of the blue circle extending outside of the frame. Yet the brain performs completion on it, making it seem whole. In reality, the shape never existed as a circle; it is the same as the green object in the lower right of the frame. Even knowing this will not keep the brain from closing the shape. At times the green shape will seem completed as a circle, with the bottom of the circle protruding through the ground and out of view.

The closure seen above is accomplished by the brain, yet the image creator can make their own closure. Looking at the first image below, notice how the jagged lines do not seem to close with one another. Also that the similarity grouping seems weak.  Yet in the second instance, simply connecting the lines creates closure for us. In this instance, the addition of connecting lines enhanced the closure of unrelated elements and reduced the effect of similarity even more. You will also find there are times where a line from one shape creates an implied closure for another unconnected line.

Symmetry and asymmetry will respectively strengthen and weaken the effect of closure.

In the five groupings above, the first and last show only a little closure due to asymmetry even though they have a strong proximity relationship to their neighbor. The middle three groupings exhibit a certain amount of closure grouping due to their symmetry as well as their proximity.

The image frame influences closure. The frame can both complete the closure, or allow the closure to flow outside it’s boundaries.

The brain will accept continuation of the forms well outside of the frame. Looking at the image of jean Arp by Alfred Neuman, it is easy for the brain to finish the shape of the head. Again, logic born of experience comes into play with the brain completing objects based upon what it knows.

Jean Arp, by Alfred Neuman, 1949

Jean Arp, by Alfred Neuman, 1949

Image Source

Next Time: Continuity and Prägnanz

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.


Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Artifice


Artifice is another aspect of figure-ground where techniques like object blending, hiding, and visual deceptions work to conceal, or fool the eyes of the viewer. John Pfahl is a well-known practitioner of artifice photography in the form of visual camouflage, is most known for his “Altered Landscapes” series. In his images, we see an exploration of creating ambiguity of space and scale within the two dimensional space of the image.

Jerry Uelsmann practices a form of psychological artifice with his masterful blending of portions of different, unrelated negatives into prints of extraordinary beauty and mystical content. His work has led to a whole genre of digitally manipulated photographic images. Partly because of his masterful technique, but mostly due to the surrealistically logical imagery in the scenes, most of his images are immediately readable.

Artifice occasionally influences my own work, probably due to looking at too much Minor White over time. I find it can come in two forms visual and emotional.

Visual artifice, like the scene below, tricks the brain into seeing something other than the object photographed. In this instance, the effect is strengthened by the title. The title: “Control of the Oceans – A View of Iron Bottom Sound”, suggests a logical framework for the brain prior to looking at the image.

Emotional artifice comes in the form of strong emotional reactions to images. Anytime empathy for, or personification of an object occurs, a form of artifice takes place. The image below is strongly reacted to by most viewers. Part of a series of images taken over the period of a year and a half, this image evokes differing emotional responses ranging from pity to anger.

Aesthetic Analysis

Formal aesthetic analysis of any creative work usually begins by mapping the visual structure of the image. This is an analysis of the lines, shapes, tones, contrasts etc, found in the image. This analysis is informed by the Principals of Art and the Elements of Design. These in turn are influenced by the Gestalt elements found in the image.

To illustrate lets look again at the image above. What makes this composition work?

Looking at it formally, there are three vertical elements: the wooden upright, the plexiglass rectangle and the rectangular compartment on the left. Each is supported by strong horizontals top and bottom.  These verticals, anchored by the horizontals, create a sense of repose and solidity. The verticals are further reinforced by the fluting of the cardboard backing of the right compartment.

Three verticals elements deliniated by color overlays.

Three verticals elements anchored by horizontals.

If it contained a plain background in the compartment on the left, this composition would have appeared heavy and overly imbalanced to the right. With the broad “barber pole” like diagonals, the image seems comfortably positioned and in balance. The image below illustrates how the space is divided by the horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements.

Division of verticals, horizontals and diagonals within the frame.

An implied triangle running from the top of the larger dolls head down to both sides to just above the horizontal base of the right compartment shown below left.  This triangle strengthens the composition and adds gravity, anchoring it within the visual space. There is also a similarity of the rounded shapes described by the bodies of a both dolls creating an implied circular shape within the frame shown below right.

Other Gestalt elements found in the image include similarity in the shapes of the doll heads, and the rectangular forms of the left and right vertical compartments.

The implied circle within the frame helps strengthen the composition.

The implied triangle adds gravity to an already solidly based compostiion.

All of these steadying components then fall counter to the tension created by the emotional desire to personify the doll on the right as a deceased infant, contrasted with the laughing figure of the impish character on the left .

Keep in mind that these elements were not analyzed as the exposure was being made.  There was though, a decision to include what is currently in the frame. A second composition was made by shooting closer, excluding the left hand compartment. Since I always try to compose to the whole frame (no cropping) the 2:3 format cut into the upper portion of the right compartment in the second framing. Visually, it was unsatisfying and the image felt imbalanced to the eye. I also almost removed the small figure on the left prior to exposure but in the end I left it in. Removing it would have resulted in a weaker overall image, deleting a key component of the emotional artifice.

Again, most of the design influences in framing the shot were not conscious decisions made prior to exposure. But being subconsciously aware of the Principals of Art and Elements of Design would have influenced the overall approach when framing the shot.

Next Time: Grouping


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.

Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Selection and Boundary

Selection and Boundary


Selection is a key aspect of figure-ground. One shape or the another is selected by the brain according to the task. If you are looking at a series of letters on a page looking for a Z, most of what you see is ground and the Z becomes figure when your eyes pass over one, but only because the task is to find the Z. During the search your eyes may focus for a split second on other letters that are similar to the shape of a Z, but once the search is done it is usually only the Z that can be recalled. The same happens when we are driving; we ignore the multitude of buildings, people and signs yet easily isolate the traffic signals and signs.

A number of diagnostic tests used in human sciences test the selection abilities of the subject. A number of them serve to illustrate the strength of figure-ground in perception. The most common example is the slat fence drawings below.

In the instance above, the lines are of equal spacing from one another. Depending on which space (slat) you are looking at, every other slat from that one will seem to be figure, in a space closer to the viewer. The other spaces will be perceived as ground, in a space farther from the viewer. It is possible to see the focused slat as ground but it requires time or effort to see the effect. The brain wants to see the object focused on as field.

In the second drawing, the lines are no longer evenly spaced. Do you see the wide slats as field or ground, how about the narrow slats? Most people will see the narrow groupings as figure and the wider groupings as ground. This makes it easier for the brain to hold the initial grouping it perceives, but the field and ground still reverse with a little effort. What you see as figure at any moment is the result of selection.

If we added an additional line to the right or left we would introduce more ambiguity because all of the elements would no longer be paired and “grouping” would influence perception. The closer elements are together the more likely they will be seen as figure and related. This is a result of “proximity grouping”, discussed later.


Boundary is an component of Gestalt showing how common edges can affect the perception of an object. A single expressive line can create multiple shapes that the brain associates with known objects creating a “contour rivalry”. Contour rivalry creates a tension within the frame as the figure and ground flip flop. Closure of one shape or another can help resolve the conflict. Closure is discussed later.

Above we see the classic example of boundary effect on figure and ground in the “Rubin Vase”. What do you see? Is it the shape of a goblet or a profile of two faces or what? Which did you see first and how long did it take to see the other? The second example is the same but with added information. So you still see the same forms that you did in the first example?
Boundary is a common element found in graphic symbols and logo design. Corporations and graphic designers often use a boundary element when creating logos as shown below. Here the brain perceives a sphere where none actually exists, only a series of horizontal lines.

Next Time: Artifice