Ambiguity and its uses

When I arrived at art school in the late 1960s, ambiguity was one of the first things we were expected to think about. Over the years I have learnt what an important role it has played in artist’s thinking over the last on hundred and fifty years.


Ambiguity occurs whenever two or more interpretations are in competition with one another. They may be within any domain of sensory experience or across domains, but here it is considered in relation to the visual domain.  The purpose of this Post is to present some of the reasons why ambiguity should be of fundamental interest to artists, particularly if they are:

  • Wish to depict illusory pictorial space.
  • Seeking to create either harmony or discord in their paintings.

An illustration of ambiguity

Figure 1 : Perceptions of vase & face in competition


A good example of a high level of ambiguity is provided by the well known vase/face illusion illustrated in Figure 1, in which we can see either a vase or two silhouetted faces. However, it is important to notice that, although we can choose between the vase or the two faces interpretations, we cannot stop the ambiguity of the situation providing a degree of tension. The force of this can be sensed by comparing the right hand side face with the identical face in Figure 2 in which there is no left hand side face to create the vase shape. Clearly, by removing the ambiguity between the vase and the two faces interpretations, the face is easier to look at. The question for artists is whether they want to maximise ease of looking or to create works with some degree of tension.


Figure 2 : Face only – no competition


Escaping ambiguity

As explained below, it can be argued that all paintings exhibit an ambiguity between their pictorial contents and their presence as objects with real surfaces. The the only way the escape this is to make use of one or more of the strategies that are available to us for that purpose. Not counting that of looking away altogether, these depend on concentrating attention on details at the expense of wider context, which can be done either by focusing down or by moving closer. However, although both these manoeuvres work well enough for reducing ambiguity in everyday visual perception, our eye/brains can seldom completely exclude the influence of alternative interpretations in paintings..

Real picture surface versus illusory pictorial space

Figure 3 : Berthe Morisot – “Julie with Passie in the garden at Bourgival”


One type of ambiguity has had a pivotal place in the history of painting. It is that between perceptions of an illusory pictorial space and awareness of the real picture surface. Historically speaking, it became important when the Impressionists and other early Modernist Painters were looking for ways in which their hand-painted images could combat the threat posed by the high levels of realism produced by the newly available photographic method. They feared that the fact that it was so easily and quickly obtained in photographs, would undermine their livelihood.

Luckily for them and for the history of painting, they saw photographic images as deceiving the eye and hit on the now seemingly absurd idea that this deception was morally reprehensible (an idea that was still influencing artists in the 1960s and beyond).  Abruptly, for progressive painters at least, the trompe-l’oeil, which for so long had been the goal of artists, became something to be avoided at all costs.

The solution found by these Modernist painters was to introduce ambiguity. Their idea was to provide a counterpoint to perceptions of illusory pictorial space by emphasizing the reality of the picture surface. The painting, by Berth Morisot, illustrated in Figure 3, provides a good example of how brush marks and surface texture can be used as a means of preventing the trap of deception. What these pioneer artists reasoned was that the impossibility of being able to enter the illusory pictorial space created by the realism of the image without being aware of these indicators of real paint and real surface, meant that a salutary ambiguity would be inevitable.  What they could not have guessed is that the wealth of unexplored possibilities that the picture surface/illusory pictorial space dichotomy would make available, not only to them but also to their successors during well over a century.

An example of competing cues

Figure 4 : Bonnard – Drawing of Marthe his companion


The Modernist Painters were also interested in another kind of ambiguity in which attention is drawn in competing directions. For example, Figure 4 shows Pierre Bonnard going a long way towards obscuring the features in his wife’s face, presumably with a view to allowing the telling gesture of the hand to take on more significance than it would have done had the eyes, nose and mouth been more clearly delineated. However, since this strategy completely fails to override the eye/brain’s built in tendency to give faces more importance than hands, the result is a pull in both directions. The consequent dynamic equilibrium is of central importance to the experience of looking at the drawing. Just as in Figure 1, it is difficult to look at the vase interpretation without being influenced by the two-face interpretation, it is difficult to look at either the hand or the face to the complete exclusion of the other.

Figurative versus abstract

Figure 5: Pablo Picasso – “Ambrose Vollard””


Another area of competition is between pictorial dynamics based on figurative content and ones that involve non-figurative relationships such as those between colours, contours, textures, etc.. The more the Modernist Painters found their interest turning to the latter, the more they sought ways of playing down the influence of the former. A first step in this direction was that of reducing the strength of the cues that make recognition too easy (as in the case of the face in both the drawing of Marthe by Pierre Bonnard, illustrated in Figure 4, and the portrait of Ambrose Vollard by Pablo Picasso, illustrated in Figure 5). A second step was to get rid of figuration and its attention-distracting pull altogether.

Seeking to eradicate ambiguity

Figure 6 : Michael Kidner – “Penrose 093″”


Many artists saw great potential in the removal of figuration but did not want to get rid of illusory pictorial space, which they felt gave extra dynamic possibilities to interactions of colour, contour, texture, in front/behind relations, etc. Others were still troubled by the immorality of deceiving the eye and sought to eliminate illusion altogether. They wanted all regions of their paintings  to be perceived as being flat on the picture surface, as no doubt was the intention of Michael Kidner when making the work illustrated in Figure 6.

However, these purists were soon to realise that achieving this objective might prove more difficult than they had imagined. It seemed that no matter how hard they struggled, if a picture surface, had more than one region of colour on it, their eye/brains would find ways of creating perceptions of illusory pictorial space within it. In other words, they seemed unable to prevent some of the regions of colour appearing to be either in front of or behind others. Even the simplest two colour painting, such as the one by Ellsworth Kelly illustrated in Figure 7, would not do, for it gives at least some people the impression of a landmass, a horizon and a sky.


Figure 7 – Ellsworth Kelly – “Two Yellows”



Figure 8 : Ellsworth Kelly – “Curve”


In the end, the only solution seemed to be one colour paintings, of which many appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. These included the series of blue paintings, embarked upon by Yves Kline in 1957, and several works by Ellsworth Kelly on the lines of Figure 8. The only ambiguity remaining lay in the question whether these were correctly classified as “paintings”. Some might think it more appropriate to describe them as “sculptures” or, merely, as “objects hanging on a wall”. For those artists who identified (in my view falsely) the search to remove the ambiguity as being of the essence of “Modernism in Painting“, it was time for “Post Modernism“.

Harmony and discord

To find out what this has to do with “harmony and discord” please consult previously posted chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour” and excerpts from the “Glossary”. In particular I suggest reading:

Relevant chapter

Relevant excerpts from the Glossary

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