M.C. Escher’s eldest son, George A. Escher, on the working habits of his father:
M.C. Escher, my father, had his studio at home. His activities were integral parts of our family life and in consequence his personality and his work became blended with my memories of youth.
When I try to recognize specific traits connecting his character with his work, two aspects stand out: his organized, disciplined nature and his love for the craft of the woodcut.
Throughout his life father kept regular working hours, starting in the morning between eight and nine o’clock, and ending between four and five in the afternoon. One seldom had the impression that he forced himself to work; on the contrary, stopping in the evening was sometimes an effort.
This discipline gave stability to father’s life, and the nature of his occupation, alternating between mental effort and periods of more relaxed woodcutting or lithography, kept him from staleness or boredom.
During the German occupation, a period of heavy stress, there were times when he could not find the peace of mind for creative thinking. He then sought solace in simple handwork. Slowly and lovingly he sculpted and polished wooden spheres covered with repeating fishes, angels and devils, or grotesque figures. This was a time-consuming task, demanding concentration and manual skill but little thought. After the war he never resorted to this type of activity.
The creation of a new print followed a recurrent pattern, the stages of which varied in length depending on father’s enthusiasm or on the difficulties he was encountering.
A new concept could take months, sometimes years of incubation before it led to a print. It could show up for the first time at breakfast, when father would start talking excitedly about a marvelous idea which had appeared crystal-clear when he had woken up in the middle of that night.
After the initial enthusiasm we might not learn any more for several weeks, even months. During that period he would work on other prints and only now and then hint that he was brooding on something new.
Then the day would come when the new project was tackled seriously. Weeks followed in which his moods changed between irritated abstraction and relaxed discussion of some small problem, between restless pacing behind his closed door and sudden announcement that he had found some satisfying solution. During this period of gestation father demanded complete quiet and privacy. The studio door was closed to all visitors including his family, and locked at night. If he had to leave his room, he covered his sketches, so that a curious glance from the garden through the window told us nothing.
Almost every day, to relieve tensions at the end of the afternoon he took a brisk walk through the beautiful old woods nearby, returning relaxed and ready for a cup of tea.
Sometimes father complained about how difficult it was to approach the original idea. He was irritated by his lack of drawing talent, and wished he could wield a pencil with the same ease and certainty as some of his colleagues. But then, he mused, he would probably have been so wrapped up in the sheer pleasure of drawing that he may not have felt the urge to think more deeply about his subjects.
One day the expectant atmosphere in the home would ease. The studio door opened, and we were invited to look at the new design, still on paper. It was discussed, explained, and sometimes taken into the living room to look at during the evening. In the weeks that followed one could sense the pleasure, the relaxation that went with the execution of the print, where use of hand and eye replaced mental concentration. From the studio emanated light-hearted whistling and the ritual sounds of woodcutting and printing. Our activities in the house took place against a background of the rhythmic swish of fine sandpaper smoothing pearwood, the tearing sound of gouges, the hiss of the inkroller or the heady smell of printing ink.
The end of the cycle, making the first print, gave father a mixture of joy and sadness. It was exciting and satisfying to lift the paper from the inked wood block for the first time, to see the finished print, crisp and immaculate, gradually appearing around the edge of the paper as it was carefully raised. But father had always a feeling of disappointment, of not having been able to depict adequately his thoughts. After all his efforts, how far short of the originally so lucid and misleadingly simple idea did this result fall!
People have asked what was in M.C. Escher’s nature that made him turn out such unique work. Here are some of my thoughts.
Father had a unique sense of wonder. He recognized relationships between what he saw and some abstract concept which, in a surge of enthusiasm, he would try to express in words or in a print.
PUDDLE, a woodcut from 1952, is the result of such an experience. Walking in the woods after a rain shower, while looking at the imprints of tires in the moist sand, he suddenly saw another world revealed in a puddle left in the tracks by the rain. It struck him as a small miracle, and he marveled at the accident of a little water disclosing to the brain the existence of something other than the road it had been seeing: trees, the moon, and the universe beyond.
Father had difficulty comprehending that the working of his mind was akin to that of a mathematician. He greatly enjoyed the interest in his work by mathematicians and scientists, who readily understood him as he spoke, in his pictures, a common language. Unfortunately, the specialized language of mathematics hid from him the fact that mathematicians were struggling with the same concepts as he was.
M.C. Escher was a very systematic person. Not only did this show in the regularity of his daily schedule, in the methodical way in which he dealt with his large correspondence or in his careful bookkeeping, but he also applied his systematic mind to the design of prints.
A typical example is DEPTH, in which he attempted to give as strong a perception of three-dimensional space as he could manage within the limitations of a sheet of paper.
Father had an unusual inclination to recognize animal shapes in seemingly random patterns like clouds or wood grain, which served him well when developing his regular patterns of interlocking animals.
In 1938, we rented a house on the Avenue de Saturne in Uccle, near Brussels. The wall in the small downstairs washroom was decorated with irregular swirls of green, yellow, red and brown, created by splashing paint of different colours on the wall and blending them by random movements of a brush.
Father, who suffered from constipation his whole life, had rather long sessions in that washroom. To pass the time he would take a pencil and emphasize with a line here, a shade there, some portion of the wall pattern beside the toilet. For us children that washroom became a special attraction because, as the months went by, the originally drab, uninteresting wall came alive with faces. Every few days a new one would appear, laughing, sad, grotesque or solemn, and I remember how I would scan that wall on my visits to the toilet, hoping to discover some new personality.
Excerpt from M.C. Escher: Art and Science, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., 1986