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(all images copyright: MJ Forster)
MJ Forster is a UK-based artist who works in watercolour. He says, of his decision to pursue art: ‘Some of my earliest memories are of drawing and painting, although I had no concept of what two or three dimensions meant aged 5, I was fascinated by how with just a pencil and paper these illusions appeared. Now aged 38 and very aware of what three dimensions are it’s still a magical moment when this reality appears on the paper. That is why I paint, for that moment.’
His latest series of paintings seem inherently mathematical; but just how explicit is the mathematics in his art, and how does he feel about the subject? As part of our new Intersections series, looking at intersections between mathematics and professional identities, we interviewed him about the role of maths in his work and its place in the curriculum.
How would you characterise your current work?
My current watercolours are developing ideas about colour, particularly simultaneous contrast. Essentially I’m trying to place colour opposites against each other using various patterns loosely based on cubes and latterly hexagons. The aim being to produce a painting that actually shimmers – vibrates optically as the brain tries to process the opposing colours and fails to do so.
How do you feel about maths?
I was never particularly gripped by maths at school. Perhaps that was simply a reflection of the curriculum. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy maths although I certainly make no claim to be any good at it. However my interest has steadily increased throughout my artistic career as I’ve seen its possible applications within painting. I’ve always been keen to explore any concepts, particularly patterns. These occur a lot in nature, the Fibonacci sequence being perhaps the most obvious in relation to art, nature and composition. So what excite me are the ways a sequence or a simple idea can be visually represented and the seemingly endless variables.
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
Essentially the mixing of my paint has an element of numeracy. I think of myself not as a watercolourist but as a sediment distributor. So I’m working out ways of mixing paints together in different quantities and densities with water and spreading them out to create a visual illusion. While this is more intuitive with some of my more traditional work, it has to be more structured when applied to this colour contrast work. So in my head I’m always aware of the content of my mixes as they can be stretched or compressed as I move from one colour to another.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy when practically creating your work? What tools do you use to help you?
A lot of the numeracy involved is very basic, simple times tables or division. The only tools I need aside from the paint and a brush is an accurate ruler, a right angle and a sharp pencil. However when I’m exploring patterns I often use square or isometric paper to look at options and explore possibilities.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
I think it can be enormously creative to link a formula of numbers into a visual image. It’s hugely rewarding especially when you can tweak and stretch the essential idea. I’m currently looking at how the ratio of one colour against another can have a stronger visual effect with certain colour opposites. I’m doing this by using concepts of ratio to create various colour combinations.
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
Pythagoras was something that I did remember from school, however I’m finding it easy enough; it’s also quite interesting to look at sequential patterns. I’ve always explored the relationship with the circle and the hexagon which obviously has elements of Euclid.
How would you change the mathematics or art curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
I think as with most areas of education there needs to be a link to application. Of course, maths influences virtually everything we do and this needs to be demonstrated across a wider range of the curriculum. Music and sport are obvious examples.
The relationship of art to mathematics could have so many applications. For example with young children you could simply take a colour wheel and relate it to numbers: e.g. 3, primary, and 6 by adding tertiary and so on.
I tend to visualise a colour wheel by associating a colour with a time. It’s easy to visualise, recall and relate colour relationships in this way. So you could teach kids to tell the time, yellow 12 o’clock, and purple 6 and so on.
On a more advanced level, say GCSE, taking my example of Fibonacci and the golden ratio would be an obvious and simple starting point for link. It could bring in history, science and literature as well – just think of Da Vinci.
More information on MJ Forster’s work is available here