Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about the “Haunted Painting Effect.”
That’s my own name for a certain kind of optical illusion that periodically surfaces online. The most commonly circulated examples tend to involve Vincent van Gogh’s and a spinning animation—that’s what caught my art-critic eye. Look at the animation long enough and Van Gogh’s painting seems to become animated itself, his Post-Impressionist sky seeming to seethe with actual movement.
It’s a cool trick—but the examples I’ve seen didn’t really explain it. It turns out that this particular illusion is pretty well-studied. It’s called “Motion Aftereffect,” or MAE. One version is the “Waterfall Effect,” so named because if you look long enough at a waterfall and then look away, the rocks around the landscape will also seem to move. Another is “spiral motion aftereffect,” the type people demo with Starry Night and the spinning pattern.
The effects can be spooky. And once you understand how the effect works, I think artists and art fans might have a lot of fun with it. So I’ve put together this short video essay on the idea. Enjoy!