In 1879, the printer/illustrator Benjamin Henry Day invented “Ben Day dots,” those ubiquitous dots that illustrate comics. This invention opened up possibilities for creative expression. Day concluded that images don’t need to be rendered in full color, but rather, could be made from thousands of tiny equal-size dots with varied spacing, color or even overlapping to create a desired effect or illusion. Creating optical illusions is a visual magic act, based on knowledge of how the eye and brain work together to fill in the blanks. The human eye picks up patterns and the brain finishes the rest.
Day’s brilliant technique has been around for nearly 150 years, and we’ve all figured out the game. Comic strips are predictably constructed of those pervasive dots. In fact, they’re so obvious that we actually anticipate them. We all know the clever trick, yet it still works like magic—dots can be interpreted as people, animals, buildings, or anything else needed to create a comic strip story-line. It’s as though we all share a secret code, a magic key to deciphering clues.
The Pop Artist, Roy Fox Lichtenstein, took the visual illusions to a playful and lucrative new level in 1961. His son challenged Roy to paint as realistically as one of his favorite Disney cartoons appeared. The result was Lichtenstein’s first major piece, “Look Mickey.” He had an “Aha!” moment and the resulting style became synonymous with Lichtenstein’s name. Even his exploration into dots of monumental proportions resulted in the same success—the trick worked better than ever.
The city of San Diego is preparing for the upcoming “Comic-Con International” (comic book convention). The city is abuzz with anticipation. The Marriott Hotel, hosting and supporting some of the festivities, has a sweeping curved glass facade. Right before our eyes, skilled workers applied huge comic-style graphics in the form of an opaque film to “wallpaper” the glass. The transformation was dramatic as the massive window-wall suddenly appeared solid, filled with vivid imagery. However, to our surprise, in the same evening, the huge wall of graphics seemed to have been completely removed. Or, so we thought. How was that possible, and why would they go to all of that expense for just one day? Strangely enough, the next morning the graphic once again reappeared over the entire glass facade.
We discovered that the “skin” applied to the glass isn’t really opaque. It actually has thousands of tiny holes (reverse Ben Day dots) that allow the graphic to look monolithic and solid during the day. Likewise, when the interior lights are on in the evening, the skin seems to magically disappear. The eye/brain team do the rest—always ready to fill-in gaps with the “imagined” missing bits to make it complete. It seems that we are hard-wired with a built-in bias for completion—imagining everything just as we think it should be.
Incomplete information? No problem. We just fill in the gaps and fabricate the missing parts. That message from the brain seems to be enough for us to accept the illusion, in fact we embrace it. But just because we go along with the trick doesn’t mean that what we see is real, true or even complete. Clearly we only need enough Ben Day Dots to prompt us. We then connect, complete and accept the implied image.
It must be quite Comic-al for the Marriott folks to watch the quizzical and curiosity-filled faces passing by the facade.
Marriott Marquis Hotel, San Diego – Graphic installation
“Ahhh . . . Alright” detail – 1964 Roy Lichtenstein
“Ben Day dots” detail MoMA
“Both Sides, Now” – Joni Mitchell – courtesy of YouTube
Featured image above – Marriott graphic screen detail
Joni Mitchell wrote about the serious implications of life’s illusions back in 1966 with her famous song “Both Sides, Now.” Over 30 years later, she recorded the song again, but from a more mature, reflective position—a different view of life’s illusions. Her poetry speaks: “I’ve looked at love from both sides now/ From give and take and still somehow/ It’s love’s illusions I recall/ I really don’t know love at all.” You can listen to her 2000 rendition below.