The Mathematical Artist

Artwork: "Banners VI" by Elizabeth Whiteley. Hand-colored monoprint on archival paper.
“Banners VI” by Elizabeth Whiteley. Hand-colored monoprint on archival paper. Copyright © Elizabeth Whiteley

When confronted with certain mathematical tasks, I’ve met many artists who will throw up their hands and say, “I’m not good at math – I’m an artist!” Their statement always confounded me since I’m a professional artist who also happens to have a strong mathematical mind.

What I eventually learned is that while the first part of their statement might be valid (“I’m not good at math”), the truth is that math and art have enjoyed a long historical relationship. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, for example, incorporated the Golden Ratio into their monument designs and painters and sculptors throughout history have turned to this aesthetically-pleasing ratio for developing their compositions in their artwork.

So how does that fit in with the perception of the “right-brained,” intuitive artist?

Elizabeth Whiteley is a painter and sculptor who embraces the seemingly complex world of pi and square roots. She has written and lectured about the connections between geometry and her art and has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematics and Art. Yes, you read that right – Mathematics and Art. I wanted to explore Whiteley’s creative process and what goes on in (both sides of) her mind as she incorporates the principles of mathematics into her art.

Where does your inspiration come from when developing ideas for your painting and sculpture?

“I grew up in the country and didn’t go to school until the first grade, so I had many years to wander around alone in fields and woods to make my own visual discoveries. Now, as an adult, just taking a walk in the woods and picking up the odd leaf, or fallen branch, or curiously-shaped stone can set off all sorts of visual possibilities. I tend to abstract the concrete and constantly observe features such as the weight of an object in my hand, its color, its shape, where it came from, what it might have looked like as it went through the transformation of growth or coming into being and what might happen to it next….”

“A similar visual quest happens when I look at a geometric diagram. I start to notice the shapes of the areas and how they relate to each other or I look at the negative spaces between the line segments. I ask myself what it might look like if parts were projected forward or backward into three-dimensional space. Then I refine these impressions as I draw and paint and sculpt. The creativity comes where my mathematical understandings and art training intersect; there’s a crossing point.”

Artwork: "Square Root Five: Super Icon I" by Elizabeth Whiteley. Acrylic on canvas.
“Square Root Five: Super Icon I” by Elizabeth Whiteley. Acrylic on canvas. Copyright © Elizabeth Whiteley.

How do you begin a work of art?

“My starting point is the idea in my head. I may begin a two-dimensional work with a line drawing of a geometric shape. Then, I contemplate my material resources. For a sculpture, I may begin literally with a geometric form such as a square or a particular type of triangle. The drawing or geometric form serves as a scaffold and may or may not be evident in the final work. Once the entry point is determined geometrically, then my artistic searching and exploring takes over to create an artwork.”

“For example, ‘Autumn Leaves’ (below), is a cluster of painted and curved Golden Triangles…sculpted from a laminate I invented:”

Artwork: "Autumn Leaves" by Elizabeth Whiteley. Museum board, canvas, acrylic paint.
“Autumn Leaves” by Elizabeth Whiteley. Museum board, canvas, acrylic paint. Copyright © Elizabeth Whiteley

“What prompted you to incorporate mathematical principles into your work?”

“In the late 1980’s I was designing a tattoo for a friend and recalled a book I had bought for a design course: Jay Hambidge’s ‘Dynamic Symmetry.’ I pulled the book off my shelf and started browsing through it, getting more and more absorbed by the lessons about that geometric principle. Suddenly I said to myself ‘this is my life’s work’. And since then, although I occasionally explore other geometric ideas, I find that I return again and again to the principle of dynamic symmetry.”

“My painting, ‘Composition I’  (below, right), was composed within a √3 proportioned area and included a shape created by folding a √3 area along lines determined by the geometric principle of dynamic symmetry.”

So while working with the principles of dynamic symmetry, is the final piece of art arrived at intuitively or logically?

“Definitely intuitively–I work at a piece until it ‘feels’ right; it defies quantification. After all, fine art is about personal expression.”

Artwork: "Composition I" by Elizabeth Whiteley.
“Composition I” by Elizabeth Whiteley. Copyright © Elizabeth Whiteley

As a rule, do you consider yourself right-brain or left-brain dominant?

“Although I’m comfortable in both places, my preference is for the creative work with the analytical ‘stuff’ as a means to make it happen and evaluate it when it is completed. As a left-hander, I have read various material that suggests that left-handed people have an easier flow of information between each side than right-handed people. Perhaps that is why so many people in the arts and architecture are left-handed.”

What advice can you give to artists who may be interested in working this way? Especially artists who say, “I’m not good in math.”

“Usually when artists say that, they are thinking of arithmetic and not having enough fingers and toes to balance their checkbooks! Shift to the word ‘geometry’, and a smile may cross their face as they think of shapes and lines. I recall Cezanne’s remark, in a letter to Emile Bernard: ‘…you must see in nature the cylinder, the sphere, the cone…’ A whole new world can open up to artists just by making a small shift in vocabulary.”

“My hope is that my artwork will awaken, in the viewer, the sense of life’s joys and possibilities which I feel as I create in my studio. My paintings and sculpture express my delight in seeking visual relationships and finding new connections within simple geometric shapes. It is also my hope that in sharing my work and process, it might inspire other artists to try a new approach to their work.”

For Elizabeth Whiteley, the visual discovery of harmony and symmetry leads to peace of mind. Her work offers the sense that there is, indeed, order and beauty in this seemingly chaotic world.

And what I appreciate most is that Whiteley’s creative process helps bust the myth that “artists aren’t good at math.”

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Elizabeth Whiteley’s artwork can be viewed at:  Elizabeth Whiteley

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