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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
Clones and Mirages

As a young child in the backseat of the family car on a long hot Arizona highway, Eckert was struck by the persistent sight of water on the road. His parents told him it was a mirage, an illusion. He was stunned. The epiphany marked the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the boundaries of reality and our perception of it. Today Eckert is a producer of mirages. The shovel propped up against the wall is the real-world prototype of a hanging carved wood sculpture. Road mirages work because blue photons from the sky refract from the surface between cool and hot air just above the asphalt. Similarly, Eckert uses paint and carving techniques in such a way that light helps to evoke materials other than wood. Your brain sees luster and interprets it as the sheen of metal, for instance. Eckert's shovel also exemplifies the perceptual principle known as amodal completion, by which we infer a whole object even if some of its parts are occluded. Eckert did not need to carve a shovel handle, or even a full blade, to create the illusion of the complete tool. Just a touch of spray paint over the fabric “veiling” the implement, and our amodal completion mechanisms take care of the rest.

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