Alain Nicolas

The Tessellations of Alain Nicolas

Alain Nicolas’ tessellations are of a degree of magnitude above most other people in the field. On each of the ten determining aspects of ability and understanding of the issues he scores heavily, with criteria as listed in the introduction:

(1) The inherent quality of the motif (silhouette and articulation)
(2) Showing the whole motif (excluding ‘heads’)
(3) Excludes ‘breathing room’ tessellations
(4) The number of tessellations in the body of his work
(5) Variety of motifs
(6) A tendency to the more difficult to achieve motifs
(7) Coloured or shaded tessellations (excluding wireframes)
(8) Contrasting colouring of tessellations
(9) Finished rendering
(10) Borderline

Pleasingly, Nicholas’ tessellations all ten of the ten desired attributes. It can be done; there is (tessellation) life after Escher…!

In more detail:

(1)  Recognisable in Silhouette
Although not all of Nicolas’ tessellations are immediately recognisable in silhouette, for the most part these are indeed readily discernable. The articulation is quite superb, not just of individual motifs but in number as well. Indeed, only rarely can lower quality surface embellishment be seen.
    The aspect of recognisably of the motif, as seen in silhouette is fundamental to the premise of a quality tessellation. Lesser artists struggle with this concept (inexplicably so, given its simple premise), and fail to recognise its importance and unfortunately delude themselves as to equating interior life–like interior detail surface detail with a exterior outline that is articulated.

(2) Shows the Complete Motif  
Nicolas’ tessellations, with just two exceptions, are of a ‘complete’ motif (like Bailey, Bilney, Crompton, Escher, and Nakamura). As a premise, the ‘head’ only type is excluded, as this category is lacking in any challenge of worth, being all too easy. The exceptions here are shown with a specific aim in mind, namely of a recognisable portrait (of Escher), and an invertible head, and so examples of this type are indeed acceptable (in contrast to a generic head).
    Lesser artists frequently do not understand the difference between the two types, and undertake such ‘head’ only examples (on account of their less challenging aspect), and unfortunately delude themselves as to equating these with the more challenging whole body motif.

(3) Excludes ‘Breathing Room’ Tessellations
Nicolas’ tessellations essentially exclude the breathing room type, and are in nearly all instances of the ‘true’ type as defined by mathematicians, i.e. a tiling without spaces or overlaps. That said, he does on just two occasions employ what I term as ‘inconsequential’ breathing room, which to all extents and purposes is of the ‘no breathing room’ type. Examples of this include birds, pages 22 and 23. As such, I have no qualms about this whatsoever, and so these are thus regarded as a bona fide tessellation.
    Lesser artists frequently include ‘breathing room’ types (on account of their less challenging aspect), and unfortunately delude themselves as to equating these with the more challenging ‘true’ type.

(4) The Number of Tessellations
Unfortunately, it is not a straightforward task to determine the number of tessellations in his oeuvre, as not all are shown in the traditional manner, as a simple, straightforward plane tiling. For example, there exist of some of just a single motif, and some are used as in a composition/picture story without the source tessellation being shown, and some are shown as a dimorphic/trimorphic or more tessellation. However, it is still possible to give an approximate figure, namely 106. Of note is that his output is considerably higher than with most other artists. For comparison, Nakamura has 268, and Escher 137 numbered drawings, albeit both of these are padded somewhat, in contrast to Nicolas. Given such a relatively large number, one might expect that these would not all of the same highest quality. However, although the quality is occasionally questionable (such as flatfish (pages 68-69, 83, 95, 151, 170) and (dogs, page 168), in percentage terms the overwhelming majority show true worth, and so he is not simply producing average or poorer quality examples with the aim of just large numbers of tessellations primarily in mind.
    Typically, lesser artists will show a large number of inferior examples, and consider that such large numbers outweighs quality.

(5) Variety of Motifs
A pleasing aspect to these is the sheer variety of motif, which is again amongst the highest of other tessellation artist (albeit here he has more peers); with no less than 32 different motifs (Bilney has 39, Escher has 32). Frequently, these are of creatures not usually shown, including many of worth that even Escher did not attempt, such as Bucking broncos, Diver, Playing Cards, Octopuses, Gorillas, Goats, and Chess Knights.
    Lesser artists frequently shy away from undertaking such variety, showing simpler to achieve birds and fish to the exclusion of variety, and unfortunately delude themselves as to equating these with the more praiseworthy variety of motifs.

(6) Challenging Motifs – Human Figures
Prominent amongst Nicolas’ tessellations are human figures, despite the inherent difficulty of producing examples of true worth. Indeed, he shows no less than 11, of which although this is substantially much lower than Nakamura’s 70 (which to some extent is padded by inferior examples, such as unnatural ‘bendy’ arms, arms without hands), these are nearly of all inherent high quality throughout. When compared to Escher's paltry 4, this is worthy of the utmost praise.
    As such, the impression given by this is that human figures are ‘easy’, on account of their relative frequency here. However, this is to the contrary, as these are amongst the most difficult motifs to achieve. As such, he must be purposefully striving for such motifs, of which aside from the challenging aspect appeal on the human interest level.
    Lesser artists frequently shy away from such examples (on account of their challenging aspect), or when shown are best described as mutants, with disjoint elements, such overly long arms or legs, or anatomical inconsistencies, preferring the simpler to achieve birds and fish.

(7) Coloured or Shaded Tessellations
Due to the presentation of the tessellations, as detailed above, not all of these examples are suitable for colouration. However, where these are indeed found suitable, these are all shown coloured (like Bailey, Bilney, Crompton, Escher, and Nakamura). Although there are indeed the not favoured ‘wireframe’ type shown, this was simply to explain a point. Intrinsically, the premise is of coloured tessellations.
    Lesser artists frequently show wireframe examples, for no good reason (from which one can only conclude is that they do not understand the issues).

(8) Contrasting Colouring of Tessellations
Nicolas’ tessellations as a premise are coloured in contrasting colours. Although overwhelmingly his tessellations show contrast, on a few occasions there is the odd exception to this feature. For example, Frogs, page 88, Heads, page 89, where rather than colouring in a artificial way, such as with red, blue, yellow etc, he chooses to have contiguous colouring. Likely, he has decided to use this for the sake of a more natural presentation, of which such instances are justified.
    At first glance, the human figure diver tessellation, page 84, may appear to be of no contrast, but this has subtleties of flesh colour, of darker and lighter regions, where rather than colouring in an artificial way, such as with red, blue, yellow etc, he chooses to have contiguous flesh colouring. Likely, he has decided to use this for the sake of a more natural presentation, of which such instances are justified.

(9) Finished Rendering
Nicolas’ style, as regards finish, is of a consistent manner throughout, favouring a degree of detail level as espoused by Escher. These are all computer rendered (rather than hand drawn), to a very pleasing, high quality standard. As such, he strikes the ideal balance between too simple (although this has its strengths) and too detailed. As a rule, generally a simplistic finish is to be preferred (as here), as too much detail hinders a clear interpretation of the motif.
    Lesser artists sometimes render the motifs in too much detail, believing this to be superior to a more simplistic rendering.

(10) Borderline
Nicolas generally adds a decided borderline, but does, on occasions, have lines of unit thickness. Generally, strong colours are used that don’t strictly require a borderline. Even so, even in such instances, he nonetheless uses this feature.
    However, the omission of a borderline cannot be said to be a fault as such, in that the inclusion or exclusion is down to personal choice, depending on the circumstances of the tessellation. Undoubtedly, this is secondary to the tessellation itself, and so of less importance to other, more fundamental issues, as detailed above.
    Lesser artists invariably omit this feature, not understanding the reasons for its general desirability, namely that of aid in discerning the motifs.

General Comments:

Nicolas, in contrast to most other tessellators, has many tessellations of good or excellent quality that are deserving of the utmost praise. The all-important aspect of being recognisable in silhouette extends to mostly his entire work. Indeed, very few fail this test. Not only are these recognisable is silhouette, but their articulation is invariably very good indeed. In particular, his human figurers are very good. Furthermore, his motifs do not have just the single, most typical viewpoint, but strike different poses (typically of an ‘action’ pose, such as leaping), all the while retaining their inherent quality. Note that many have true articulation, in that the head, body, arms (and ideally hands), and legs (and ideally feet) are readily discernable. Contrast this with other people’s human figures which lack this, which are generally wholly surface embellishment.
    Many of his two-motif tessellations are of a themed nature, in that the motifs have a natural confluence to each other, as in a bucking bronco with cowboy, a magician and rabbit. Likely, he must be striving for such confluences. In contrast, other tessellators have enough trouble coming up with any two motifs, never mind with confluences. Inferior artists often have to accept their motifs with disjoint features that bear no relation to the motif e.g. a dog carrying a box on its back, which obviously lacks any unifying feature. A feature throughout is a natural confluence of the individual motifs, with the motifs possessing all the elements or accoutrements (e.g. human-like, such as a singer with guitar, or a karate player adopting a karate-like pose in a karate suit. Again, such attention to what might at first thought be petty detail simply adds to the inherent quality of the tessellation. Say if a hand can be articulated, then make it so, rather than just surface embellishment, as favoured by lesser artists.
    Although nearly all are of a high standard, some are worth singling out in particular, of which I detail below:
    A highlight, described as a superlative, is that of the Cowboy and Horse, of a ‘bucking bronco’ pose, of which he includes no less than two different types, pages 80-81. As a concept, such a pose is fraught with difficulty to accomplish to a satisfactory degree, of which, whilst these are slightly compromised in places, they nonetheless remain of the highest standards of the art. Note the innovation of Bucking Bronco 2, page 81, where the cowboy has lost his hat, this serving to define the space between the horses’ neck and legs. This is most innovative and impressive.


Rodeo 1                                                                          Rodeo 2

Very good are his human figures. The articulation on the examples below is most impressive. A superlative is the Diving Girl, page 84. The verisimilitude here is quite superb, and is worthy of the highest praise.

Diving Girl

Of note is the Running Men, page 74, Fraternity, page 18. Note how each element of the figure is articulated here, down to the hands and feet. Other examples are also pleasing, such as the Karate Man, page 17.


Examples of rarely seen motifs, such as Gorillas, page 33, Octopuses, page 29 are very good, albeit these somewhat pale in comparison to his superlatives.
    The Escher portrait, page 40, is very pleasing, the quality here is obvious. Although as a rule head tessellations are to be frowned upon, where a recognisable portrait is undertaken, as here, then such examples are of undoubted worth.
    Pleasing are the Lizards, pages 109, 110, of which although somewhat alike to Escher in style, apparently break new ground, with innovative subdivisions.
    Further to his animal motifs, he includes the odd non-animate tessellation. Indeed Nicolas breaks new ground, including a playing card tessellation, page 28. Also excellent is the Chess Knight piece, page 85.

However, although I am overwhelmingly positive on Nicolas’ tessellations, this is not to say that his don’t have some shortcomings. However, ‘shortcomings’ here are in relative terms, as many people would be more than happy to compose anything like his ‘inferior’ examples.
    In particular, I don’t find, for the greater part, favour with the ‘flatfish’ type, pages 68-69, 83, 95, 151, 170, these being somewhat reminiscent of Escher in style, further compounded in that as a category such examples are essentially to be ignored, on account of their atypical fish-like appearance, as well as their generally formless nature.
    I have concerns of the various dogs which seem a little contrived, pages 33, 168-169 and 178-179, albeit here concession seems to have been made to n-morphic tessellations of pages 168-169, 178-179.
    The lizards, pages 95, 109-112, 163 are somewhat alike in style to Escher’s, although I have less concerns here than with the flatfish type, as originality is indeed shown.
    Aside from the relative shortcomings above though, I can find very little to fault here. Indeed, one could be accused of cavilling with the above comments – most other artists would be more than pleased with some of the examples here.

Escher Comparison
Is he better than Escher? Can I say it… dare I say it, but yes. The examinations below should show this:
Slightly better in the ‘silhouette test’ with Escher
Roughly equal numbers of tessellations with Escher (Escher’s 137 being padded to some extent, whilst Nicolas’ 106 are not), of generally comparable quality, indeed if not better
Equal variety of motifs with Escher, 32 against 32
More challenging motifs (i.e. human figures) than Escher, 11 against 4
    Admittedly, Escher was, to all intents and purposes, the first tessellator (negating Koloman Moser’s examples), and so all the kudos of inventing/discovering a new type of art from is worthy of the utmost praise. Indeed, without Escher, how many people, including Nicolas, would have the wit and invention to do this? Probably none. Therefore, Escher stands alone here. However, that said, why should the person who makes the breakthrough in a certain field be regarded as having the field to himself, with other people’s contributions neglected or ignored? As Escher himself stated, he himself opened the garden gate of tessellation, and wandered around.  Other people of a like mind have now followed him through, some, but not many, with innovations of their own to contribute. Escher did not do everything.

Nicholas is a very good, if not superb tessellator, and certainly one of the finest, with his tessellations occasionally being of a superlative nature, for example the two bucking bronco’s and the girl diver. Even when not, then these are still generally of a higher quality than with other people. As detailed above, he understands the various issues underpinning the composing of inherent quality of tessellations. Furthermore, he introduces some innovations of his own, such as with the bucking bronco and subdivision of lizards. Also, he shows motifs of a high quality that are difficult to achieve (human figures), as well as rarely seen inanimate ones (playing card and knight chess piece). Although he shows perhaps more bird motifs (that lack challenge) than I would like, this was in conjunction with specific symmetry types, and so one should not be unduly critical here.
    That said, although he is of the same 10/10 assessment as with Nakamura, I do not place him as quite of the same standard. Simply stated, Nakamura outscores him, by greater numbers of comparable quality. More superlatives, more different motifs, more human figures.

Last Updated: 26 June 2010. Illustrated: 20 October 2010