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It is known that people, when looking at some complex patterns have the tendency to find human faces in them.

My character goes to a museum exhibition of abstract art. She finds herself in front of an abstract painting, which looks like a normal abstract painting, in other words, it's nearly impossible to tell what it is about, and sees something in it, a pattern, which she believes is her image.

Unknown to her, the painter knows her and she knowingly put that pattern there. The painting is too abstract for anyone else to see that same pattern, and recognize it for what it is, unless they share some characteristic with the painter and my character.

The question is if this is possible in real life, and if yes, what could the people who see the pattern share to see it the same way?

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Your character is a tetrachromat.

Tetrachromats are 1% of the populaton, maybe. They are all women. They have 4 color channels instead of three. They can see things that ordinary people cannot.

https://www.popsci.com/article/science/woman-sees-100-times-more-colors-average-person/

Antico doesn’t just perceive these colors because she’s an artist who paints in the impressionist style. She’s also a tetrachromat, which means that she has more receptors in her eyes to absorb color. The difference lies in Antico’s cones, structures in the eyes that are calibrated to absorb particular wavelengths of light and transmit them to the brain. The average person has three cones, which enables him to see about one million colors. But Antico has four cones, so her eyes are capable of picking up dimensions and nuances of color—an estimated 100 million of them—that the average person cannot. “It’s shocking to me how little color people are seeing,” she said.

Tetrachromats can also pick up color in low light, when the world looks black and white to the rest of us.

Your artist is a tetrachromat too. Her abstract works have more dimensions than ordinary people can perceive. She knows your character can see the world as she does. She adds your characters face to one. She adds an inside joke to another one.


Prose description of color perception is constrained by our words for color. If you go with the proposed scheme you could take a page from synesthesia and use adjectives from other sensory modalities.

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    $\begingroup$ Can those people watch movies? My character loves movies and thinks her taste is better than that of most. But if she can see so many colors, the virtual world might seem to her boring, at best. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ /I love going to the movies but I especially like old color movies like Gone With the Wind. I loved the colors in Midnight in Paris and the recent Woody Allen one Magic in the Moonlight. I have watched it five times so far, and went twice in two days. / thecut.com/2015/02/what-like-see-a-hundred-million-colors.html $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ All what tetrachromats get from life is to complain about LED and fluorescent light making things look "wrong" even though it's "right" for everyone else. They don't even realize it. Also, different humans see colors differently (slightly different wavelength peak sensitivity) so having 2 tetrachromats with exactly same sensitivity ranges would require... twins. Also, this answer is plain old steganography and has nothing to do with either abstract art nor recognizing own face. Human pattern recognition circuitry work on brightness, not color. Try reading red text on green background. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that tetrachromats can not see different colors and often even see worse, but some can theoretically better discern the difference between two very similar colors (if and only if they have 4 functioning types of cones (typically 1 of the 4 is dysfunctional)). And in practise the search for such individuals was only fruitful in dim light. Point is: They are maybe able to better discriminate between similar colors between green and red in dim lights... and that's it. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ @SurpriseDog Human "tetrachromacy" is nothing remotely like animal tetrachromacy. Animal one is "new color" and human one is "miscalibration of old color". $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 8:10
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It's totally possible. When I was still a student, I had a colleague whom I used to call with a very peculiar nickname, of a not so common fruit.

If I had put that fruit in a doodle, she would have got the hint but nobody else.

Same can happen with a more abstract pattern, which has some significance for both the painter and the specific viewer.

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. No reason to make it complex. Some associative psychology is all that's required. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 19:52
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How abstract is that painting ?

The obvious example.. Klint, Van Doesburg

enter image description hereenter image description here

There's no face, or any other life element here. The lady probably did not recognize herself in these.

Next stage below Kandinski,

enter image description here

No clear facial expression, there are some loose white triangles, suggesting eyes. Now this painting could have a name, say "angry man beating his dog" or whatever. There is a suggestion of a animal head.. lots of info, lots of things in this image.. but still, there is only geometrical shapes. Recognition would depend on a specific clue. See other answers.

She recognized herself. How about Joseph Saki, two figures

enter image description here

With this one, it could be different. The long posture, the colors.. the grey lines, hair shaped.. a person could recognize certain features.

.. I won't put Picasso.. his abstract portraits are obvious, the lady would recognize herself. In short: there is degrees of abstract art.. It would depend on the artwork.

You present an intriguing scenario, I upvoted your question, although I think you'd need to show us the picture. And in the end.. there are only opinions about art. Maybe my answer is subjective. I can't recognize any human feature in Van Doesburg's rectangles, maybe she can ?

All illustrations in this answer are from Wikipedia - Abstract Art

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    $\begingroup$ NItpicking here: Picasso's obvious portraits are obvious because they are not abstract. Cubism is not abstract art. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Pere at the time Picasso created his portraits, when abstract art was relatively new, it was regarded as a mix of figurative and abstract elements. There was abstract "cubism" as well. But I agree Picasso's way of doing things cannot be called "abstract", that is why I left Picasso out. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 14:29
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She has a tattoo somewhere on her body which is not normally visible to other people. The tattoo is a unique and highly distinctive design, and it appears verbatim in the artwork. There are even other elements of the artwork which can be interpreted as the shape of a body, and the tattoo's design is correctly located relative to those. The artist could be the same person who gave her the tattoo.

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    $\begingroup$ Had a similar thought, but maybe a series of freckles that forms a unique constellation, or a port-wine birthmark. Something on her body that the viewer would be primed to see because it’s a part of her body, and has been forever. $\endgroup$
    – Dugan
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 20:30
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I think the easiest way to explain being able to see the face in the painting is that the character had seen an earlier sketch by this same person before.

Years ago, the character looked over the artist's shoulder to see them drawing something and asked what it was. The artist explained that it was an image of their face, pointing out the different contours of the painting and explaining how it looked like her. For example, seemingly random circles are the insides of her eyes. The jagged triangle shape represents a nose, and the ovals at the side represent ears.

Art is subjective, so there is no one right way to interpret it. What looks like a butterfly to one person may look like a mask to another. In the same way, while most people take a look at this and see a boat, a train, or a random assortment of shapes, our main character sees a face. If she really cares about this artist, even not knowing that it was them who made the painting, seeing the same shape might bring up old memories of that one time she saw that artist sketching out a similar shape.

It also might help if the character has a unique view of the world.

One day, the artist could have been drawing a boat, only for your main character to exclaim "Oh look, that's my face! See, those are my ears and that's my mouth."

The artist just rolls with it and laughs, redesigning it to make it look more like a face to the character.

Lastly, little details would clue her in that it is not just anyone's face, but hers in particular. For example, a series of lines have the same color as her hair. A pair of circles has the same color as her eyes. A unique shape at the bottom resembles the locket she always wears.

It's kind of like an inside joke. If you don't know the artist well, the details just seem randomly placed, but they have simple explanations only these two understand.

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  • $\begingroup$ I keep wondering myself about the subjectivity of art. How far does it go? Are there things that can be unambiguously interpreted the same for everyone? In science, we have natural laws that are identical for all observers in all circumstances. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ The subjectivity of art is the kind of thing philosophers and countless others have debated for years. Realistically, I would say art is as subjective as it is possible to be. No matter how obvious the meaning may appear, it is always open to interpretation. A bowl of fruit does not seem like art because it is such a mundane item, but if someone adores art that only depicts bowls of fruit, even the most highly acclaimed art critic in the world cannot tell them their opinion is wrong. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ It is physically impossible for everyone to interpret the same thing the exact same way because no two humans are alike. Show a person a picture of a happy dog. People who like dogs will think it's cute. People who hate dogs will dislike it. Someone with a phobia of dogs will similarly dislike it. If a person has no idea what a dog is, they will have no clue what they are even looking at. Colorblind people will see the painting in a completely different way. A person who is sad will look at it differently as well. My point is, there are infinite ways to look at and interpret art. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 0:12
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Her Likeness is Mirrored

If you were to meet yourself in real life, would you even recognize yourself? In general, the people who see you every day would see your face and recognize you right away, however, your own face is a different. Most of us only see ourselves when we look at ourselves in the mirror, but mirrors flip what we see so that what we actually think we look like is often a mirror image of what we really look like. You see your hair parted on the left, others see it parted on the right. You see your left eye is slightly more droopy, others see the right eye is slightly more droopy.

The one more extreme example of this was a model I used to work with who had crooked teeth. When her mouth was closed, you could not tell her teeth were crooked, but it distinctly changed the way she looked between when she was photographed from the left or the right to the point she could be mistaken for two different models.

Human facial recognition is sensitive mirror image effects; so, if the painting is just at the edge of abstract enough to be recognizable as her, but it is mirrored, then she will be far more likely to recognize herself than people who are only used to seeing her in person.

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Pareidolia. It's the reason faces appear in everything, from mountains in New Hampshire to electrical outlets. The idea of seeing your own face in an abstract painting is completely plausible, as in this painting by Bev Doolittle. Despite clearly being a forest scene, there are 11 Native American faces hidden within it.

This painting also shows how faces can be hidden within a painting, and if done more subtly it could have the effect you describe. It may even be easier in an abstract painting. A 'Have a Nice Day' smiley face is just two lines and an arc. Same with this one, :-)

As for what they could all have in common, they could either (1) be tetrachromats or colorblind, (2) have a high IQ or similar quality, or (3) only recognize themselves (people have an easier time recognizing those that they know well, compared to a random face).

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    $\begingroup$ Your suggestion of them both being colourblind is interesting. Theoretically you could paint a painting that looks like a meaningless swirl of colours but each colour differs in terms of its brightness or shade so that when photographed in black and white or viewed by a colour blind person it appears like a grayscale portrait. As a bonus colour blindness is much less common in women than men, so it would be hidden from most. $\endgroup$
    – Dugan
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Color blindness isn’t just black and white (in most cases—sometimes it is). A common example is red and green being very similar, hence the name red-green color blindness. There are other types, of course, so perhaps the two characters have the same kind, or a rare combination of, color blindness(es). Achromatopsia (complete color blindness) is also extremely rare, so it’s still perfectly valid. $\endgroup$
    – Bill
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 3:06
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  • Your viewer gets to see the painting under different lighting conditions. Maybe they’re a curator and the get to examine the painting under UV light to assess the authenticity, but it reveals a new image painted in ink that would otherwise be invisible.
  • Or maybe they’re a security guard and they’re there after hours when the lights are turned down and there’s a painting that glows in the dark.
  • Maybe the artist uses different glosses of paint, so that from a certain angle at a certain time of day a shimmer of a hidden portrait shows up.
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Once she bought a particular light fixture or a chandelier in an art shop. When she was home she noticed that when only that light was switched on it projected a particular shadow on the wall. For some time she used to switch on that light only to observe that shadow with curiosity, but then she began to feel it disquieting, so she packed the light and left it in the basement. Now she saw that shadow again.

Variations: a sculpture with a reflecting surface that created distorted image like curved mirrors do. A damaged webcam that created strange images she saw on her computer, but she never shared with anyone. A cracked glass in one of her home windows that created a strange reflection.

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