Lesson 6: 20th Century artists who use symmetry to explore color theory, part II

Lesson 1
Ritual Geometry


Lesson 2
Group Elements

Color Theory

Lesson 3
Groups and Groups Acting on Sets

Block printing

Lesson 4
Klimt and the Computer

Color and symmetry in modern art I

Lesson 5

Islamic art

Lesson 6
Penrose and Rice

Color and symmetry in modern art II

Lesson 7
Escher 1

Escher 2

Lesson 8
Hundertwasser & Griffeath

Pattern and Modern Painting

Brian P. Hoke: Cellular Automata and Art

Student's Work

  Exploration of color interaction and symmetry through the work of an Op artist


1) to become familiar with Op art.
2) to explore the use of pattern and color in the work of Op artist Vasarely
3) to observe how altering a symmetry impacts a pattern visually

Victor Vasarely, Hungarian-French 1908.

As a young artist in 1928, Victor Vasarely studied at the Bauhaus school in Budapest, fully identifying with the geometric Constructivist style. [note 1] He emigrated to France in the 1930s, and in the 1950s, became a leader in the European Op art movement. Op artists contrasted saturated colors or black and white to create optical illusions that vibrated with after-images. [note 2]   They explored the motion and energy of optical effects with the same degree of thoroughness that Albers had investigated color. [note 3, note 4]   While these vibrating designs gained avid media attention in the US, American critics were slow to admit Op art into their canon of "High Art". [note 5]   However, in France, European Constructivism permeated many art movements because of its social idealism. Op artists such as Vasarely saw optical art as an egalitarian tool for the 20th Century. [note 6]

From Gaston Diehl: "VASARELY"

Eridan-III 1956 Oil
Detroit Institute of Arts

In his early work Vasarely experimented with the tromp d'oeil effects of such subjects as zebras and checker boards. [note 7]

He moved on to develop "plastique cinetique" or "mathematically controlled [abstract] forms and colors" that he endlessly arranged and rearranged into diverse patterns. [note 8]

From Gaston Diehl: "VASARELY"

Vega-II 1957-59 Oil
Tel-Aviv Museum

Vasarely used circular, oval, triangular, or square shapes in complex grids to create powerful optical pieces. When a shape deviates from the pattern, it produces a sense of movement, receding and advancing from the picture plane. Graduating values create a smooth progression across the plane, while complementary colors form abrupt shifts. [note 9]

From Gaston Diehl: "VASARELY"

Zett, 1966 Vinyl

Museum of Contemporary Art, Montreal

Vasarely referred to these geometric modules, and the infinite variety of patterns they created, as "planetary folklore." He envisioned that technology itself would disseminate this art form, rather than individual artists. Units of abstract shapes and colors alone would create uplifting environments for mankind. In this way, Vasarely sees geometric abstraction as a democratic influence "free of psychological associations."

From Gaston Diehl: "VASARELY"

Museum of Contemporary Art, Montreal

Vega-JG, 1967 Vinyl
Collection James H. Clark, New York

How is the work of Vaserely similar to the work of Albers?
How is it different?
What kinds of symmetries does Vaserely use?
How does color affect the symmetries here? What else happens to the symmetries?
What is your response to Vasarely's system of shapes and colors (planetary folklore)?

The rest of this class is spent on sketches for homework, Assignment 4.

GOAL: Create a composition in gouache by repeating and then interrupting a symmetry group. You will be working to achieve spatial relationships in your design. When you dissolve, break or change a symmetry group, you establish movement away from and toward the *picture plane. Since uninterrupted repeating pattern accentuates flatness, disruption creates depth. You will also apply color gradation and color interaction to create space, volume and movement. This assignment is modeled on Vasarely's paintings. Don't hesitate to use short-cuts such as tracing paper and a Xerox machine, to reduce your labor on the project.

PART 1, Layout: Observe from the attached examples where Vasarely creates movement, spatial and compositional relationships. The final format of the design must be 15" x 15".

Design a motif of approximately of 1.5 inches to use in any symmetry group from your previous assignment. Simple geometric shapes will serve best for repeating and changing your motif in this assignment. Choose one of the following methods to alter symmetry groups:

1. reducing the number of motifs in a group
2. changing the direction(s) of the motif
3. changing the symmetry operation(s) within the group
4. abrubtly altering the shape of the motif
5. gradually altering the shape of the motif
6. gradually altering its scale

2 and 3 may be the same; 5 and 6 are labor intensive because you must redesign the motif for each change during its transformation. Establish the repeat first, interrupt the rhythm, and then return to it.

Suggested Method:
Translate the symmetry group in several rows on a couple of pieces of tracing paper. Place one copy on top of the other, shifting them around, and observe the visual relationships. Reduce these on the copier and make several copies. Then cut and paste them into desired relationships. Look for different solutions and choose one. These can be xeroxed back up to scale for the final. You can also directly draw the final layout in the original size on tracing paper employing xeroxed copies for reference. Use tracing paper for your final layout so that you can easily transfer it onto the ground.

*Picture plane: The actual flat surface on which the artist executes a pictorial image. The picture plane can also act as a transparent plane of reference to establish the illusion of forms (abstract or representational) existing in three- dimensional space.

Final Painting:

Decide what color scheme you would like to work with. Feel free to combine colors intuitively, or refer to the monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, and warm to cool systems. You will need to mix a minimum of three basic colors for the grounds and the gradations: two for the ground and one for the figure. It's possible to mix all of the other colors from these. If you have a sharp or highly contrasting line between colors in this background it will compete with the design of your pattern. It is helpful to soften the dividing edges when painting the background.

See painting instructions for color grounds on the next page.

  • 1. Choose at least two colors for background and prepare your colored grounds.
    a) reverse the color of the motif and ground (positive and negative), and/or
    b) paint gradual shifts in color (gradation) in the motif and the ground.
  • 2. Mix different steps in colors to see how the gradations work. Test colors on ground. (See gouache intructions)
  • 3. Transfer design onto the ground and paint it.
  • 4. Please keep your black and white design.

Plan ahead so that you can integrate the shift in background colors with the foreground. Your largest task will be to integrate both the color changes and the pattern changes to create a cohesive composition. By interrupting the pattern you will be creating a one unit composition instead of a design that infinitely covers the plane.

In a complex design, it's easier to paint motifs onto a colored background than to paint around them. Light colors on a dark ground need to be painted twice. Light colors can also run and make a mess. If you encounter this problems, paint your background around the motif. It's a good idea to test out your colors before deciding which way to go with the ground.

Testing colors
On a small sheet of paper make a few 2 or 3 inch patches of possible colors for your ground. Mix the other colors and apply them to the colored grounds to see if light colors will go over the ground, or whatever you need to see. Remember that gouache will dry to a darker, more intense color than when it is wet. A dark colored ground may require additions of white for light colors.

Painting the ground
Mask off edges of your white paper with tape onto a hard painting surface. Cardboard is fine. Press the inside edge of the tape firmly so that paint won't seep beyond the edges.

In a cup mix enough background color to cover your entire sheet of paper. You will have to mix the same color again if you run out in the middle. The consistency should be like thick melted ice cream. If the paint is too thick, it will crack after drying, and if it's too thin, you will have streaks. It is harder to thicken paint than to thin it, so add water judiciously with the eye dropper. Mix the paint thoroughly and test it for the shade you want. Let it dry. Gouache looks darker when wet.

Use a cheap brush, about 1 1/2 inches wide. If your brush sheds pick out the bristles right away before the ground dries.

Some people brush or sponge water on their paper and then wipe it off, leaving a damp surface. This prevents the ground from drying before you finish. This is optional. Paint the entire surface in horizontal directions (just one direction first). Then, before it dries, repaint the same surface in a vertical direction and allow to dry. It will appear uneven until it is completely dry. Don't retouch. Suggestion: Paint two colored grounds. You may need a spare.

Ombre or wash ground:
This is a thin gradated water color ground. It's elegant and atmospheric. Use a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water. Add drops of gouache from your brush to tint the water. Prepare your paper for painting as above and wet it using tinted water. Add color gradually to the water to create a more intense color as you move from area to another.
There will be a demo of this during critique.

Transfer design onto colored ground with transfer paper.

Shibori - A Definition

Shibori is the Japanese word for a variety of ways of embellishing textiles by shaping cloth and securing it before dyeing. The word comes from the verb root shiboru, "to wring, squeeze, press." Although shibori is used to designatc a particular group of resist-dyed textiles, the verb root of the word emphasizes the action performed on cloth, the process of manipulating fabric. Rather than treating cloth as a two-dimensional surface, with shibori it is given a three-dimensional form by folding, crumpling, stitching, plaiting, or plucking and twisting. Cloth shaped by these methods is secured in a number of ways, such as binding and knotting. It is the pliancy of a textile and its potential for creating a multitude of shape-resisted designs that the Japanese concept of shibori recognizes and explores. The shibori family of techniques includes numerous resist processes practiced throughout the world.

Shibori is used as an English word throughout this book because there is no English equivalent. In fact, most languages have no term that encompasses all the various shibori techniques, nor is there English terminology for individual methods, which often have been incorrectly lumped together as "tie-and-dye." Three terms for separate shibori methods have come into international usage: plangi, a Malay-lndonesian word for the process of gathering and binding cloth; bandy an Indian term for the same Process; and tritik, a Malay-lndonesian word for stitch-resist. However, these three terms represent only two ofthe major shibori techniques. In this context, the word shibori seems the most useful term for the entire group of shaped resist textiles. It is the hope of the authors that "shibori" will win acceptance in the international textile vocabulary.

The special characteristic of shibori resist is a soft- or blurry-edged pattern. The effect is quite different from the sharp-edged resist obtained with stencil, paste, and wax. With shibori the dyer works in concert with the materials, not in an effort to overcome their limitations but to allow them full expression. And, an element of the unexpected is always present.

All the variables attendant on shaping the cloth and all the influences that control the events in the dye vat or pot conspire to remove some of the shibori process from human control. An analogy is that of a potter firing a wood-burning kiln. All the technical conditions have been met, but what happens in the kiln may be a miracle or a disaster. Chance and accident also give life to the shibori process, and this is its special magic and strongest appeal.

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© Copyright 1996, Pippa Drew and Dorothy Wallace, Dartmouth College