Being clear about which shapes or group of shapes is the subject or focus of a jewelry piece helps you direct the viewer’s attention to where you want it. If the visual weight of the figure (focal point) and the ground (background) are equal—in area, contrast, color, or texture–the eye can’t tell what the “subject” is.
You’ve probably seen the classic visual exercise used to help people see the relationship between the subject and background in a work. It’s a drawing of two identical profiles facing each other that, with a shift of perception, can be seen as the outline of a single vase between them. Which is the figure and which the ground? When this happens, the viewer may get confused–and a confused viewer is a bored or irritated viewer. Simply increasing the differences between the two may make the subject clear.
However, if the subject is too obvious, a portrait floating in a dark area, for example, then the relationship between figure and ground can be dull, predictable, static.
An interesting aspect of the figure/ground relationship is that, psychologically, once the mind has chosen what is to be the subject (with help from the designer, of course), the subject of the piece will seem to come forward. It will appear to lie on top of or in front of the background, even if subject and background are in the same plane. It’s another way the eye and mind emphasize the this/that dichotomy.
The relationship between figure and ground may tell a story, or have intended or unintended meaning for the maker or the viewer. A small figure located in the corner of the ground may seem cornered, trapped, overwhelmed, or frightened. On the other hand, or the positioning may convey a sense of awe or insignificance in the face of a vast cosmos. If the figure is too large for the ground, it may seem constrained, held hostage in a small prison of shape.
But shape is not alone in telling a story. The way the other elements and principles—size, proportion, balance, color, texture—are used in the design will weigh heavily in the impression the work makes on a viewer.