The Tessellations of Alain Nicolas
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:
inherent quality of the motif (silhouette and articulation)
the whole motif (excluding ‘heads’)
‘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
(9) ✓Finished rendering
Nicholas’ tessellations all ten of the ten desired attributes. It can be
done; there is (tessellation) life after Escher…!
(1) Recognisable in Silhouette
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
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.
Excludes ‘Breathing Room’ Tessellations
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.
The Number of Tessellations
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.
Variety of Motifs
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.
Challenging Motifs – Human Figures
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
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
(8) Contrasting Colouring of Tessellations
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Pleasing are the Lizards, pages 109, 110, of which although
somewhat alike to Escher in style, apparently break new ground, with innovative
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.
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.
he better than Escher? Can I say it… dare I say it, but yes. The examinations
below should show this:
better in the ‘silhouette test’ with Escher
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
variety of motifs with Escher, 32 against 32
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.
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
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