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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 1

Artists Play With Light and Shadows to Trick the Eye

Trompe l'oeil illusions challenge your perception
True Lies

According to legend, trompe l'oeil (“to trick the eye,” in French) originated in a competition between artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius in ancient Greece. Zeuxis painted such lavishly appetizing grapes that birds tried to eat them. Sure of his victory, he attempted to unveil Parrhasius' painting but was crushed to realize that the curtain he tried to pull aside was the art itself. Such illusions work because your visual system uses position, shading and even the interplay of light on an object's surface to build a mental representation of the world around you. Tom Eckert, a modern-day Parrhasius, does not consider himself a trompe l'oeil artist. “Trompe l'oeil implies mimicry,” Eckert says. “I create illusions.” Indeed, pieces such as The Raising of the Sphere appear to defy the laws of nature rather than emulate them. The “silk” cloth raising the ivory ball is not fabric but wood. The thinness, detail and luster of the carving deceive our visual neurons, and we conclude that the material must lack the structural integrity to support a large, heavy object, despite what we see. The end result is not the perception of a masterful wood carving but of magic and the impossible.

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