Anamorphosis is an artistic technique that creates an optical illusion that tricks the eye and by which the artist may conceal messages or images within a design. When viewed straight-on, the hidden element appears unrecognizable. Only when the observer shifts position and views the drawing or painting from a specific angle is the distorted image reconstituted into its proper perspective.
For many centuries, artists remained ignorant of the techniques required to create perspective, so that paintings appeared flat in aspect, or two dimensional. As the use of perspective developed and then flourished in the art of the early Renaissance, the more artists experimented with the possibilities of creating visual tricks and illusions. One of the most significant techniques, or ‘tricks’ was the way an image could change depending on where the viewer stood in relation to it. Erotic, bawdy or vulgar scenes – it was discovered with delight – could be hidden from the unsuspecting viewer and confided to a select few. The key to interpretation lay with the artist, who could give it to those in his confidence.
The earliest examples of anamorphosis in fine art can be seen in the Renaissance paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the 16th century Flemish artist Hans Holbein. In Holbein’s most famous example — ‘The Ambassadors’ — a skull is hidden from those who aren’t aware that by manipulating the viewing angle, they could see it clearly. Anamorphosis was also used architecturally to create the trompe l’oeil paintings found on ceilings and roofs of cathedrals and large galleries. By standing at a certain point, a flat ceiling could appear as a dome. Anamorphosis does that.
A different anamorphic technique requires an optical lens or instrument to render the distorted image whole again. In movies, the cinemascope (wide) screen was made possible by focusing a super-wide image onto a regular sized frame, then using much the same ‘anamorphic lens’ to unscramble the distorted negative.
The technique of anamorphosis continues to inspire artists, tattooists, and film makers. The recent film, Anamorph, employs the visual effect as a crucial part of the plot. Contemporary artists have taken anamorphosis to new heights. In many parts of the world, particularly in Europe and Japan, there has been a ‘renaissance’ of this visual manipulation. Pavement artists are bending the brain with their chalk drawings, causing optical illusions that confound the passers by — when viewed from that all-important critical angle.
In the tattoo world, anamorphic designs introduce an element of intrigue. Anyone with an anamorphic image can choose who to reveal it to and how to hide it, and there is a powerfully intriguing element in hiding a design within a design.