How to view our sense-inspired stereograms

Throughout our Live Life Better series we're exploring ways to enhance our lives through sensory experiences. Helping us to do so is artist Heather Buchanan, who has created a series of stereograms, each representing one of the senses.

For those of you who don't remember the 1980s and 1990s, stereograms are designs created to give the illusion of a three-dimensional scene from a two-dimensional image, which you have to focus your eyes in a certain way to be able to view. We caught up with Heather to find out more about the process - and how to view them.

Heather Buchanan

How long have you been creating your stereogram artwork?

I got the idea in 2017 during a conversation with a friend. I'm embarrassed to say it took me nearly a year to figure out how to make them. I'm primarily a portrait painter, and I'm not particularly computer savvy. I had to learn so many new skills, from pattern design to the tech trickery that allows the hidden 3D images to work. I finally managed to make my first decent working stereogram in October of 2018, and honestly it feels a bit like a superpower to be able to make a pattern and then hide whatever I want in it. I'm also hoping to update the medium a bit - they're so much fun, but used to be a bit garish. I'm trying to make them a little more visually appealing and contemporary.

What’s the best way to view your stereogram artwork?

Most people find that at least one of the following three techniques works for them. The first method is easiest for people who have never seen a stereogram before.

Method 1: Put your nose up to your computer screen, or hold your device up to your face. Cross your eyes slightly, or simply let your eyes go blurry. While keeping your eyes crossed/blurry, slowly start distancing the image away from your face. When you notice something odd happening in front of the pattern, try to focus your eyes on it. A section of the pattern will emerge from the background in the shape of an image.

Smell stereogram by Heather Buchanan for Virgin.com

Method 2: Cross your eyes, and then slowly let them come back into focus. Try this a few times and the hidden image should appear.

Method 3: Look beyond the pattern, as if you're focusing at a point several inches behind it. It may take a while, but keep your eyes unfocused until an image starts emerging.

Relaxing and taking a few deep breaths beforehand also helps. It's best to be as centred in front of the Stereogram as possible. It is still possible to see them at an angle, but it's much easier if you're straight on.

Taste stereogram by Heather Buchanan for Virgin.com

What was the inspiration behind each of the stereograms? What should we see? 

The Taste stereogram is a simple open mouth, with the tongue visible behind the lips. The orange colour is in reference to the sacral chakra, which relates to the sense of taste and also the appetite. Stereograms are such a challenging medium for me, because they require such simplicity. I originally wanted to make a mouth with the tongue draping out front playfully, but it just didn't work. It's oddly fitting for a series about the senses and chakras - I am forced to simplify and create something more quiet. My tendency is to over complicate, but with these I have to abandon complexity and remove the noise.

The Sight stereogram is a basic eye, centred and looking back at the viewer. Yellow and violet are the chakra colours for sight, and also a more metaphorical sense of vision and focus. It's also humorously appropriate for a piece about focus to not only contain an eye, but require a viewer to focus their vision in such a peculiar way.

Sight stereogram by Heather Buchanan for Virgin.com

The Smell stereogram has waves of scent wafting towards a nose. This was super challenging to represent - so little about the experience of scent is visual. Though there is a visual language of wavy lines wafting up from delicious (or stinky) items, this was still the toughest one to complete. Red is the colour for the Root Chakra, connected to scent. I also wanted to include some more calming pinks and blues with the red, because so often I find scents soothing.

Read: Sensory Sparks - inspiration to enhance your sensory experiences and enrich your life

Sound is simply waves of noise floating towards and ear. The curves of the sound mimic the curves that catch the noise inside the ear. The blues and violets are the colours of the throat chakra, associated with not just hearing but also listening (a subtle but important difference).

Sound stereogram by Heather Buchanan for Virgin.com

In Touch you'll see a hand reaching out to feel. Originally I wanted to try to make folded fingers into a new layer, and have nails and wrinkles visible. But again I was forced to take away the complexity and create something simple for it to work in the Stereogram. The sense of touch is symbolically representative of something deeper - feeling. Green is the colour of the heart chakra, so it seems appropriate for it to be connected to touch and feeling.

The patterns I drew each have hints of all five senses throughout. The senses are connected, so this is a way for each sense to reference the others. The eyes and mouths are probably easiest to spot, but I drew sound waves and little hands and other references throughout. You can also find crowns representing the crown chakra, music notes, hearts, mountains, and other recognisable symbols scattered within the abstract shapes. 

Touch stereogram by Heather Buchanan for Virgin.com

I represented the sixth sense with the All Seeing Eye. I think the concept of intuition and the third eye chakra are far more complex and varied than this single image can communicate. When I meditate, I usually focus on my third eye. Whether it's just the pineal gland I'm feeling, or if there's something deeper happening, I always find it centring, relaxing, as well as creatively revitalising. I wanted to create a stereogram that has that feeling of balance while also referencing the imagery of the third eye.

Intuition may be connected to something supernatural, or it may just be the amazing ability of our brains to quietly distil our complex feelings and competing desires into a simple answer to any question. I think it's probably the latter, but the universe is far too mysterious to rule out the former.

Sixth sense stereogram by Heather Buchanan for Virgin.com

How can activating your sense of sight through art help you live a more enriched life?

One of my favourite things about art is how creating representational paintings forces you to really look at the world. The best way to improve in drawing or painting is to get better at looking. You have to abandon your biases about what an object is supposed to look like, and really see it for what it is. You'll see that shadows you thought were bleak are actually filled with rich blue tones, or you'll see the subtle curves in a line you thought was straight. I try to carry this skill with me no matter what I'm doing. It helps me notice beauty where I might not normally have seen it.

Art connects to the other senses too. I feel for the correct thickness of paint and I listen to the sound charcoal is making across the page. And intuition might be the most important sense of all for making art. Learning to listen to that instinct that somehow seems to know what colour to use or what subject to draw is vital to being an artist. And like learning to see better, I think learning to listen to our intuition is a skill that can be cultivated.

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