Our modern digital tools make manipulation of data fairly straightforward and it’s relatively simple to apply some abstract thinking and techniques in order to create something interesting. If we cast our minds back 100 years, the method of print production was based on mechanical techniques and though invented much earlier, the woodcut process saw a renaissance for fine art printing. With woodcut there wasn’t much room for error and it took a particularly skilled craftsmen to create cartographic products or, for that matter, any products. Prints made from woodcut that are based on geometrical patterns…and those with a positive and negative display are perhaps even rarer.
Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher is well known for his mathematically inspired woodcuts and lithographs. They often feature architecture or explorations of infinity and tesselations. Here, we show his Day and Night produced when he was age 40. It’s a woodcut in black and grey printed from two blocks and measuring some 68cm wide. It was one of his first prints to show the tesselated tile approach that incorporated an abstract positive and negative image. It lends itself perfectly to the display of a map image that represents the illuminated landscape in day and night in mirrored fashion. The white flock of birds flying above the ground merge with the daylight sky on the left and to the right, the black flock blends to create the night sky. The illusion also works top to bottom as the patchwork of agricultural fields morphs into the birds in the sky.
It’s a wonderful illustration not only of technique but also mastery of design and thought. The care required to get the illusion correct is of the very highest order. In some senses it also illustrates how one might have gone about creating thematic maps where different shades of monochrome were required (e.g. in a choropleth) since the patterns and differences between shades are perfectly balanced and easily distinguishable which is in part why his work is so well formed.
You can see much more of Escher’s work at the official site here. Well worth a look!