I think this is a term in the perception/cognition area of words.

I recently saw this visual illusion.
I don't recall the last time that I've seen this 'flipping' (to be punny) of what is negative-space and what is positive-space.

Is there a word for this flipping/breaking of what is defined as one things vs. its opposite?


In my mind, this is analogous to the theatrical term of "breaking the fourth wall".

enter image description here

  • I don't see any "negative-space" or "positive-space" here (not that I understand what those terms are supposed to mean). I don't see any flipping, either (which I'd normally understand to mean changing to an opposite state). All I see is elements being rotated thru 90°, after which they look exactly the same as before because they're "bi-symmetrical". That's a pretty obscure thing to have a dedicated word. I also don't see the relevance of the "fourth wall" idiomatic usage. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 19:03
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    Without getting chatty about it, it seems tautological to say you 'cannot see negative-space' when 'you don't know what that is'? Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 22:15
  • Incidentally, @FumbleFingers, the answers thus far are spot on – and assuredly one of them can be considered correct unless something deeper develops. Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 22:28
  • Well, I've learnt at least something from the answers here (the terminology and concept of "negative/positive-space"). But other than that the answers seem to focus on "figure-ground reversal", which I don't think applies to your example above. Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 18:25

2 Answers 2


In art, positive-space is the space taken up by a depicted object. Negative-space is the space not taken up by a depicted object. It's the space between objects.

not a tree

These illusions teach us to respect the negative space as much as the positive space. Either one can be used to define a shape.

dragon wolf fish pelican

Artists use these concepts to break up the symbolic way we see the world. Rather than looking at an eye and then drawing a symbol for an eye, say a football with a dot in it, like the CBS logo, they see the shape of the space around the eye. This helps them draw accurate proportions. So that when an artist sees an eye, they see all it's shapes. Not just, "Hey look, an eye".

enter image description here

Illusions are used to teach this concept to budding artists. For lay people it's just a curiousity.

Rubin's vase

When looking at ambiguous gestalt illusions your perception may switch back and forth as you perceive the illusion in different ways. There is a term for the switching. It's called:

figure-ground reversal

A visual illusion where perception alternates between two possibilities. A pair of shapes, either of which taken alone would be seen as an object of some kind, share a common border-line.


There is a whole science behind this devoted to the study human perception.

The analogy of breaking the fourth wall isn't entirely misplaced. Negative space can be made as powerful as positive space most strongly in monochrome 2D because this style removes all hints of an object other than shape. This leaves the viewer to fill in details based on impressions.

In a play, the viewer is also asked to fill in details based on impressions. Doing this is part of suspension of disbelief. Breaking the fourth wall is when the actors actively remind you that the play isn't real. It's all pretend. Toying with negative-space to make figures can similarly be used to remind you that the art isn't real.

Devils fork

However, there are illusions that play with negative space made with real 3D objects:

humans trapped in wall

There is no violation of suspension of disbelief here since there is a clear winner, the pillars. The tension doesn't come from ambiguity. It comes from how strongly we recognize the shape of a human over a simple piller. We know the human isn't real but find it more interesting.

Sometimes there isn't even an illusion. You're just being challenged to decide when there is no good reason to pick one over the other.

Yin Yang


In gestalt theory, the principle of "figure and ground perception" is defined as the ability to determine which is which. Black words on a white page, for instance, clearly allow us to identify the words as the figure and the page as the ground. It is neither right nor wrong to show a clear figure ground relationship, but the principle is used to describe a composition. In the example you show there is no clear perception of figure and ground.

  • The fact that there is no clear division "between figure and ground" is what I'm aiming toward in this. Understanding the term figure-ground reversal is / was a means to that end. Is there terms in literature for this ambiguity? Commented Dec 26, 2015 at 22:24

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