The Art of Maths: An Unexpected Match


Hannah Carley explores the interesting connections we can find between the supposedly opposing fields of Art and Maths.

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By Hannah Carley

When we think of fields of study that influence works of art, it is fair to say that mathematics is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. At first glance, it seems impossible for such a formulaic pursuit to be able to inspire such an expressive one. However, algebraic patterns, numbers and formulae have all helped to inspire artwork and the range of influences maths has had might surprise you.

A particularly common example of this can be seen in tessellations. Inspired by the field of geometry, tessellations are patterns of shapes repeated and joined together. As well as being seen in nature in forms such as honeycomb or pineapple skin, tessellations are a regular fixture in art and design. Features of this form have influenced Islamic architecture and mosaics for centuries. Some artists such as Robert Fathauer have even used tessellations to communicate stories about their lives. His pieces Scorpion, Diamondback, and Phoenix uses the titular motifs in a style likened to this form to represent his home city of Phoenix, Arizona.

Artist John Sims has also created pieces influenced by maths. His work Seeing Pi is a visual representation of the mathematical constant of the same name. Pi is an endless irrational number, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. In this piece, Sims represents this in a quilt filled with coloured squares. Each square represents a different integer, reading the digits of pi when taken from the centre. The work forms part of a wider collection on this theme, including a red, white and blue tricolour version of the quilt humorously titled American Pi.

However, one of the most unexpected crossroads between these two disciplines can be seen in Fractal Art. This form marries algebra with the abstract to create computer generated pieces. It is created by calculating fractal objects using an algebraic process called iteration. These can be represented in repeated shapes and forms featuring self similarity, where a larger part of the image is similar to a smaller one or vice versa. The result is usually a bright and interesting abstract piece. Some particularly famous examples include the Julia Set and the Mandelbrot Set.

Many other pieces also share similarities with fractal art. For instance, the concept of self - similarity can be seen in Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa. The drama in the print is created by the waves, which break off into smaller and similar shapes in a manner reminiscent of the form. Islamic geometric patterns and mandalas also share the feature of repeating shapes and patterns throughout a piece. In particular, mandalas are believed to have the same visual appeal and ability to relax a viewer as fractals due to our evolutionary ability to recognise the fractal features which they embrace.

The influences that mathematics has had on art are most likely unexpected; as someone who spent a great deal of time studying maths before university, they certainly were to me. Yet somehow these links make perfect sense. At the end of the day, art is an expression of something and it does not matter where it comes from. Why shouldn’t that be maths? These examples prove that, although surprising, these areas have the potential to be a great match.