Reinout Engel is a Belgium based artist who explores the fabric of Islamic geometry. Driven by the desire to absorb as much associated knowledge as possible he aims at interweaving construction and pattern into one readable design. He works in both 2D and 3D, on paper, and in wood. A large quantity of his work is purely experimental and part of a journey of becoming through practice.
How did you develop an interest in Islamic art and geometry? Did you always want to be an artist?
I Used to be a pyrography artist. With pyrography you burn a design into wood with a hot pen. In search for ways to liven up my designs I came across Islamic geometric patterns. I started to integrate them into my work, but after a while I felt the desire to start looking into the correlation between the different patterns, their symmetry groups and the religion and its history. From there it sort of spiralled. I could never have imagined that the mere intention of looking for inspiration in regards to my own art work would have such a profound effect on my life.
In regards to the second part of your question, I did always want to be an artist. My father had a career in restoring antiques so at a very early age I spent a lot of time in a creative environment. I wasn’t a very good student in high school, so I changed schools a few times but I always chose creative classes like arts or glass techniques. After high school I also had schooling as a carpenter and I spent periods working with my father. So yes, the creative element has always been a part of my natural habitat.
How did you train in the art of geometry and Islamic pattern?
I started with what I could find online, which at the time wasn’t a whole lot. I spent a lot of time doing Mohamad Aljanabi’s tutorials. I find today there’s a lot more to be found online. Samira Mian’s YouTube channel has a tonne of great stuff for all capabilities. She was also one of my tutors at Alqueria de Rosales in Spain in 2019, alongside Daud Sutton, Ameet Hindocha, Alan Adams and Rajen Astho. It was them who taught me the ground principles of the art form and gave me my first coherent overall view of this vast realm of line, form and balance. I am going back there this summer.
But in terms of the actual training, I think practise is the most important thing. Do as much drawings as you can, preferably by hand. I literally did hundreds of drawings, one after the other. That was when I still had the delusional idea that I could actually draw every pattern there was. But I also have been struggling with mental health issues, and drawing has been a significant part of my healing process. And that worked both ways. Drawing gave me the escape I needed, but after time I also became more motivated to deal with my demons because they were in the way of the cognitive capabilities I needed to gain a better understanding of the geometry behind the patterns.
And I’m a compass and ruler guy. You learn a lot more about geometry when you perform the actual deed of drawing than when you use software. Although software is a useful tool when you understand the geometry and you want to experiment, do quick try-outs or check if the geometry is solid. But the handling of tools like ruler, compass, dividers, set square and protractors gives you a direct link with the thousands of craftsmen and women that have used them over the centuries. Their joint efforts to develop what we perceive as Islamic geometry are the foundations on which we build its future.
Where do you find inspiration to create your works?
I have folders with hundreds of drawings I made, categorised by their symmetry families, that I like to browse through, and I’ve always had a thing for technical plans and blueprints. That’s something that reflects in my work along with the drive to share my love for symmetry and geometry. It’s also one of the reasons why I’ve been doing a lot of analytical drawings, showing the construction behind the pattern. But maybe my work is more a consequence of drive than a linear process of inspiration and result. I’m a very emotional person and I let emotion take me in its wake.
How do you create your colour compositions?
Colour is the most difficult thing to decide on for me. My earliest paintings were bistre paintings. Bistre is a dye most often used for colouring wood but you can also use it for painting. It’s made from the soot of burnt nut shells and produces a range of very organic brownish hues. And it has a very deep and rich burgundy that goes extremely well with gold. I like all colours that have that organic feel to them. In watercolour I often use burnt sienna, perylene maroon, ochres of all kinds, turquoises, Prussian blue, Payne’s grey...etc. But finding the right balance between them I find very difficult. I’m not a very accomplished watercolour artist and I only occasionally paint but I do enjoy it. Looking at other artists’ work can sometimes help me.
Which artists inspire you?
In terms of Islamic art, I very often look at Ameet Hindocha’s work. His versatility and broad scope inspire me to broaden my own, and his relentless search for new applications for Islamic geometry and angles of looking at it are a constant reminder for me of how endless the possibilities are. In connection to these endless possibilities, I feel very strongly about over-specialisation. We live in an era where we have lost that broad scope as it is counterproductive in respect to production and financial profit. My father, restoring antiques, had to have that same scope, because restoration involves carpentry, but also metal working, lock smithing, painting, chemistry, ...etc. So, he too was definitely instrumental to my development as an artist.
Of all your works to date, which has been the most challenging to create?
I spent some time trying to unravel the secrets of muqarnas vaulting. After having had an introductory class by Joachim Tantau at the 2020 Summer Geometry Symposium from The Prince’s Foundation School for Traditional Arts, I just had to find out more about them. I did manage to produce a series of different cells, which involved building a belt sander especially for the curving I needed. But although the oaken cells I produced were good enough for trying out different muqarnas compositions, they lacked the accuracy to produce an actual unit. It taught me a lot about exactly how skilled traditional woodworkers must have been and how accurate their work was. Interestingly, the high quality Islamic traditional craftmanship we all know and admire has often been the result of (over-)specialisation, as the production processes were based on countless manual labourers that each perfected their own small task to the highest possible standard. I do however plan to go back to that project and hope to reach some sort of satisfactory conclusion.
Can you share your creative process?
That’s a tough one. My creative process is a very organic one, mainly driven by the urge to create. I surround myself with the materials and examples of possible roads to travel and just see where they take me. As said, there’s no linear path between inspiration and result for me, just heart, mind and passion.
What advice would you give to an aspiring artist?
The same as I always give my children: ‘Let passion be your drive’. Anything you do with passion, you do best. Try as many different things and techniques as you can. Experiment leads to the best inventions and revelations. Look at other artists work for inspiration but don’t try to become them. You are an individual entity with the potential of becoming something the world has never seen. Aspire to develop that potential according to your own values and philosophies and there will be no limits to what you can accomplish.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep the tradition alive?
I think Islamic art has a bright future ahead of it. The passion with which I see people passionately engage with it across the globe is the best insurance for its continuation. And new technologies and applications create a vast universe of potential yet to be explored. But I also think we have to look at Islamic art and the traditional crafts that embody them in terms of where, geographically, they are practised. On the one hand there is a growing number of geometry aficionados with a more specific interest in Islamic geometry and associated subjects in countries where people have the opportunities to develop their skills in the arts and, on the other hand, there are the countries of the art form’s origin, where people often don’t have the financial security they need to develop these skills. In that respect the work of (among others), The Prince’s Foundation School for Traditional Arts’ program to teach traditional practises in those countries is invaluable. An essential part of keeping Islamic arts alive is also about protecting its tangible heritage. Initiatives like the Khalili Collections play an important educational role there, as well as protecting and restoring surviving artefacts and architecture. There is no future for Islamic art when it has no past.
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