Many types of puzzles have visual elements to them. From literal jigsaw puzzles that display an image when completed to marketing campaigns with hidden meaning through iconography and subtle placement of visual elements, embedding puzzles into artwork is a natural fit for Artists.
This guide is intended to provide Artists with an introduction to puzzle-integrated art and provide some examples and brainstorming prompts to get the creative juices flowing.
What is an Art Puzzle?
A puzzle in the context of art is something that is present in the art that leads the observer down an intellectual path to a discovery. The initial thing present in the art can be overt or subtle, drawing the observer in and intentionally guiding them or intriguing them through mystery.
Anatomy of a Puzzle
The basic anatomy of an art puzzle begins with a prompt for the observer, one or more steps of journey in thought process, and a destination or end goal. Sometimes this entire path will be obvious to the observer, and sometimes they will have no idea how many steps it will take to solve the puzzle.
The prompt can be something obvious, like a literal written prompt “solve this puzzle!”, or something much more subtle such as cryptic iconography or repetitive patterns in the art. Once the observer discovers this prompt, there should be enough information to begin them on the journey.
The journey could consist of a single step or multiple steps, depending on how complicated and interesting you would like the puzzle to be. Perhaps the prompt presents the observer with some kind of encoded message. The next step would be to determine how it is encoded, and then even further, decode the message. This decoded message could be the destination, or it could simply be the next step in the journey, instructing the observer to then do something else. Whatever this may be, or however many steps it takes to complete the journey, the conclusion of the final step is the puzzle’s destination.
At the end of every journey is a destination, and puzzles are no different. This is usually the final piece of information that the puzzle has revealed, which could be a password, a prize, the answer to a riddle, or even more art!
We at Rogue Signal have been creating puzzles for decades, and integrating them into art or building them around existing art for nearly as long. Here are some examples of art puzzles that we have created in the past to provide some inspiration.
Alex Del Conde – “A05 – Bitcoin Bull”
This artwork, which will be first presented at the Lugano Plan B Conference in 2023, was created with four secret messages within it. The artwork comes with a “black light” UV flashlight to help the viewer uncover the secret messages, so it is presumed that one or more of the secret messages have UV reactive elements in the artwork needed to solve them. The bull head in the artwork is also covered with many different red and blue numbers.
As the artwork has not been displayed at the conference yet, we will not provide any analysis or solution of the puzzle here. You can view a video of the artwork here.
Adam Kadmon – “Bitcoin Religion V”
This puzzle was not integrated directly into the art, but rather created after the artwork had been completed, so the prompt was external to the art piece itself, but the journey required viewing the art piece to complete.
The prompt given to observers was the name of the art piece and a cipher:
>1 <36 <37 <38 >1 <36 <21 <6 <7
On both sides of the artwork you can find some text. The cipher we provided has left and right arrows (“<” and “>”) to indicate which side’s text to work from, then numbers indicating a specific word count. By collecting the words indicated, observers could rebuild the destination phrase:
“We are lost if We are without electronic cash”
Trevor Jones – QR Code Series
Another art puzzle that was created after the art had been completed, this puzzle used multiple pieces of art to arrive at the solution. The prompt given to observers was the name of the art series and the question “What are the common characters found in the QR Code series?” At the event where this puzzle was presented, two of the paintings were hung. By scanning the two paintings, Players could retrieve the two text strings to compare:
The challenge asks what the common characters are, so if you remove all of the characters that are NOT common between the two text strings, you have:
This resulting set of characters was the destination and were a password to solve the puzzle.
Numbers and “Numerology”
Wikipedia describes numerology as “the belief in an occult, divine or mystical relationship between a number and one or more coinciding events. It is also the study of the numerical value, via an alphanumeric system, of the letters in words and names.”
If your art style frequently includes elements that are easily mapped to numbers, such as repeating elements or literal numbers in the artwork, these can be utilized in your puzzlecraft. Having numbers directly in the artwork, or implying numbers such as using onomancy for a name, can describe or imply certain numbers for the observer to discover.
Obscuring numbers through different number systems or styles, such as binary, octal or hexadecimal, Roman numerals, and so on can also add an element of discovery to the puzzle. These may be applicable for more technical observers.
Symbology, Semiotics, and Iconography
Symbology, generally, refers to the study of symbols. Semiotics and iconography are two different types of symbology, among many others, and can be used in the visual elements of the artwork to convey meaning.
Narrative Guided Movement
Artists are of course familiar with “movement”, or the path that the observer’s eye takes when viewing an artwork. Artists can guide this movement by carefully crafting elements in the artwork that draw the eye in and guide it throughout the artwork.
Puzzlecraft can be used to weave a puzzle into an artwork in a similar way. Busy artworks with lots of elements are ideal for this, as a puzzle narrative prompt can be crafted that requires the observer to follow a specific visual path through the artwork as they interpret the narrative and discover elements in the artwork that inform the next part of the puzzle’s journey, eventually arriving at the destination, all within the artwork, guided by the narrative.
Near-field Chips (NFC)
Radio-responsive devices like NFCs can be embedded into a physical artwork. NFCs can be programmed to reveal a word, phrase, URL, or other data when scanned with a NFC scanner. Most modern smartphones contain an NFC scanner radio which can easily be used with apps such as NFCTools. The downside to using an NFC is that the viewer must get their scanning device very close to the artwork to be able to scan the NFC.
There are many ways that Artists can include puzzle elements directly into artwork, or Puzzlecrafters can use artwork as source material to create puzzles from. We hope this article both helps Artists become Puzzlecrafters by providing both a process as well as inspiration for thought.