Monday, October 18, 2010

Islamic pattern designs

Here's something that I never tire of staring at: Islamic pattern designs from the book Moorish Remains in Spain, by the peripatetic pith-helmet clad Albert F. Calvert. I intend to do an in-depth analysis of the generation of tessellations as seen in the Arts of Arabia and Mohammedan architecture, but only when I can wrap my head around how on earth they did that stuff. I can't help feeling as though there is a key to some small understanding of the Universe hidden away in these images, but it's one that will never be mine. At least, it takes a great deal of study to unravel the geometries involved. I hope this post will help those like me who are avid admirers and amateur students.

Sir Robert Penrose, the English mathematical physicist, armed with only a pencil and notebook, developed a set of 'quasi-periodic' patterns after many years of research. Amazingly, his set consisted of only two shapes (!) that he named "kites" and "darts". The pattern laid down by these shapes is difficult to envision, but as it expands, the proportion of kites to darts approaches the golden ratio, or Phi. These patterns have parallels in the crystalline forms of chemistry, and real-world applications as (for example) non-stick coatings for frying pans.

That Penrose's work has a precedent in Islamic pattern is not a surprise. That his work is pre-dated by over 500 years, is. Physicist Peter J. Lu visited Uzbekistan and found the same pattens in the Bhukara Madrasa. Thank you Sebastian R. Prange for this incredible and fascinating article, quoted in part below:

"The tilework on the Bukhara madrasa is an example of the stylized geometric strap-work—typically based on star or polygon shapes—that is emblematic of traditional Islamic ornamentation. This form of design is known as girih patterns, from the Persian word for “knot.” It is generally believed that such designs were constructed by drafting zigzag outlines with only a straightedge and a compass. But Lu perceived something more: “I saw five-fold and ten-fold stars, which immediately aroused my curiosity about how these tilings had been made.” He wondered how Islamic craftsmen had been able to design such elaborately symmetrical patterns centuries before the advent of modern mathematics."

All images this article are reproduced from the book Moorish Remains in Spain. The New York Times article, announcing the publication of the book in 1905, quoted the author, saying:
"Neither by camera, nor by brush, nor by the pen can one reflect with any fidelity the effects obtained by the Moorish masters of the Middle Ages. In their art is to be found a sense of the mysterious that appeals to one like the glint of moonlight on running water; an intangible spirit of joyousness that one catches from the dancing shadows of leaves upon a sun-swept lawn; and an elusive key to its beauty which is lost in the bewildering maze of traceries, and the inextricable network of design. The form, if not the fantasy, of these fairy-like, fascinating decorations may, however, be reproduced, and this I have endeavored to do."

I've posted an enormous set of illustrations from the volume on my Flickr page, for those interested. There is also a post regarding the book Arabian Antiquities of Spain on this blog, also with many images, that you may wish to take a look at.In the meantime, here are a couple of the (roughly 260) images I posted on Flickr for you.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How To Make a Day of The Dead Mask

Today I'm going to show you how to make a Day of the Dead mask. This was a great project for my eight-year old daughter and her friend. 

Day of the Dead masks, or Calacas, are a traditional part of this Mexican celebration and are a lot of fun to make. You still have time to make your costume by November 2nd, but you'll have to hurry!

Most step-by-steps that I read online suggested papier maché, but they failed to show the steps and I know why: papier maché will never dry fast enough on a child's face to be able to be removed. You'll need to use plaster if you want to make a face mold.

Jose Guadalupe Posada

• Gauze bandage (preferably the pre-plastered kind), cut into small strips and squares.
• Plaster of Paris (if you can't find pre-plastered gauze bandage - see above)
• Petroleum Jelly
• Drop cloth
• Plastic containers for water and plaster, with sticks or a brush for stirring
• Lots of paper towels to clean up spills
• Small artist brushes, and 'chip' brushes (available at any hardware store)
• Water-based artist paints, various colors (I used artists acrylic colors)
PVA/Elmer's glue, or, white primer


Apply a thin coat of petroleum jelly, making sure to get around the hair and chin line, and especially the eyebrows. This will allow the plaster mask to be removed more easily.


Mix up a batch of plaster.

In retrospect it would have been easier to use the pre-plastered strips of gauze that you just dip in water; less messy and you don't have to deal with plaster drying out in the bowl. However, using regular gauze is fine too.

Add a little powder at a time to about 1 cup water until it's a little thicker than milk. Your plaster should be thin but not too runny. It will set up very quickly, so be sure you are ready to go and have all your gauze strips cut up and handy.


Apply the strips carefully, paying special attention around the eyes to avoid accidents. I found it important to add extra layers on the temples and the bridge of the nose to stabilize the mask. I left plenty of space around the mouth and eyes, preferring to fill these in later.


Remove the mask...carefully! It's very thin and is not completely dry.


Add extra layers of gauze/plaster to smooth out the surface and add thickness. We painted on a layer of thinned, watery plaster (using a chip brush) once it was at the above stage, so as to create a smoother surface.

Then we put it in the oven for 30 minutes at 150º which helped dry it out (watch to make sure it doesn't start to crack). Otherwise leave it overnight in a warm dry place.


Once dry, you can use a folded, slightly damp rag to 'burnish' the surface until completely smooth.

  Seal your mask inside and out with a coat of PVA or Elmer's glue, thinned with a little water. Or you could use white water-based primer, as we did.

Research! There are plenty of reference images available online and waiting to inspire you. 

My daughter and her friend decided upon the La Catrina figure from Day of the Dead lore, so I drew one (above) on the computer and printed it out. This mask follows certain 'rules' as far as the look goes. Namely the large black eyes, the black Spade shape on the nose and the flower on the chin. Some also have the Viuda Negra, or Black Widow, on the forehead (which we substituted for a heart) and the web. 

I've reproduced the Illustrator drawing here for you, if you want to use that.

Sketch your design lightly in pencil first.

Time to paint! Thin artists brushes for the details and strong vibrant acrylics are best. 

The girls decided they wanted to make some changes to the initial design, which is fine, but remember: If it doesn't at least have a black nose and big black eyes, then it's not a Day of the Dead mask!

You could just end it here, but we added sequins around the eyes. Flowers made of tissue paper in the hair and a black veil would have completed the look, but the girls opted for more 'harlequin' and less 'calaca'

Almost there. You just need a way of holding it against your face. I used a wire & cardboard coat-hanger, and taped it to the inside of the mask. Now your Day of the Dead mask is complete. Have fun!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

German Trompe l'Oeil

 I came across these in an old folder and dusted them off because I thought they were beautiful and worth sharing. 
 The image above is remarkable: Rendering the look of metallic surfaces in oil on canvas is tricky enough, 
but this artist pulled off a believable effect in fresco!

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do.

I posted more in a Flickr set here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jean Daret at the Hotel Chateaurenard

Jean Daret was either lucky or a master of publicity. I've been given the staircase to decorate in Show Houses before, and I'm well aware that it can be an afterthought when it comes to interior design; it's the space nobody else wants to deal with. Daret turned that around in 1654 and made it work for him with spectacular results when he decorated this staircase in Chateaurenard, Aix-en-Provence. Though serving as a hotel, this was a true 'chateau' in the sense in that its exterior resembled nothing less than a bombproof fortress. What a surprise it must have been upon entering to be greeted by these magnificent trompe l'oeil paintings.

In 1660, none other than Louis XIV himself was famously hosted here and was so impressed by Daret that he made him Painter to the King. The story goes that when Louis saw the paintings, he ordered his guards to protect them with their lives during maneuvers. No doubt Daret at 41 was thrilled to have been recognized, and it led to countless orders for work in Aix.