Gestalt figure

No, not Gesundheit. Gestalt psychology is a a system that looks at things as a whole rather than just parts. It goes for the “big picture”.

What does a relatively obscure European psychology theory from the early 20th century have to do with anything I have been discussing here? Quite a lot, actually. One of the famous summaries of Gestalt principles is “The whole is different than the sum of its parts.” I believe this is profoundly true for many things, especially photography.

Proponents of Gestalt included notables such as Immanuel Kant, Ernst Mach, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Actually knowing who they were is not important, just that you have probably heard the names. It is interesting to me that the theory developed as a reaction to the prevailing trend of the day to break things down to the smallest possible parts. Something that still happens with some people to this day.

A brief explanation of Gestalt

A simple explanation of Gestalt is that the human mind makes patterns, it completes fragmented shapes to make wholes, it extends dots to see lines, etc. We are designed to complete pictures. The following figure shows an example of this. It is called the Kanizsa triangle. The Gestalt principle of closure is illustrated.

Kanizsa Triangle

Almost everyone sees 2 equilateral triangles in it. There are actually no triangles. Our brain “closes” the straight line segments to see one triangle and we “close” the shapes of the cutout circle segments (Pac Man?) to see the other one.

Other Gestalt principles include similarity, proximity, continuity, and common regions. I’m not going to go into them here. I have no illusion of this being a course on psychology.


My point is that that these principles are real and common to most people. They are used by designers and artists all the time to guide our perception of images. Here are some examples from my library. They were not shot consciously thinking about Gestalt psychology, but they show some things that trigger my mental library because I have learned over time that they work.

Implied lines

Here you see the shadows forming dark lines going from upper left to lower right. They are formed by our mental connection; they do not really exist. The three sets of shadows do not even touch each other.

Implied arc

In the lower part of this image you see an arc of yellow lights. They are really just discrete points. Since they are closely spaced and in a regular pattern, we see a complete arc. And it continues despite the dropout on the far side.

Implied region

The area inside the magenta line is seen as a distinct region of the image. Inside the line is one area, outside is another separate one. It’s not really true, but that is the way we see it.


The marvelous human brain is unsatisfied with incomplete forms. We “fill in the blanks” unconsciously. And it is even rewarding. You feel more satisfied by solving a puzzle, by completing an image from clues. A few points is seen as a line, some repeated shapes is a region, things in proximity seem to go together. It is amazing. When an artist works with his viewer to make a game it can be fun for both.

So how about the image at the top of this topic? A few arcs? A couple of rectangular blobs? Or is it a spotlighted figure? Or a spider?