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The Odd Similarity Between Maths and Art. (Bear with me, it's not scary)

Updated: May 21, 2021

I was working on an abstract a week or so ago, when my husband came into the studio. I told him that art has a lot in common with maths as it is basically an exercise in problem solving.


I then proceeded to explain, in a nutshell, the process that I use when making an abstract artwork to him like this: I start by ‘creating a “problem” (on the paper or canvas or any surface) by making marks with paint or colour pencils, pastels and or other mixed art media, which I use as a starting point. (something I can react to) I then work, and ultimately, strive to create harmony and balance, and hopefully end up with something aesthetically pleasing .


In this process that I described above, after the first marks are applied, I proceed to solve problems (in the painting) by taking away certain elements (for instance marks, scratches and paint applications) and then adding certain elements again. Then these additions or deletions (new elements) disrupt the whole picture and I then solve that new disruption by taking away and adding marks. I continue this process over days (and weeks sometimes) until the composition works, this is; until I feel satisfied that I have achieved a point in the artwork that I can describe as something like balance, coherence and or harmony. I dont stop working until I find the answer and until the problem is solved. All artworks I make use this process, to a larger or lesser extent, but when you make an abstract artwork this method is employed in its purest form.


So for instance there is a big part of red, and there is a blue part on its right. The red part is too heavy for the rest of the painting , I then decide to add a lighter paint on the side of the red to reduce its heaviness. As a result the blue on the right hand is now too heavy, creating an imbalance, and I add or take away on that side and so on, but now the green is too bright in the right corner and I have to add or reduce to the green bit. til it is all in harmony. I maintain that some paintings puts up a hell of a fight and keeps putting up an argument and creating more and more challenges, others yield and resolve more easily, and still others go over the cliff and you have to start all over again. It is almost like they have personalities of their own (told you art was interesting)


So listening to me like this my hubby says, that the process that I was describing sounds like an iterative process, and then he casually explains this to me, and this is what he said:


The iterative process (think of the word iteration or reiteration) is the repetition of a process in order to generate an outcome . The sequence will approach some endpoint, each repetition of the process is a single iteration and the outcome of each iteration is then the starting point of the next iteration . So the iterative process is a simple series of steps that you repeat, tweaking and improving your product with every cycle.


This process in maths is used to do a calculation when you can't directly get to the answer, but you can work out how far you are from the answer. You change the inputs and run the calculation again, check to see if you are closer or further from the answer and based on this, adjust the input parameters. You then run the calculation again, adjusting the inputs by smaller amounts as you approach the answer.


So in other words when I make an artwork I don't know what I am looking for in the artwork, as far as I don't know the end result I want to get to. I work and adjust and give new inputs to test if I am further or closer to harmony and balance, and if I am further ( the painting looks worse) I take away (marks) and do another input (add marks). If I am closer to balance, I do more of that until I am finally happy with the whole. I make smaller and smaller adjustments as I get closer to the answer.


Do you now agree with me that art resemble maths in this respect?


Side note/ Tangent.


Working from chaos to order and knowing when to stop


This all adds neatly into the core truths of art making, and in my case in painting, when our painting lecturer used to say: “As an artist you need to know when (or where) to stop. {in your work} In other words, you need to know when you have reached the answer (harmony, balance, coherence). That, as a matter of interest, is always something I admire in other people's art, when I see that they stopped working at the right moment, or spotting the reverse, in less successful works, when you see an artwork that was overworked or you could say, “worked to death”.


The lecturer also said, “an artist works from chaos to order” You start off chaotic, with a lot of inputs (marks) and work it out until you have reached a satisfactory outcome, which is order. Think of it, if you reversed this process, try to imagine making an artwork, working from a “perfect” picture, completely formed, not a line out of place. It is not possible! You will never start. Which is why in learning to make art you need to let loose and play and not be afraid to allow yourself to “make mistakes'' as they are all mistakes. They are just marks. This is also why art making can be healing and therapeutic because it allows us to be free and intuitive and it teaches us to trust ourselves and to not judge ourselves too harshly and to have faith in our work. Working from chaos to order is the only way to go in art making. As an example, think of a potter making a pot, starting with a lump of clay and water and then shaping it and taking away and adding until a beautiful cup or bowl is made, perfectly honed and perfectly shaped. Chaos to order.


So there, I think I have shown you that there is a resemblance between art and math. That art is a matter of problem solving. The difference is, that there is no right answer, the answer is what you decide it should be, and also your hands get really dirty.

Photo of Kevin Douillez, Belgium

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