Geometry in Spiritual Art and Design

Geometry is not only associated with mathematics, art and nature. One application that I have wanted to explore in depth since choosing my keyword is geometry as it occurs in spiritual art and design, a concept I encountered first hand while travelling in Southern India in the year 2000.

I was lucky enough to arrive in India at the start of the Pongal Festival, a Tamil harvest festival in which people celebrate the sun and appreciate the gods and goddesses for a successful harvest. This festival takes place every year in January. Generally the women in a household rise each morning and draw intricate geometric patterns on the ground outside their houses or on the floors within the houses. These patterns are created from various materials: rice flour, chalk powder, rock powder or synthetically coloured powders.

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The Tamil people of Southern India believe that by drawing the kolams and paying homage to the harvest, the goddess Mariyamman will grant them blessings and increase the prosperity of their home and family (Laine, 2009). At the time of seeing these patterns—of walking among and across them with my bare feet—I had no idea that they would leave a lasting impact on my creativity in years to come. As a young woman, I was not so keenly aware that this practice is only carried out by women and that it is a way for them to invite well-being, express their spirituality, but also measure their creativity and dexterity (Ascher, 2002). The tradition of kolam creates a space for Indian women to experiment art and also science. It is the meld of religion, spirituality, creativity, mental discipline and mathematics. Kolam drawing connects women with the wider community (the harvest) and with the family (the blessing), but it is also a personal and internal exercise.

This is an interesting practice that relates to my work on the MA because most of the kolams are represented using geometric shapes and formations. The repeating, symmetrical patterns range from basic white kolams to elaborate, kaleidoscopic designs.

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Kolam is a form of visual language, and interestingly computer scientists have become interested in the algorithmic nature of some of the designs as a way of creating picture languages (Ascher, 2002). This only reinforces the idea that many of the patterns, passed down from mother to daughter and spanning countless generations, are a highly skilled practice and require a taught technique.

My experience with kolam and later with mandala has led me to create my own concentric geometric designs, paying homage to the things that are important to me. The following design was created in 2017 using mandala as inspiration. This is one of a four-part series work in progress based on the seasons.

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A mandala (Sanskrit for “circle”) is another form of concentric geometric pattern drawing that is conducted across the world in different countries. Specifically healing mandalas are created by cultures including Tibetan Buddhists and Navajo people in North America. In his article Mandala Constructing Peace Through Art, Tom Anderson discusses the drawing and deconstruction of mandalas as a way to explore the idea of “reconstructing” —a caring, cooperative and self-reflexive community project (Anderson, 2002). They are intended to protect or repair either people or the environment. Their aim is to restore balance and harmony—a theme that plays a large role in other areas of my research into geometry. These processes also bring a social harmony and reinforce shared beliefs, morals and values (Anderson, 2002). In its own way, it is a form of art therapy and is seen as a positive practice.

This relates to art in general as a form of visual messaging, a shared experience but an experience that is at the same time deeply personal to whoever is viewing the art.

In Sacred Geometry, Deciphering the Code, author Stephen Skinner writes that geometry is the archetypal patterning of many things, perhaps all things (Skinner, 2006), and this notion has become more and more evident to me as I have read, researched and written about geometric shapes in their many forms and applications. Over the months my sense of geometry being universal has grown stronger: it is a form of common language between humans, a way of reasoning in the sciences, a way of communicating within our belief systems, and a way for us to figure out where we are in relation to the rest of the world.

Skinner goes on to discuss geometry dating back to ancient times, most likely beginning in Egypt, with temples and other sacred spaces designed around geometric formations and scientists using geometry to map the movement of the heavenly bodies and the seasons (Skinner, 2006). These geometric buildings were intended for people to use to communicate more directly with their deities. The harmony and precision of the structures made them sacred. I believe this ties in with a common thread I have encountered throughout my research, which is that people take comfort and solace in the structured, organised, harmonious nature of geometric shapes.

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With this knowledge and my own personal interest in pattern-making and mandala / kolam design, I am eager to explore geometric design more in my work. It is a strong language and an effective way of communicating ideas and messages across the world, something that language cannot alone achieve. In this regard, art transcends other forms of communication and touches people from all countries and all walks of life.

References

Anderson, Tom (2002): Mandala Constructing Peace Through Art. Art Education Journal, 55:3, 33-39.

Ascher, Marcia (2002): The Kolam Tradition. Sigma Xi, vol. 90, No. 1. The Scientific Research Honor Society. North Carolina, USA.

Laine, Anna (2009): In Conversation with the Kolam Practice: Auspiciousness and Artistic Experiences Among Women in Tamil Nadu, South India. University of Gothenburg, School of Global Studies. Sweden.

Skinner, S (2006): Sacred Geometry, Deciphering the Code. Sterling Publishing, New York, London.

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Artist Spotlight: Isabella Conticello

Isabella Conticello is a graphic designer and illustrator whose work I have encountered on Behance. I will specifically look at her series A GEO A DAY where she created a colossal body of different minimalistic geometric designs, which she published as a series in its entirety in 2015.

One of the things I find most remarkable about this project is Isabella’s dedication to such a massive solo project. On first glance the inclination is to assume she must have grown bored of the same type of design day after day, but the interesting thing is that the challenge would have only increased over time to design new and unique pieces and generate new ideas. Isabella did this by assigning colours to different areas of her life and representing those areas in her art (Osso Magazine, 2015).

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The designs are reminiscent of modern minimalist art which rose to prominence in the 1960s, even down to her modest colour palettes. Minimalist art utilises geometric shapes and patterns in place of natural or organic forms (Smigel, 2012), and here many of these shapes combined with their colours clearly represent the world that Conticello lives in. By reducing the number of elements and simplifying each idea, she invites viewers to study the raw shapes, lines and curves in the world around us, unhindered by additional objects or other clutter that can distract.

There is also a definite element of mathematics in her work; Isabella herself admits in her 2015 Osso Magazine interview that the Bézier curve helps her to realise her artistic goals and it is clearly evident in some of her pieces.

Her minimalist approach, careful selection of geometric shapes and thoughtful composition makes it possible to extract entire landscapes from some of the designs. There is a beauty and vastness in their simple shapes and soft colours. I particularly like how she captures the essence of nature in the following examples, where I see the ocean and sweeping sand dunes, respectively.

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While not all of the designs are easy to interpret, each one is telling a story about something—a place, or an object, or a concept. Isabella herself loves yellow, blue and red and believes they are the perfect triad (Osso Magazine, 2015), and these colours feature heavily in her designs, often as pastels but also sometimes as richer variations. She creates many pieces using a paler palette, which lends an ambience to the flow of the gallery. I found while scrolling through and examining her work that it was as relaxing as it was fascinating.

Isabella also occasionally plays with texture and three-dimensional elements in her designs, giving them a stronger sense of depth than a lot of the flat, two-dimensional pieces have:

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Overall her aim was to create a cohesion that spans all of her work (Osso Magazine, 2015) and it is possible to see this achievement if you scan her Behance gallery, where many of the themes, styles and colours found in the A GEO A DAY  set are present.

I admire Isabella’s dedication to this project, because as a fellow graphic designer I know that it is not always easy to simply sit down and create something that you like or that you are happy to show to people. Some days it is a struggle to start a piece of work and other days it is a struggle to complete a work-in-progress. Regardless, Isabella has managed to create a connection between these pieces that ultimately tell a story of her life over the course of many months, observing her surroundings and paying homage to her favourite things.

I would like to develop this type of dedication and discover a way to represent my own interests, favourite places and ideas. While I do not think I would use a style similar to Isabella’s, hers is a prime example of how simplicity can speak volumes and communicate a concept with just a few basic shapes. This ties in well with my findings from other areas of geometric design, right down to my research and work with logo design: more often than not, simplicity is key.

References

View Isabella’s full project on Behance here, 2015.

Interview with Isabella in Osso Magazine, 2015.

Article about Isabella’s work at Partfaliaz, 2015.

Smigel, Eric (2012): Lessons That Bear Repeating and Repeating That Bears Lessons: An Interdisciplinary Unit on Principles of Minimalism in Modern Music, Art, and Poetry. General Music Today (journal), issue 1, pages 5-10.

Artist Spotlight – Manolo Gamboa Naon

Manolo Gamboa Naon is a Creative Coder from Argentina. He creates interactive installations, video games, data visualisation, websites and tools for digital advertising. He describes himself as “obsessed with generativity” and likes programming images in which he works with geometric patterns, textures and overloading.

I found Manolo’s work a few months ago while browsing Behance, and was immediately drawn in to his designs. They spark with colour, shapes and motion, and there is often an incredible sense of depth in his work thanks to his relentless layering techniques.

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For me his work stands out because it seems like every geometric shape has been placed carefully and thoughtfully to reach the overall outcome. It must be a painstaking and time consuming process putting some of these works together, and Manolo does it prolifically—indicating that he simply loves creating these deeply complex compositions.

In his essay Nature of Abstract Art, Meyer Schapiro writes that in stripping away the literal subject and the bias of the artist, we are left with pure aesthetic elements, shapes and colours.

“The new styles accustomed painters to the vision of colors and shapes as disengaged from objects and created an immense confraternity of works of art, cutting across the barriers of time and place.”

This way of thinking meant that all art was suddenly valid, from children’s paintings to the scribbles of people with mental disorders, and all deserved of consideration (Schapiro, 1937). Art is subjective, as are most creative fields, and perhaps more so when it comes to abstract, where shapes and colours exist as their own entities and remain open to interpretation.

To me, Manolo’s work feels almost stream-of-consciousness that produces beautiful complicated works. They are not uniform patterns and there is not often perfect symmetry, but the use of geometric shapes gives off an illusion of order and precision. This is an interesting balance to me: abstraction and order. I love how Manolo achieves this and makes it look effortless.

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A number of his pieces are reminiscent of colourful fantasy cityscapes. One in particular I am drawn back to time and time again is this piece posted in July 2018:

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My interpretation is that I am looking down onto many circular buildings, the faint grey lines and intersections signifying the many pathways and possible directions people can travel, with the larger circular shapes housing their own networks and pathways within. It could also represent a person’s brain, with its innumerable neural pathways and connections, the colours representing the different areas of the brain working for different purposes. Manolo is a creative coder who also makes video games, which is possibly why when I look at this piece I see a landscape full of areas to traverse and explore.

While I enjoy most of Manolo’s pieces, there are one or two that do not work so well for me. For example:

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This piece is far more minimal than his other work and in its own right fine, but when viewed in his gallery sitting next to his other pieces it almost looks like a mistake. While I appreciate the simplicity of many geometric shapes and their different meanings this piece does not speak to me or tell me a story. Within the context of his other pieces I feel this one does not fit. Many of Manolo’s other creations feel like well-rounded stories or places for great exploration. Unfortunately he rarely adds a commentary along with his art so I am not sure what this represents to him or where the idea came from.

References

Schapiro, Meyer (1937): Nature of Abstract Art. Published in Marxist Art Quarterly, from the American Marxist Association.

Visit Manolo’s website | Manolo on Behance

The Geometry of Textiles

In her symposium paper Textiles and the Body: The Geometry of Clothing, Madelyn Shaw talks about the mathematical principles of weaving material used in clothing:

“Interlaced threads create square or triangular grids, techniques such as knitting or crocheting can make grids of any shape, from triangular to polyhedral. Those who make clothing transform flat fabric planes into three-dimensional forms through a variety of means.”

Patterns occur not only on the finished fabric as a visual design—they are integral to the structure of the garment itself. A single thread can generate complex geometric patterns that most people wearing the finished garment will never see with the naked eye or look for in the first place. In the Textile Research Journal article Hierarchy of Textile Structures and Architecture of Fabric Geometric Models (Lomov, S.V; Huysmans, G; Verpoest, I; 2001), it is posed that the hierarchical structure of fibrous materials influence the mechanical behaviour of textiles. A well-developed weave can result in sturdier fabric and a longer lifespan of the garment. Additional fabrics can also be added to make the inherent geometry of the weave varied and more complex, although this raises the possibility of structural inconsistency.

There are a number of recognisable garments that utilise geometric shapes: the kaftan, the poncho, or the Pakistani jumlo (Shaw, M. 2006), and a number of high fashion designs draw on geometry to enhance and bring attention to different areas of the body (Fig.1).

An interesting point to note about the inherent geometry within textiles are the changes that take place throughout the course of a garment’s lifespan, from the moment it is woven to the moment it is discarded. Force and pull can lead to stretching at various stages and none of the shapes that are created during the sewing will remain in a solid state—they will constantly fluctuate with wear and even become permanently distorted in some cases of intense wear. The force applied to yarns and fibres creates a deeper and ever-changing level of geometry. In the paper Mechanics of Textile Composites: Micro-Geometry (Miao, Y; Zhou, E; Wang, Y; Cheeseman B. 2007) this is referred to as “micro-geometry.”

I decided to look more closely at how pressure and force can change the nature of geometry within textiles. I spread one of my cardigans across a table and then took a photo of the fabric in its unworn, untouched state. Fig.2 shows the change in the geometry of the weave when the jumper was pulled at either side.

A more obvious type of geometry that can be applied to a garment is the visual design and pattern, often created by using different colours or different materials. Repetitive pattern brings structure, gives flow and rhythm, and can be appealing visually and aesthetically (Perkins, M. 2015). During my research I wanted to know why we are drawn to geometric patterns and what it is about patterns that we find pleasing. Mathematician Ian Stewart says that we live in a universe of patterns (Stewart, I. 1998), from naturally occurring patterns in the makeup of plants, the formation of clouds in the sky, in topography, to genealogical patterns and the structure of our families. The patterns that surround us every day provide our lives with symmetry, repetition, order, movement and rhythm (Kraft, K. 2015), and it is hard to believe that patterns do not emotionally and intellectually influence us all in some way.

Perhaps this is why we are drawn to structure and order; is necessary in society, and for many people it is necessary in day to day planning and living. Geometry, being present in many aspects of our lives, even down to the clothes we wear, could play more of a role in how we feel and what we think than we realise. 

In Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design, Paul Hekkert discusses the meaning of aesthetics, and argues that works of art are mostly produced for the purpose of gratifying the senses (Hekkert, P. 2006).  This could go doubly for textiles, whose tactile and visual experience combines to produce a stronger reaction. But is there a deeper logic at work in the things we are drawn to? Hekkert also raises the question of why we like certain objects—what is it about a pattern or the feel of a product that reaches us on a deeper level than the purely visual? Something well-structured could subliminally tell us that it is sturdy and safe. A geometric pattern can also imply stability and structure, and bring comfort in its repetition and order. Hekkert writes:

“As demonstrated, adaptations have evolved to serve functions beneficial to our survival. It would have been helpful for the development of these adaptations if things in the world around us that contribute to these functions were reinforced (Tooby & Cosmides, 2001). In other words, it must be beneficial for humans to seek cues or patterns that serve these adaptive functions. We therefore (have come to) derive (aesthetic) pleasure from patterns or features that are advantageous to these functions.”

If this is the case, then we instinctively look for recognisable or pleasing patterns as a way of choosing the safest, most beneficial course of action. It would be an interesting experiment to see if somebody wearing a geometric pattern and somebody wearing a randomised pattern influences how trustworthy or approachable others perceive them.

Through my research into geometry used in textiles I have discovered that there are a number of different ways geometric shapes can play a part in our garments and the fabrics surrounding us. Geometry is worth considering when creating a textile and pattern is important for a designer working with textiles. Additionally, geometry and pattern can be used to evoke different meanings and responses and also influence the integrity of a textile.

As a result of my research I am keen to develop patterns that I can use in my own work and share as resources for other designers. In the past I have created patterns for clients (one was printed on a wedding shirt, which relates to the topic of this post) but I would like to approach pattern design with more clarity and focus, using the knowledge I have picked up from reading about patterns in textiles.

References

Hekkert, P (2006): Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design. Delft University of Technology, Netherlands.

Kraft, Kerstin (2015): Textile Patterns and their Epistemological Functions. Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture.

Lomov, S.V; Huysmans, G; Verpoest, I (2001). Hierarchy of Textile Structures and Architecture of Fabric Geometric Models. Leiden University, Netherlands.

Miao, Yuyang; Zhou, Eric; Wang, Youqi; Cheeseman, Bryan A. (2007): Mechanics of Textile Composites: Micro-Geometry. Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Kansas State University, USA.

Perkins, M. (2015): Print & Pattern : Geometric. 1st edition, Laurence King Publishing, London.

Shaw, Madelyn (2006): Textiles and the Body: The Geometry of Clothing. Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Keyword Study #1: Geometry

For the second week of our Masters we were asked to pick one word from our personal statements and create a keyword study. I chose the word geometry. It doesn’t sound like the type of keyword you would expect on an art course, does it? But geometric shapes and patterns are all around us – in nature, in our homes, in architecture and our surrounding environments, in the media, in our brands, and in our creative consciousness.

I am fascinated by geometry used in spiritual art and design and how the formation of shapes and construction of patterns can give us a sense of faith, hope and surety. It can also provide a sense of structure in our belief systems and a way to visually interpret the security that our beliefs bring us. This is something I have encountered while travelling and I plan to create a blog post focused solely on my experiences with spiritual geometric art in the future.

Geometric shapes are also popular in logo and brand creation. Could this be because they also provide a sense of security and structure in the brands that we encounter day to day? Are we more likely to trust a brand whose logo utilises geometry than one that favours a more fluid and relaxed approach?

I also wonder if geometric designs can be deconstructed or reformed to create a more jagged and unnerving feeling, perhaps signifying the breakdown of stability? This is another element to my keyword that I plan to experiment with over the next few weeks.

For week two, we were also given the task of finding:

1. A literal example of our keyword
2. An abstract example of our keyword
3. Another artist’s interpretation of our keyword

For my literal image I went with a basic geometric pattern:

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This pattern was originally created for a brush-making company for use on toothbrush packaging. The pattern features the company brand colours and was designed to be eye catching but still retain a corporate feel. The angles and lines were intended to create a sense of structure and maturity, and the fact that I did not use a repeating pattern implies that the company strive for innovation and thinking outside the box. I tried a version with a repeating pattern and though tidy it did not give off an impression of the company or the product development process. One thing I don’t think worked was the intricacy of the overall design; it’s extremely busy, and teeters too close to the edge of playful which does not fit with the brand. If tasked to create further toothbrush artwork I doubt I will use such an intricate geometric pattern. If the shapes were bigger and more clearly defined, the implication that the company is sturdy and secure might come across more clearly. I did research on other well-known toothbrush brands and noticed they often followed a common theme, with a prevalence of curves and swooping shapes, and I wanted this packaging to stand out from the crowd.

My first abstract image shows a naturally occurring geometry:

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For my second abstract example, I decided to conduct my own experiment and created a geometric shape in Illustrator (this took approximately ten minutes). During a conference with my fellow students I asked people to tell me what the following image evoked in them:

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I had come up with a list of possible connotations alreadymystical, mathematical, spiritual, abstract, fantasy, ritual. There were also a couple of ideas that I hadn’t considered, including circuitry and constellation (and zodiac). After the conference I continued to look at the design and draw connections. I ended up with two more ideas: hoax in the context of crop circles, and insignia in the context of an organisation or gang.

It’s interesting that the connection to a series of basic shapes depends on a person’s interests, beliefs and ideas they have absorbed elsewhere.

Finally, my third entry is a piece by artist Manolo Gamboa Naon, which you can see on Behance here. I can stare at Manolo’s art for ages and get drawn deeper and deeper. It feels almost like I’m looking down onto a strange and colourful cityscape. The faint grey lines and intersections are like many pathways and possible directions people can travel, with the larger circular shapes like buildings with their own networks and pathways within. It could also represent a person’s brain, with its innumerable neural pathways and connections, the colours signifying the different areas of the brain working for different purposes. Manolo is a creative coder who also makes video games, which is possibly why when I look at this piece I see a landscape full of areas to traverse and explore.

References
Beehive Photo | Manolo Gamboa Naon