How can the "dress" optical illusion be accurately reproduced on other images?


By now pretty sure the entire world is familiar with the "dress" optical illusion as it will one day be known. My question is how can this illusion be reproduced on other images?

For those living in the social media dark ages, here is the image:

white and gold or black and blue

In general terms, some people have to refocus in order to see the correct colors of Black and Blue. It is possible to re-"tune" your eyes and see the Gold and White but very difficult. For the most part once you see it Black and Blue you can't go the other way.

Again though - the question is how can this illusion be reproduced in order to use it in various designs?

2/27/2015 5:59:00 PM

Accepted Answer

Since you asked about color theory, I assume you are already aware of color theory and know a little of how it relates to shadows and highlights. If not, take a look at this article which does an excellent job of explaining how to create objects with shadows when painting.

We can use this information as a tool for creating similar images as this dress. However, it is worth pointing out that the reason why it is so easy for our minds to misperceive this image is because this is a grainy, poor quality jpeg and the lighting is considerably complex.

In fact, part of the reason why this effect is occurring is because this image was taken on a mediocre camera (almost certainly on a cell phone), snapped quickly (causing a bit of blur), and likely scaled-down in quality so that it would be easy to upload to a social media site.

The bottom-line is that for the ocular portion of the nervous system to make a good judgement of a scene, it needs quality "data" coming in. If our brains receive poor data, then it can easily make poor perceptual judgements.

Regarding this image, the lighting is as such that many tend to first notice the really BRIGHT source of light, coming from the window. In our minds, we then assume "Ok, bright light outside, ergo... I must be looking at the shadow-side of this dress."

Being armed with our knowledge of blue-toned shadows and using complementary colors for shadowing, we can now understand why we may perceive that this is a white dress (that is being toned down to a bluish tone for shadowing) and that the gold lace is also being cast in a bluish tone because it is also in a shadow.

For those of us who misinterpreted this scene, we may have to stare at this image for a minute for our minds catch that there is a lot of light-bleeding from light glaring on the lens of the camera.

This means that instead of seeing a dress in a shadow, we are actually seeing it in a room that also has a very-bright light shining on the dress. Our minds then go:

"Oh! This isn't a dimly lit, white/gold dress, it's a well lit black/blue dress! Let me slooooooowly re-adjust our perception so that MAYBE we won't think we're complete idiots..."

We are fooled because both the Black/Gold and White/Blue color-pairs in this image are both close to the center of the complementary color gradients for each color. Since we are close to that center-point of the complementary color scale, and the image quality sucks, our minds simply don't know how to correctly process this image.

How do we use this to our advantage?

I can't give a straight-forward answer because using this information effectively requires a considerable amount of artistic capability in setting up a scene. Though I'm no artist, I can offer some tips.

First, I'd setup a scene with an immediate focal point that isn't the object that you want to use as your "confused" focal point. In the case of our image, this is the very-bright light coming from the window. Make this the first perceived focal point by your viewer and make it, dare I say it, rather garish.

Next, device a scene where an object rests in a place that one would assume is a shadow. As I mentioned, our minds tend to think this dress is in a dark room. If the room is dark, we are seeing shadowed-tones. Create this same effect by using complementary, shadowy colors, but be sure to use colors that are all very close to that grayish-blue tone that is somewhere in the middle of all high-to-low light complementary color scales.

Next, recreate a "light bleeding" effect like the one we see on this image from the light that was shining on the lens of the camera. In fact, this bleeding effect is almost certainly necessary. I can't see how else one could fool the mind without it. It is this light-bleed that makes our minds miss that the object-of-focus is actually well lit, rather than poorly lit. This is a necessary mechanism if we want to fool the mind, and have your viewers question what they are perceiving.

If you can follow these rules, and with a bit of practice, I think you could recreate a similar effect within a digital image, or possibly even a painting. I would mock-up an example of this type of image but this is extremely difficult to replicate. As Scott posted above, the cylinder with the shadows on the checkerboard show a good example of how our minds alter real color, so that we can get a better understanding of what an object really looks like, regardless of lighting, in a three-dimensional world.

However, your end-goal is to create a scene that the eye can't easily correct and, in fact, will misperceive! This will require a certain level of artistic creativity and a lot of experimentation.

Anyway, if you are an artist and hope to recreate this type of illusion in your work, then good luck! I'd love to see someone play off of this psychological effect in art. It's fun to observe and, for a second, makes most of us question our sanity when we are strikingly made aware that the world is often not as we immediately perceive.

6/11/2015 3:04:00 PM

Edward H Adelson created a Checker shadow illusion in 1995.

enter image description here

From wikipedia:

The checker shadow illusion is an optical illusion published by Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT in 1995.1 The image depicts a checkerboard with light and dark squares. The optical illusion is that the area of the image labeled A appears to be a darker color than the area of the image labeled B on the 2D plane of the rendered 3D projection. However, they are actually exactly the same color on the 2D plane of the image file (but not necessarily in the 3D projection) which becomes especially obvious if the projected 3D scenery is rendered partially or entirely defective.

That the two squares are of the same color on the 2D plane can be proven using the following methods:

  • Opening the illusion in an image editing program and using the eyedropper tool to verify that the colors are the same.
  • Cut out a cardboard mask. By viewing patches of the squares without the surrounding context, you can remove the effect of the illusion. A piece of cardboard with two circles removed will work as a mask for a computer screen or for a printed piece of paper.
  • Connecting the squares with a rectangle of the same color, as seen below in the middle figure.
  • Using a photometer.
  • Print the image and cut out the squares. Cut out each square along the edges. Remove them. Hold them side by side.
  • Isolating the squares. Without the surrounding context, the effect of the illusion is dispelled. This can be done by using the eyedropper tool in image editing programs, such as Gimp to sample the values of A & B, and to color in the newly adjacent rectangles using the paint bucket tool.

Spoiler image -- mouseover to see:

image with 'difference' edited in

This is really just a different take on the same illusion. The surrounding areas of color alter the human perception of the internal items.

It is the drastically poor photography, and the subsequent blow outs in the background, which can alter the perception of the dress. If the photography weren't as horrible as it is, there would be no "illusion".

To be fair, I've never attempted this same illusion on an image myself. But it seems to me in order to recreate the same type of illusion one must surround the image with colors and values closely related to the existing colors/values of the image. Basically the background needs to have the opposite value/color of the internal item. Patterns within the image become almost mandatory so that the eye breaks up any solid color/value field. The illusion won't occur with solid colored objects. The combination of an internal pattern which fluctuates between the the background value and the image value creates a discourse in the eye allowing the viewer to see either A or B.

I think the trick to the dress is that in an RGB display the B values between the dress and the background are opposing. The background is strongly yellow... the opposite of blue in RGB.

And full disclosure... I don't see how anyone could see that dress and anything other than blue and black (or rather a blown out black so ... muddy brown). Even looking at @Vincent's answer.. the dresses are blue here. Perhaps this particular image relies on poorly calibrated displays and one's own interpretation of what "white/gold? may be? All I see is a blue or a lighter blue.. never what I would refer to as "white".