Optical Illusions

Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible. I think it’s in my basement… let me go upstairs and check.”

– M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972)

I have never met anyone who did not enjoy a great magic trick. It is simple to see why. There is nothing more delightful than being playfully fooled while, at the same time, trying to figure out how it could happen so quickly and cleverly. You feel as though your mind’s eye is blinking at the speed of light to catch up to the image or magic in front of you. And it is. To me, optical illusions are magic. Take a good look at the painting by Rob Gonsalves below and you will instantly know what I mean.

Optical Illusion - Cathedral of Commerce

“Cathedral of Commerce”
Copyright Rob Gonsalves (2004)

Optical illusions are enjoyed universally. They can be appreciated on several different levels. From shear fun and silliness to mathematical concepts to fine art, optical illusions have delighted readers from ages 5 to 105. Optical illusions are used in psychology and neuroscience to investigate how our minds interpret different images. It extends into philosophy where errors of perception are studied in terms of the schools of realism and how our minds perceive objects. It occurs in nature when the setting sun mystically becomes three or four times larger while resting on the horizon. In reality, it is the same size as always.

Unless you think that optical illusions are something that mysteriously jumped off the canvas in the 1960s with the paintings of Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and M.C. Escher, know that people have been fascinated and entertained by these for thousands of years.

The history of optical illusions has an irregular, up and down pathway to the present. There are long periods of apparent inactivity, or at least little evidence of it in the form of art or architecture. The earliest documented evidence appears in the form of a coin found on the Island of Lesbos around 2500 B.C. In the picture of the metal coin below, you can see an image of two bulls facing each other.   If you take a second look, it can also be perceived as a wolf’s face looking straight ahead.

Optical Illusion - Coin found on Lesbos

© Gianni A. Sarcone, www.archimedes-lab.org, Italy

Portraying three dimensional objects on a two dimensional canvas is the backbone of both Western art and simple illusions. Taking this one step further, artists began to intentionally deceive the viewer into believing his or her fictional creation was real, however briefly. In essence, you had a “double dip” illusion: three dimensions on a two dimensional canvas with the visual trickery incorporated into that canvas. There is evidence to suggest intentional illusions were first used in ancient Greece and later picked up by the Romans. While other forms of optical illusions became popular beginning in the 14th century, this form of art vanished for a time and reappeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century. This art form came to be known as Trompe l’oeil, a French term meaning “trick the eye.” The ancient Greeks were aware of the effects of illusion in art even through their architecture.  They made the columns of buildings like the Parthenon bulge so that from a distance they would look perfectly straight. They understood that the proper slant of roofs also had an illusory effect on observers by giving the appearance of the building standing more erect than it actually was.

There is little mention of optical illusion art from ancient times through the Dark Ages. It seems to have reappeared in full force during the Renaissance.  This era marks the beginning of many different types of illusory art. During this period, artists began to explore and fully comprehend linear perspective. The artists of this time were the first to see that parallel lines can merge to give the feeling of depth. They used different hues, shading and size of images in a manner that made their paintings more realistic than their predecessors. They explored new techniques to show and distort perspective so that the brain might interpret an image in two completely different ways. In the late 1400s Leonardo da Vinci is given credit for an art form known as anamorphosis or “slant art.”  It requires the viewer to either occupy a certain vantage point to be able to see the image properly or employ the use of reflection in a conical, cylindrical or pyramidal mirror to get the right view. As an example, in its original form on canvas, the image is distorted so significantly that the viewer cannot even offer a guess as to what it is until it is viewed from the perfect angle where the image reveals itself as the artist intended. Anamorphosis became extremely popular and was a means where questionable material or politically sensitive messages could be hidden. It remains quite popular today. An example of this type of art that combines elements of a puzzle with magic is provided below.

Optical Illusion - Anamorphosis

Title and artist unknown. Believed to be from the 18 th century.
From Mathematics. David Bergamini, Time, Inc., New York, 1963. 200 pp. Illus.

The other type of illusory art that became popular during the Renaissance is called “double imagery” or “double meaning” and it was made popular by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, an Italian painter who did most of his work in the mid to late 1500s. He painted portrait heads made from fruits, animals, vegetables, fish and other objects and molded them together in such a manner that the portrait was a highly accurate image of the person. If you moved in for a closer look, you could see the myriad of objects he painted to comprise the portrait. His work was considered so revolutionary that some art critics thought his creations to be a manifestation of mental illness. But Arcimboldo was simply an immensely talented individual who embraced this illusionary art form. Evidence of his sanity exists in the form of his traditional art work.  While his traditional art was lost through the years, his double meaning work reappeared in the early 20th century.  These paintings had a tremendous influence on surrealist artists like Salvador Dali.  He still has a strong influence today.

Optical Illusion - The Librarian Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s “The Librarian” – 1562

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, double meaning or metamorphic art again became popular and was used extensively on postcards and in advertisements.  Scores of illustrators created these visual puns which often featured dark themes and subject matter including skulls, devils and other taboo topics.  One classic example from George A. Wotherspoon titled “Society, a Portrait” features a gentleman escorting a woman on each of his arms. Closer inspection of the portrait, however, reveals that the man’s chest and arms also resembles the head of a donkey.

Optical Illusion - Society, a Portrait George A. Wotherspoon’s “Society, a Portrait”
Courtesy of www.oldpostcards.com and www.ustownviews.com

No other artist has contributed more to the popularity of optical illusions and mathematical art than M.C. Escher. Maurits Cornelis Escher was born at the end of the 19th century in Leeuwarden, Holland. He initially studied architecture but switched to the arts where he became proficient in drawing and wood carving. As a young man in his twenties, he traveled extensively through Europe and during this time visited the Alhambra, a Moorish castle in Spain. He was fascinated how the Moors segmented the plane into repeating periodic shapes with colors. The Moors were forbidden by their religion to use living things in their art, and Escher thought how dynamic congruent patterns of birds, fish, humans and other living things might appear when tiled together. Thus began his work in tessellations, the symmetrical way of tiling a plane, and the broad spectrum of different and sometimes shocking images he would go on to create during his lifetime.  Escher was one of the first artists to explore the art concept of infinity on a plane in detail – more than parallel lines disappearing on the horizon. This led to his famous Circle Limit series of wood engravings which became some of his most popular work.

By the 1950s M.C. Escher had become famous in Europe but was still relatively unknown in the United States. He wrote The Regular Division of the Plane in 1958, which discussed some of the math behind his work. This is when he commented that, “Mathematicians have opened the gate leading to an extensive domain.” His work was the first in history to build the bridge between mathematics and art, fortified by solid mathematical constructs. The beauty of all this is that an individual can enjoy the fun and pleasure of his creations and explore the mathematical applications at the same time. Symmetry, periodic tiling of the plane, platonic solids, hyperbolic geometry, topology, group theory and crystallography can all be found and studied in Escher’s diverse body of work.

Escher’s popularity was just reaching critical mass when he died in 1972. Today he is more popular than he ever was during his life. Bookmarks, calendars, T – shirts, posters and more can readily be found across the retail landscape in virtually every country.

In the 1960s the term “op art” was coined in an article appearing in Time magazine. This came to be the catch-all phrase for optical art and illusions of all kinds in the years following. After a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which received significant coverage in 1965, op art became hugely popular with the general public. Images of op art were seen on television, in newspapers, graffiti, album covers, clothing and advertising of all kinds. Hungarian born Victor Vasarely is often cited as the father of this movement with Bridget Riley, Yaacov Agam and Josef Albers as other notables. Salvador Dali, although known by most as a surrealist painter, created some excellent op art paintings that are still popular today.  Much detail has been given to discussing the aspects of what constitutes op art, but the number one feature is trompe l’oeil. Op art is a form of abstract art where lines, space and color are integrated into symmetrical forms. The lines are simple and repetitive with sometimes unusual shading and coloring that give the art its beauty and excitement. Often, some of the art seems to have an almost uneasy feeling of depth while at the same time possessing a pleasing sense of simplistic beauty.

Op art saturated everything for about 5 years and even though its intensity leveled off, it is still popular today. One of the reasons is that computers are a perfect medium for designing and creating op art style imagery. One can see evidence of this on the Internet and on many websites that use op art as logos. Of course, the masters did their creations by hand, which is amazing when you consider what goes into creating even one of these images.

Today’s optical illusion landscape is an amalgamation of the aforementioned types along with a new generation of artists and their creations. With the ability to now create illusions using a computer and a variety of commercially available software, they take on a new dimension not available to those in the past.  Static images can now be made to move, or at least appear to move as we all know that a photograph cannot actually be in motion, right?  Perhaps you should judge for yourself.

Optical Illusion - courtesy of Paul Nasca Courtesy of Paul Nasca (2010)

One of the interesting aspects of current day op art is that there is even more emphasis on illusions and their interrelationship with math, science, neuroscience, graphic design and the whole broad spectrum of the arts. As evidence of this, the 2010 winner of the Best Illusion of the Year Contest is a mathematical engineer who created a now well-known illusion of balls rolling uphill. An article appearing in the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American MIND discusses the contest and offers the following: “Whereas scientists once created illusions from simple lines and shapes and artists focused on making eye-popping illusions, the overlap between science and art is now greater than ever. Scientists are using graphic design tools to make their illusions more artistic, and artists have grown more knowledgeable about the neuroscience behind the magic.”

During the 1970’s, two men simultaneously (but unknown to each other at the time) launched a barrage of clever design creations on the American public.  Scott Kim and John Langdon each believed they had invented these designs independently of one another.  These designs would later be dubbed “ambigrams” in the early 1980s by Douglas R. Hofstadter.

An ambigram is a form of art that presents two or more different words within the same physical space through a mix of illusion and symmetry.  The different words can be viewed by looking at the design from another perspective (such as upside down or reversed).  There are several different types of ambigrams, but popular categories of this art include rotational ambigrams (a design that can be rotated by some angle to present a different instance of a word), mirror image ambigrams (a design that can be read when reflected in a mirror) and figure-ground ambigrams (a design that has one word embedded within the spaces of another word).

Peter Newell is given credit as the creator of the first ambigram – his designs were pictures that could be inverted.  His book “Topsys & Turvys”, released in 1893 featured pictures on each page that could be turned upside down to reveal a completely different (but recognizable) image.  The last page of his book featured a drawing that reads “THE END” when viewed in one direction and “PUZZLE” when viewed upside down. These types of puzzles remained popular in both England and the United States throughout the early 1900’s.  Books, postcards, magazines and posters were dedicated to this genre and enjoyed by both kids and adults.

Optical Illusion - Topsys and Turvys Ambigram Peter Newell – Ambigram from Topsys and Turvys (1893)

Kim was the first to put motion to his ambigrams by spinning several of his creations to reveal their duality.  Langdon made ambigrams even more popular when his designs were incorporated into the plot of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel Angels & Demons.  Brown thought so highly of Langdon he named the hero of his book Robert Langdon in his honor.  Originally, both men made all their designs by hand. This would change with the increased use of computers and it was a natural evolution for both men to augment even more brilliant creations using digital enhancements.  Computers have allowed this type of illusion to have an unlimited panorama for new creations and one can only imagine what lies ahead.

Optical Illusion - Teach-Learn Scott Kim’s “Teach-Learn” (2000)

It should go without saying that artists will continue to push the boundaries of illusionary effects going forward.  In fifty years time, an entirely new breed of illusions may exist that we never knew to even be possible.  And people will love them because we all enjoy being fooled.  Some illusionists are mathematicians fascinated with symmetry and some are vision researchers in search of answers.  Others are graphics designers and painters who desire to push the boundaries of what can be done on a flat surface or canvas.  Ultimately, however, they are all masters at creating art that both fascinates and deceives.

Terry Stickels

Fort Worth, Texas


1) Mathematical Circus by Martin Gardner, Knopf Publishing, 1979. Chapter 1, Optical Illusions.

2) The Playful Eye, by Julian Rothstein and Mel Gooding, Chronicle Books LLC, 2000

3) Scientific American MIND, 10 TOP ILLUSIONS by Susana Martinez – Conde and Stephen L. Macknick, May/June 2011

4) Masters of Deception by Al Seckel, Sterling Publishing, 2004

5) Visual Illusions in Art and Science by Dr. Pascale Michelon, appearing in Blog of SharpBrains, February 11, 2011 ( article includes an excerpt of Sleights of Minds: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by Stephen L. Macnick and Susana Martinez – Conde, published by Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2010 )

6) M.C. Escher – The Official Website, http://www.mcescher.com/

7) M.C. Escher – Life and Work, THE COLLECTION, National Gallery of Art, http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/ggescher/ggescher-main1.html

8) Giuseppe Arcimboldo – The Complete Works, http://www.giuseppe-arcimboldo.org/

9) Victor Vasarely  Biography- Leader of the Op Art Movement, Masterworks Fine Art, http://www.masterworksfineart.com/inventory/vasarely/vasarely.php

10) Brainy Quote, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/mcescher107495.html

11) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambigram

12) Ambigram Magazine – http://www.ambigram.com/

Leave a Reply