December 2, 2012

Compass and Straight Edge: New Drawings, Inspired by Islamic Design

#1, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper; image size 10 x 10 in, paper 15 x 15 in.

I had a very uncanny feeling while working on this new series of drawings: it seemed as though I was hardly doing the work at all, but that it was coming to me from the past, or from an unseen place. This is not so surprising, in that these works are based on a pattern of overlapping circles that is one of the basic elements of geometry in Islamic design. The imagery in the drawings is nothing like Islamic pattern (some of which you can see in this blog post of Islamic ceramics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), but the underlying structure is. 

I've enjoyed wandering through the Met's new Islamic wing, and have long found pattern fascinating (using it in my textiles; and another post from the Met on pattern is here). So when I saw a little book in the museum's bookshop entitled Islamic Design: A Genius for Geometry by Daud Sutton, I had to buy it. Much of what Sutton shows in this book is very complex and beyond my understanding, but I was able to figure out the most simple pattern of overlapping circles: one circle surrounded by six, and carried on. By also using a straight edge, we can find hexagons and six pointed stars (the Seal of Solomon in Islam, the Star of David in Judaism) within the pattern. All these patterns have a spiritual dimension: the six circles around the central one symbolize the six days of creation. (click to enlarge so you can read the page.)

I thought it would be fascinating to find my own patterns within this basic design of 5 inch circles, drawn using a pair of compasses. 

I then printed the pattern on sheets of office paper and looked for patterns, using watercolor.

#2, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper, image 9 1/2 x 15 in, paper 15 x 15 in. 

I was surprised at the variety of expression I could find within this basic design, and I'm excited about continuing to discover more. There is also the thrill of color, the richness of painting on these hand-toned papers, which I described how to make here

#2 detail

I like how the translucent egg tempera paint can allow the underlying drawing to show through. I like the variations in the finish of the paper.

#3, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper; image size 9 1/2 x 10 in., paper 15 x 15 in.

This design totally surprised and delighted me when I found it. I simply started filling in similar shapes with three different colors, and a rosette appeared. I enjoy how the image flips from seeing the red/blue/green shapes as primary, to seeing the leftover orange pointed ovals.

#4, egg tempera and graphite on hand-toned paper; image size 9 1/2 x 10 in., paper 15 x 15 in. 

 In this first group of four, this is the only one in which I used a straight edge to find the hexagons and triangles. I can imagine this as a pattern for floor tiles. Working on these drawings gave me a great deal of pleasure, not only because I felt a tie to the artists and artisans of the past. The drawings also felt, in some way, to be a spiritual exploration (and I am writing this as a person without religiosity), similar to the intense focus of Tantra paintings. This is not something I expected, or asked for, or called up, it just seemed to be there, in my careful filling of shape with paint in this, my first foray into abstraction with paint. How very odd.


  1. Wonderful colors. I personally find #4 as my favorite of all!

  2. Altoon, ever done any readings in sacred geometry? There are a few books that approach the topic with respectful erudition (vs the woo woo take on it all) that might be of interest to you. My favorites are buried in my stacks so unfortunately I don't have names to offer you at the present moment. I took a workshop on the topic many years ago. Although I am now very rusty on the specifics, it left me with an extraordinary respect for the power of these forms as well as their universal appearance. Wonderful post.

    1. Deborah, no, I haven't. It's not something I was ever interested in before, but it might be interesting to take a look. If you do come up with a couple of names of books, be sure to pass them on; thanks.

  3. Stunning compositions and color. #1 is my favorite - I think because of the palette. Dark and mysterious.

  4. Thank you for an inspiring post to wake up to. I'm reminded on the importance of curiosity and exploration.

  5. Thanks, lisa and Lorrie. Yes, it's very rewarding to keep the mind open.

  6. Especially love the cropping of the detail!

  7. The color on these temperas is so rich, Altoon. Visible graphite line adds to the mystery. Beautiful!

  8. These are fantastic! I like everything about them.

  9. Again thanks for the positive comments on these new works. It helps in moving forward....

  10. These put me in the sort of mood that make is hard to comment. Words feel quite inadequate to the feelings that are evoked. The images and color are thoughtful, calming and mysterious. Strange how the simple can do so much.

  11. oh my, thank you so much, Ravenna and Joan.

  12. I go along with Diane #1 - those green forms against that rich ground - ideal!

  13. Come to prince school of traditional art in london if u ever interested to learn more about sacret's the best course i ever taken...