The Tessellations of John Osborn
John Osborn’s tessellations are of a degree of magnitude below the leading lights in the field, and in terms of ability I put him as a ‘middling’ rating, neither particularly bad nor poor. Unfortunately, a drawback in assessing Osborn’s total oeuvre is that rather than showing a straightforward tessellation, he incorporates most of these as ‘picture stories’, albeit with the premise of tessellation still being to the fore (this being in contrast to Escher’s ‘picture stories’, which are of a different nature). Rather than artificially distorting his oeuvre by being selective, as there is enough of the tessellation to be seen, I thus simply here accept these as bona fide tessellations.
On five of the ten determining aspects of ability and understanding of the issues he scores heavily, with criteria as listed in the introduction:
(1) X The inherent quality of the motif (silhouette)
(2) ✓ Showing the whole motif (excluding ‘heads’)
(3) X Excludes ‘breathing’ or ‘wriggle’ 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) X Map colouring of tessellations
(9) X Degree of finished rendering
(10) X Borderline
In more detail:
(1) Recognisable in Silhouette
The aspect of recognisably of the motif, as seen in silhouette, and furthermore of articulation, is fundamental to the premise of a quality tessellation. I am in somewhat of two minds as to the recognisable element as regards acceptance here. Most are not recognisable, being surface embellishment. Although some are indeed immediately recognisable, these are few and far between, and are not to a ratio that I believe is acceptable, and so I fail him here.
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 with a recognisable exterior outline.
(2) Shows the Complete Motif
Osborn’s tessellations are in all instances of a ‘complete’, whole body motif (like Bailey, Bilney, Crompton, Escher, Nakamura, and Nicolas). The ‘head’ only type per se is excluded, as this category is lacking in any challenge of worth, being all too easy. Note that although a head ‘type’ is indeed shown, as this is a skull (and so is not generic), this is permissible.
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/Wriggle Room’ Tessellations
Firstly, for ease of reference I restrict the discussion to those from his ‘Big Gallery’, of 69 tessellations.
Unfortunately, Osborn does not favour the ‘pure’ type of tessellation, including many examples that vary from minimal breathing room to vast, open spaces. Furthermore, this is not just the odd one or two, but large numbers that make up a significant proportion of his work, much more so that with other people who use a like approach. Indeed, he shows no less than approximately 28 tessellations of this type, to greater or lesser degrees, out of a total of 69 works. Such a ratio in percentage terms (42%) is simply unacceptable. Such usage is a sign of the struggle the artist has had with the tessellation, and in effect gives up on it.
Furthermore, the predilection for examples of this type is made even more extraordinarily, in that on the home page Osborn states:
Figurative tiles have a "figure", or a recognizable outline, and they fit together without gaps or overlaps as jigsaw puzzle pieces do.
Bizarrely, he then completely disregards this for no less than 42% of his tessellations!
(4) The Number of Tessellations
Osborn shows many examples, not all of which are easily described, with different categories, and with crossovers, where the tessellations are repeated. However, these crossovers are few in number, of no consequence. For ease of discussion, I restrict the analysis to the ‘Big Gallery’ and ‘Penrose Gallery’, for now at least. The Big Gallery has 69 examples, whilst the Penrose Gallery has 8, which is well above the arbitrary benchmark figure of 50 and above as regards a desirable number. Escher (137) and Nakamura (268) show considerably more. Given such a reasonably high number, one might expect that these would not all of the same highest quality, which does indeed occur here. Many of these are simply of an unacceptable standard, where quantity overrides quality.
Typically, lesser artists will show a large number of inferior examples, and consider that such large numbers outweighs quality.
(5) Variety of Motifs
Osborn shows 36 different motifs, which is comparable to the leading lights, Bilney (39), Escher (32) and Nakamura (39). Pleasingly, he does at least show different motifs to the norm, but these are let down by the quality. Again, variety does not overall quality. A single common bird motif, executed to perfection, is worth more than a multitude of indistinct motifs.
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
The more challenging and interesting human figure is quite prominent, with 11 examples, in various forms, and so he seems to understand the issues of the desirability of their inclusion. However, many lack inherent quality, and these are very far below most people. Furthermore, this is diluted by the motif frequently appearing with other creatures, such a horse. Furthermore, on some of these the human figure is entirely just surface embellishment. However, he does have the occasional success in relative terms, such as with Lady Godiva, but even this has breathing room. However, many other examples of a challenging motif can be seen, and so he scores relatively heavily here, despite the at times questionable worth. However, without more inherent quality human-like figures, I fail his tessellations in this category.
Generally artists, for other reasons than the desire not to repeat themselves, shy away from such challenging motif examples (on account of their degree of difficulty).
(7) Coloured or Shaded Tessellations
All (or nearly so) of Osborn’s tessellations are shown coloured (like Bailey, Bilney, Escher, Nakamura, and Nicolas). Although there is the odd exception, this is for reasons of aesthetics, and so this is acceptable, such as Skulls, where these would look absurd in any other colour than grey. No inferior wireframe examples are shown.
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) Map Colouring of Tessellations
Of note and concern is the seemingly ad hoc colouring of Osborn’s tessellations. Here we have an approximately 50/50 split between non- and map-coloured examples. This is way too high in percentage terms to be acceptable. Although on occasions such colouring is permissible (and indeed is ideal) for reasons of aesthetics (for example Santas), as a general policy it is to be frowned upon, if not abhorred, if used with abandon as here. Therefore, I fail his tessellations in this regard.
Lesser artists frequently disregard this aspect, for no good reason (from which one can only conclude is that they do not understand the issues). Perhaps surprisingly, of note is that other leading tessellators, such as Nakamura and Bilney also disregard this aspect on more occasions than I would like, but not to this alarming degree.
(9) Finished Rendering
Osborn’s style, as regards finish, is of a consistent approach, with very little variety. This should not be thought to be a criticism per se, as it is likely he has developed a favoured style. Frequent use is made of coloured pencil, with a generally light touch. However, I am not overly enthused as to his use of this medium. Frequently, the motifs are inconvenient to view, in that the eye struggles to discern the motifs at-a-glance. Generally, he uses multiple colours, with three-dimensional shading, (albeit not a photorealistic rendering), likely for a better, more ‘realistic’ life-like appearance, rather than the single ‘strong’ colours that I prefer. As a rule, generally a simplistic finish is to be preferred, as too much detail hinders a clear interpretation of the motif. Arguably, Osborn has too many conflicting colours in his work.
Lesser artists frequently disregard this aspect, with a rendering that is too real, that although well intentioned, is to the overall detriment of identifying the motif/s of the tessellation.
Osborn declines, for the greater part, to use a decided borderline, of which such an omission, in this instance, with many motifs being gaily coloured, is a decided detriment, as the eye struggles to discern the motifs at-a-glance. This is all the more important as he does not use ‘strong’ colouring, which would negate this aspect.
Mostly, his tessellations have what I term as an ‘incidental’ borderline, of which although this is discernable, is negligible, on account of its essentially hair-like nature that is not an intrinsic feature of the tessellation.
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.
A pleasing feature of Osborn’s tessellations is a concern with variety, as he includes many different subjects, much more so than with his contemporaries. However, this is, I consider, somewhat at the cost of quality, as this aspect is generally lacking. Such variety should not be at the cost of quality. Likewise is the sheer number of tilings, albeit again, this is at the cost of quality.
Another pleasing feature is a preoccupation with more ‘advanced’ tiles, as devised by mathematicians, such as with the Penrose tilings, and variable tilings, such as Grünbaum and Shepherd’s Dimorphic tiling (albeit unaccredited), which one could just about overlook, but when he then shamefully claims these for ownership, with my blue red, and yellow fish goes against the grain). However, as a rule the quality of these is lacking.
Nonetheless, of the Penrose types, Snails is quite respectable (albeit not readily discernible, at least at first glance).
A feature of his works is that he has made some of his examples as physical tiles, in the form of ceramics, of which such a premise is worthy. However, this is very much outside the core value of the tessellation itself, and as such has no bearing on evaluating his oeuvre.
Although I mostly critical of his tessellations, there are the occasional example that is of relative worth. Landscape in a Birds and Dog (although the confluence has no obvious linkage), Lady Godiva (albeit with minor breathing room), Santas (although this is entirely surface embellishment, with no articulation whatsoever, but of its type is excellent, with all the accompanying accoutrements of Santa), Stooping Eagles (which would benefit from a borderline), Hemipterans (albeit with minor breathing room), but these successes are very few and far between.
One pleasing innovative aspect concerns Green and Orange Frogs, where the typical appearance of a frogs’ foot is portrayed, albeit stylized, which is in contrast to most tessellators, where they simply simplify the foot, more or less as a paddle.
Of the Penrose types, Snails is quite respectable (albeit not readily discernible, at least at first glance. Indeed, at first glance, due to the colouring, it appears to one of lower worth ‘breathing room’ types. A simple outlining would eradicate such interpretations.
Pleasingly, many different motifs are shown, albeit these are mostly let down by the quality.
The main concern I have with Osborn’s tessellations is his considerable use of ‘breathing space’. Indeed, he employs this device no less than 28 times, to greater or lesser degrees. This is far more so than with other tessellators who also employ this device, such as Bruce Bilney, who uses this more sparingly, and furthermore minimally. Furthermore, although I may be able to turn a blind eye to those of a broadly minimal nature, many examples are, in relative terms, of vast, open spaces, such as Dancers, Teen Centaur and Friend. These are good as ‘symmetry drawings’, but they are not tessellations! Far too much reliance is placed on these, all without qualifications; with the casual impression given is that these are of the same worth as a ‘true’ tessellation. Disappointingly, no concession is made to this in his writings. All that would be required would be a simple statement, such as ‘I used artistic license here with …’, but no. An interesting quote of Osborn’s (Moths at Flowers) shows his preference:
I kind of like these looser tilings that give the critters breathing room.
Yes, I’m not surprised! Such examples are all too easy to do, hence the preference for such examples over the more challenging type, of a tile with a double contour line throughout. Contrast this with the work of other leading tessellators, Bailey, Crompton, Escher, Nakamura, and Nicolas. In total, how many do we show of these types? 50, 40, 30, 20, 10? No, just one (Escher), with the implication being that these are inherently beneath our dignity.
I also have considerable concerns over the issue of quality. Although it is possible to overlook the odd one or two poor quality tessellations in one’s oeuvre, when this rises significantly above a certain number or percentage then alarm bells should be set ringing. As such, I consider his work is padded to a greater extent. Of his tessellations, particularly poor is Planarians, a formless shape inexplicably given ‘breathing’ room. Gold and Blue Butterflies is just surface embellishment. Ghosts is nothing more than a whimsy. Joy in the Park has ‘monsters’ of a child-like drawing nature, to give a few. Possibly, some of these were included to simply boost numbers, but numbers alone does not outweigh even a single example of true worth.
I have trouble discerning far too many. Indeed, many examples, especially when multi coloured, are in need of as borderline, such as Big Eared Bats! Gold Fish to Gold Birds, Demons, Kneeling Courtier, Daedalus and Icarus, to give a few. To detail a representative of this type, I’ll discuss Luna Moths. The initial impression is of a hexagon, but this is not so, as a butterfly is ‘lurking’ here, but is not readily seen - why not simply add a borderline, so making the motif more obvious as a courtesy to the viewer? Why must the viewer continuously struggle to see what’s what? Although a decided borderline, in relative terms, is used occasionally, far too often the tessellations are let down by this omission.
Furthermore, various unjustified, inflated and false claims are made in different ways:
1. Concerning the number of tessellations shown, Osborn claims on his home page that he has ‘approximately 260’, which if true (and of inherent quality), would indeed be an impressive total and worthy of the utmost praise. However, this figure includes many that are simply minor variations of a single tessellation. For example Ozbirds (variable section) where upon one ‘configuration’ being shown, a few birds are then moved to make eight new ‘configuration’, and this is then somehow claimed as worthy of being described as of distinct tilings! A like situation arises for Orange, Yellow, and Black Ghosts, (Variable Sections 1 and 2) with five configurations.
2. A somewhat alike situation occurs with Blue, Red, and Yellow Fish, which are simply of different colourings, again claimed as ‘distincts’. Further to the Blue, Red, and Yellow Fish, these are not even of his own devising as would otherwise appear. These tiles (but not fish motif) have been taken from Tilings and Patterns by Grünbaum and Shepherd, page 48. Although one could just about overlook a credit here, he blatantly and shamefully claims these for ownership, with ‘my blue, red, and yellow fish’ (italics are my own) which goes against the grain. A like situation probably arises for his (?) ‘variably assemblable (sic) figurative tiles’ Bats and Lizards and Busy Beetles.
3. Some examples are repeated, in that they are in different sections, The Birth of Zen, and Monks Crossing River, albeit admittedly these are few and far between.
4. Identical tessellations show minor variations of support, in that they are on different materials, such as slate and paper, such Ghost and Owls (Section 4, Nos. 24 and 27) Dancers (Section 2, No. 11 and Section 5, No. 49), and Monks Crossing River (Section 5, No. 66, Penrose Tilings, Nos. 5 and 6)
5. Some ‘tessellations’ (excluding the breathing room types) are not even a tessellation e.g. Blue Bird Demo (20), Hora (67).
Strictly, when his oeuvre is considered as of distinct tessellations, with the above repeats and queries omitted, the figure of 260 distincts proudly proclaimed on the home page is quite plainly ridiculous. More accurately is 85. Indeed, one could reduce this even further, and omit the ‘breathing room’ type, which is not strictly a tessellation. Indeed, no less than 42 are of this type. To be generous, I will omit only the most obvious examples, which total 14. Therefore, when stripped away of the above, a truer total of his oeuvre is 71. Therefore, certainly, this number is still impressive (and indeed, far higher than with most other people), but not by any stretch of the imagination can these be assessed as high as 260.
A major concern I have is that he declines to credit the source of Blue, Red, and Yellow Fish (by Grünbaum and Shephard) with the impression given that this is of his own devising, which it is plainly not, as detailed above. This shortcoming is made even worse by the request on his home page ‘… but please attribute all to John A. L. Osborn’. A blatant false claim as to ownership, and so he fails to reciprocate the same courtesy he asks of others.
Claims are made for the inventiveness of his ‘variably assemblable (sic) figurative tiles’, of which the above does not fill me with confidence, of which by which the sharp, if not downright fraudulent practises as above cast considerable doubts as to originality here. More than likely, these are derived from other sources, as with ‘his’ Blue, Red, and Yellow Fish.
In general, I’m not too impressed by his rendering, as they are in a nether land between simplicity and complexity.
By such inclusions as above, he thus shows a lack of understanding of the issues.
Osborn is what I term as a ‘middling’ tessellator, nether particularly good, nor bad. Unquestionable, he lacks the quality of Bailey, Bilney, Crompton, Escher, Nakamura, and Nicolas. Indeed, he is below his fellow enthusiast of ‘breathing room’, Bilney. Aside for the breathing room issue, sheer variety and number do not outweigh tessellations of inherent quality. However, this is not to say that his work is entirely worthless, as he is very far from the opposite side of the spectrum, as with Jinny Beyer. There is indeed the odd example of true worth, but this is masked somewhat by the inferior types permeating throughout his work. As detailed above, he only semi understands the various issues underpinning the composing of inherent quality of tessellations.
Osborn’s tessellations possess five of the ten desired attributes. Although high, this is not as ideal as I would like. Although most of his tessellations pass the above criteria tests, these are of a markedly lower degree of quality as when compared to the leading lights.
Is he better than Escher? I’d put him below Escher, noticeably so. The examinations below should show this:
Less acceptable examples in the ‘silhouette test’ with Escher. No figures given.
Less number of tessellations than Escher, broadly of lower comparable quality, 71 against 137 (albeit both Escher’s and Osborn’s are padded somewhat by unacceptable examples)
Rough parity of variety of motifs with Escher, 36 against 32
More challenging motifs (i.e. human figures) than Escher, 11 against 4 (albeit many of Osborn’s are lacking in quality, with high numbers per se)
Created: 13 May 2010. Revised and enlarged: 14 June 2010