Visual Distinction between Colour and Shape
­ a functional explanation applying camouflage concepts in analysis of colourdesign effects on experimental relieves

by: Cecilia Häggström

This is a simplified and richly illustrated
brief of a per-reviewed paper
presented at AIC conference in Sydney 2009,


 Our seeing of colour and shape depends on a pre-perceptual recognition of patterns that allow us to distinct between such colourvariations that we see as colour and such that we see as shape.

Several independent observations show that when colourvariation are seen as belonging to shape, then they also loose colour-character, and reversely: The colour of a shadow that is seen as an object-colour may gain distinct hues (Hurvich 1981:42, Häggström 1997 >>, Häggström 2009, Logvinenko 2009).


­ Countershading on a rabbit

­ Constructive shading on a snake

­ Disruptive pattern on a young bird

The explanation that object-colour patterns may interfere with finer shape defining patterns is suggested already in 1940, by the biologist H B Cott (1940). To Cott this is just a minor and commonsense explanation of how and why some colour patterns can camouflage the visual shape of a body.

In spite of this assumption's capacity to grasp essential colour-design effects, the visual separation is first taken into account in an architectural context by Häggström (2009).

Three different ways for (object-) colour patterns to interfere with shapedefining patterns are identified by Cott (1940) by the camouflage concepts countershading, constructive shading and disruptive patterns.



In real life we are visually handling extreme differences in levels of light and a common lack in unsuccessful attempts to do realistic or trompe l'eoil painting is that the artist did not dare to produce such strong contrasts.

The basic rule is that the pattern with stronger contrasts is the one defining shape - also when it really doesn't define a shape at all, but just flat patches - as in a disruptive camouflage.







Applying these concepts painting on geomterical reliefs, one can more readily grasp the relevans of these concepts for analysis of colour design effects on architectural visibility.

The relief used here is originally sculptured in clay and design so that the shape is gradually rising from the flat left side to "full" three-dimensionality on the right side. Thus it allows direct visual observation of how colour influences shape, and vice versa.

The clay-original was used to produce a siliconrubber mould in which all the here shown painted plaster reliefs are made, so that their actual shape is identical.

Keep this un-painted plaster relief in mind when viewing the following painted ones :-).


 Here a simple disruptive pattern clearly interfere with the shapedefing pattern given by the light at that moment.




These reliefs (also presented at Art Now Gallery 2009 >>) combine in more complex ways disruption, countershading and its opposite "co-shading" (Häggström 2009) and constructive shading to change the visual appearence of the same shape.


On the pages where I present the exhibition at Art Now Gallery 2009 >> you can also see how the visual shape of some of these reliefs are changed by different viewing positions.



The completely deforming effects of the painted patterns are in real life outruled a bit by our stereoscopic seeing, while we are all lost to the illusion in the flat picture.


That our stereoscopic seeing helps us to see through the illusion means that when you are less than 5-6 meters away from the relief and look at it with both eyes, then it is possible to detect the real shape.


It is not readily seen though, and somehow the contradictory information given by the real shape and the painted pattern creates a visual ambivalence. Even though you can see the real shape it doesn't look the same as in the unpainted/neutral relief!


This visual ambivalence creates something new: it adds subtle aesthetic qualities - like "atmospheres" - to the factual reality.




















Shapedefining patterns are naturally decisive not only for seeing the shape of animal bodies or reliefs: Our seeing of architectural shape may be even more susceptible to colour patterns interfering with shapedefining patterns, since most seeing of architectural shape is from a distance of more than 5-6 meters, and therefor not aided by the stereoscopic information.

From seeing the effects of colourpatterns interfering with the somewhat abstract shape of these geometrical reliefs, it is easy to understand the relevance of the three concepts in an architectural context - both as tools for more educated planning of colour design and for analysing aesthetic effects of colour design in existing (new or old) architecture.



"Inverted / convereted cube-relief" >>

"Moric variation" >>

These reliefs demonstrates the specifically 3-dimensional effect of counter-/co-shading (Häggström 2009). The camera is placed on the same rotating platform as the relief to demonstrate the effect of changing directions of light.

Proper reference to this paper:
Häggström, Cecilia (2009): "Visual Distinction between Colour and Shape ­ a functional explanation applying camouflage concepts in analysis of colourdesign effects on experimental relieves", in Proceedings of the 11th Congress of the International Colour Association (AIC 2009), edited by Dianne Smith et al. CD. Sydney: Colour Society of Australia.


Cecilia Häggström, MFA / Design, Ph D / Basic Design - Architecture
e-mail: velikij [at]