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Don't be fooled by the complexity of illusions

Added on Wednesday 12th of April 2006 11:53 pm EST


Adobe Photoshop 7/CS/CS2

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


When you need to create an obscure illustration in Photoshop, illusions often come to mind. But without an understanding of how elements in your design interact, your creation can fall short of fulfilling your goal. To combat that, we’ll provide a foundation of the design concepts behind illusions, so you can easily apply them to, and be successful with, any of your Photoshop creations.


To explore the concepts behind illusions, we’ll:

     Briefly outline a few common types of optical illusions so you can decide which route you wish to take for your art.

     Explain some design elements and how they affect how your piece is perceived by others.

     Show you how to create a chromatic illusion to explore the concepts of color perception[SA1] .

When you’re planning the creation of a new piece of art in Photoshop, creating an illusion may come to mind. With Photoshop, anything is possible; a staircase can float in space and a dog can go snorkeling. You can create situations that never happened, as shown in Figure A, and fool people into believing they did. To accomplish this task in a manner that is believable and compelling, you need to understand how the elements of your design interact with each other, and how the human eye perceives these elements. By keeping these things in mind, you’ll be able to create visually stunning pieces, no matter what the context.




The Op Art movement

Prominent in the late 1950’s thru the mid-1960’s, Op Art is also known as Optical Art. Op Art is characterized by patterns of lines and shapes arranged in a certain order to create pulsating images, foreground and background disturbances, color distortion, and many other visual effects. The primary focus of Op Art is to fool the eye, and is often accomplished through elements such as chromatic tension and the arrangement of geometric shapes to create the illusion of perspective.


Optical illusions

Everything you create in Photoshop is essentially an illusion. You’re adding elements to a digital image that didn’t otherwise exist. All in all, however, the viewer looks at your image, and interprets it for what it is. But, what if you want to go one step further and trick them into seeing something that isn’t really there? Well, then you’d create an optical illusion. There are many different types of optical illusions you can incorporate into your Photoshop artwork.

        Geometric illusions. Geometric optical illusions are the most commonly recognized. Created with patterns of geometric shapes and lines, such as the one shown in Figure B, they can create a false sense of perspective, movement, or even make your eye think a square has rounded corners.


        Artistic illusions. Artistic illusions are works in which the artist has intentionally manipulated elements to create a scene that couldn’t possibly exist in our physical space of reality. The work can be a montage of elements as the one in Figure A, or simply an image with two compositions: one primary and one more hidden so the viewer’s eye bounces back and forth between the two.


Note: For more on setting up an artistic illusion, see the companion article “Set the stage for an artistic illusion” in this issue.


        Size illusions. Size illusions are usually geometric in form, however, the primary focus is how an object relates to another object’s size and space. In the illusion shown in Figure C, the two hexagons in the middle are the same size; they only look different because of the surrounding hexagons.



        Motion illusions. Motion illusions are also usually geometric in form, however, their primary focus is to create the illusion of movement or a pulsating effect. The illusion is created from the interaction and arrangement of color and shapes, as shown in Figure D.




How elements of design relate

Before you begin any design project, and especially when creating an illusion, it’s a good idea to refocus on how the elements of your design interact with each other. Putting theory to practice can be the difference between a believable piece of art that captures—and maintains—the viewer’s attention, or simply draws a ho-hum yawn.



The colors you select have a tremendous impact on the overall tone and mood of your piece. The way you arrange the colors takes it one step further.

        Simultaneous contrast. The concept of simultaneous contrast is that identical colors will appear different, depending on what colors they’re surrounded by. As shown in Figure E, colors generally look darker and smaller when placed on a dark background.


        Chromatic induction. The concept of chromatic induction is a form of simultaneous contrast. However, in this sense, the actual color of an object may appear to change based on its surrounding colors.

        After-image. The concept of after-image is that high-contrast colors, when looked at for a moderate length of time (30 seconds to a minute) will create another image, usually in the color’s complementary color, after your viewer looks away.


The impact of color

On the one hand, as a designer you can use color to enhance your artwork. However, keep in mind that the same possibilities can cause your viewers to interpret your image as you hadn’t originally intended. You should consider the media your image is intended for, such as the color of your paper stock, or the shift in color from CMYK print design to RGB web design.



The way the shapes or objects in your design interact is what can lead the viewer to see a secondary, or a hidden composition. When you create an illusion you should consider both the positive and negative space in your image.


        Positive space. The main shapes of your image make up the positive space of your design.

        Negative space. The negative space is essentially the inverse of the positive space. Often in an illusion, the secondary composition is viewed in the negative space.



The lines in your design will have a dominant direction, which create tension or harmony in your piece. They can be actual single p...


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