Exploring Escher

Exploring Escher

Being an illustrator is often about realising other people’s visions.

If you’re illustrating a story book then the pictures need to complement the text. The tall girl must be tall. The fearful boy cannot look brave and unafraid.

When working on a book cover, the illustration must reflect the characters within. A scene, a moment, or a key theme from the book must play itself out in the front cover image.

Even when working on my own artwork, where there is no other vision but my own, I am still held to certain limits. My illustration of Exeter, or of Dartmoor, must still be recognisable to those who know these places.

exeter quay devon swans river exe colourful poster print

Of course, I am often allowed free rein to interpret the words, or the story, or the place that I am drawing. You hire an illustrator because you like their work and want them to add to your story. This is not a blog post where I complain about a lack of opportunity to give my creative input.

Quite the opposite.

This is a post where I would like to celebrate one of the jobs that gives me a wide scope and freedom to run in any direction I please.

Zero Flash

I have talked before about joining the group of illustrators working on the flash fiction magazine website Zero Flash.

They run a monthly flash fiction competition with a small monetary prize and the chance to have your story illustrated. The honour of creating the illustration is currently shared between myself, Sophia Johnson, and Andrew Howell.

As well as this, each month the editor, David Wing, commissions one of us to create a new illustration to act as the header image for the website. And this is where my creativity is allowed to run wild.

You’ve lost perspective…

When the email arrives from David, it’s always an exciting moment. From somewhere an idea has formed, and it is time to turn it over and to let us loose.

These are – in the best possible way – very loose briefs. My first, for example, was a “cross roads in the middle of nowhere, where all manner of strange and unusual events, creatures and oddities meet”.

There are a great many ways in which that particular brief could have been interpreted, and I had a lot of fun trying out some strange and unusual ideas.

Zero flash logo illustration october 2017 crossroads by jon stubbington

…like a picture by Escher

This month – February 2018 – the brief was even more succinct: “Your take on MC Escher”.

This is both a great, and a daunting, brief.

MC Escher is a great artist. I really like his work, and there are probably very few people who are unaware of his mind-bending, perspective-puzzling pictures. So there’s a lot to live up to.

At the same time, this is still a wide-ranging and exciting brief to work with. After all, what do you think of when you think of an Escher image?

Possibly, you’re thinking of his impossible constructions, the staircases that go on forever with no way off.

Perhaps, the first thing that comes to mind are his mathematical shapes, or hands that draw themselves.

What about the transformation prints, where one thing becomes, by degrees, another across the spread of an image.

All of these would have been great things to play around with but I had another, perhaps less-well-remembered, set of Escher illustrations that I wanted to try my hand at.

Tessellating tiles

Escher created a set of tessellating prints, often featuring animals, where one shape fits neatly into another and is repeated across the whole of a page.

Devils and angels, pessimists and optimists, crabs. He used this technique across a wide range of different subjects.

But, to the best of my knowledge, never dragons.

There was a Pegasus, a winged lion, and definitely some unicorns, but of dragons I could find no trace. Here was my chance.

Zero Flash MC Escher symmetry pattern illustration

Why dragons, you may ask?

A lot of Escher’s tiled illustrations focus on natural things; animals in most cases. As does a lot of my own work. So I wanted to honour this and, at the same time, add a twist that meant it wasn’t just a different version of a bird or a fish. I wanted something a little out-of-the-ordinary.

And – truth be told – drawing dragons is just a lot of fun.

It’s trickier than it looks

If you want to make your own tessellating pattern, it’s pretty straightforward.

If you want to make a pattern with two different shapes, and to have those shapes look like something in particular, it’s not quite as easy.

First off, a simple tessellating shape:

1 Draw a square

how to make a tessellating pattern

2 Draw a curved line (horizontally) and cut your square along that line

how to make a tessellating pattern

3 Reverse the two shapes

how to make a tessellating pattern

4 Draw another curved line (vertically) and cut your shape along that line

how to make a tessellating pattern

5 Reverse the two shapes

how to make a tessellating pattern

This shape will now tessellate and you are free to make it into whatever strange creature you desire.

how to make a tessellating pattern

(With thanks to this post for the original instructions.)

What I chose to do was to use two different shapes, one for the dragon’s face and one for the dragon in flight.

In practice, this meant a lot of messing about with shapes until I found something that went together and was still recognisably a dragon’s head and body. I wish I could share a secret this-is-how-to-do-it guide, but I didn’t manage to find one.

Once my shapes were in place, I could then add some decoration and – of course – the Zero Flash zero hidden in the background like a 90’s Magic Eye picture.

Zero Flash MC Escher symmetry pattern illustration

Not so brief a brief

From a short and simple brief from David Wing, I ended up exploring Escher’s work, delving into the mathematics of tessellating tiles, and drawing dragons.

Which, when you think about it, is a pretty cool way to spend your time!


Visit my collection of illustration projects to see more of my completed artwork, including my illustrations for Zero Flash.

Visit the Projects page


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