Not everyone knows what I’m talking about when I drag the word “homeomorphic” out in mixed company. Specifically to do with equality of shapes in differing chemicals, it’s not in the art books. But it’s a valuable creative concept. Without always knowing its name, homeomorphism is generally pointed out as a type of compositional problem. Typically in amateur work, it’s a lineup of equidistant trees, or a mountain that rises up conveniently in order to avoid colliding with a foreground element. It’s a natural tendency of the human mind to automatically organize things neatly and in a regular manner. You can probably see an example of architectural homeomorphism from where you sit — window panes are generally divided from one another by equidistant mullions.
Many artists instinctively fight it. Too much homeomorphism, unimaginatively used, gives a “ruler-regularity” that tends to make work boring. Nature’s not like that. Nature tends to be uneven, random, even chaotic. This means big against small, recession against protrusion, foreground against background, dark against light, warm against cool.
There’s a parallel in music. Music often depends on a regular and reliable rhythmic beat. But in a lot of jazz, reggae and stride piano for example, the beat is given on the off-note. Rather than conformation, there’s counterpoint. While providing a safe haven, homeomorphism tends to snuff natural dynamism and neutralize creative surprise.
But homeomorphism is also a valuable design device. It can add interest, mystery, magic and strength. Lineups, repetition, transfers, rhythm and spottification are some of the tools of abstraction. Free from nature’s reality, the creative eye can decide to “hold” a shape with another, or “confuse” by allowing a shape (or a line) to be drawn to another. Homeomorphism is one way to beguile the eye. The next time you’re dragging a brush and wondering where your stroke might end, remember that you have choices. Your stroke can go to something, veer away from something, fall short, overtake, or bump nicely into the middle of something. It’s an esoteric little business but it’s good to be aware that it exists.
PS: “I pay close attention to the variety of shapes and sizes, and place the objects so that the lines and edges create a rhythm that guides the viewer’s eye around the image and into the focal point.” (Sergei Forostovskii)
Esoterica: Homeomorphism comes from two Greek words homeos — identical, and morphe — shape. I fret about it every day and I’m willing to discuss it openly. Frankly, it drives me nuts. Some days I’m particularly homeomorphic and I just let go and it works to some advantage. One day my late friend Toni Onley remarked how he wallowed in it.
This letter was originally published as “Creative homeomorphism” on April 19, 2005. You can visit the original letter for descriptions of Homeomorphism in the watercolours of Toni Onley at the bottom of letter.
“Let’s find visual excitement in what nature has to offer.” (Toni Onley)
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