Beyond the Mandala

By Tim Phelps

Creating nature mandalas is a personal quest. It further defines the joy I have had for the entirety of my life fascinated with and interpreting nature in pen and ink nature prints, animal doodles and cartoons and now full color representational mandalas. Life is full of serendipitous moments of creativity if we can un-tether our minds from rigidity. Tapping into our artistic creativity often means throwing off blinders and kicking our inner critics to the curb. Moments of clarity and inspiration clear spaces in otherwise cluttered rooms.

It was serendipity, a happy accident in how my mandala direction began. I was searching for a new way to “story-tell.” By crafting representational and symbolic art with the message of the beauty of our planet’s biodiversity and a call for conservancy, the nature mandalas in my books combine my chosen organisms with elements of their geography, habitat, morphology, and behavior in image and text. My text also provides background on my working methods and explores other directions in art history, ornamentation and craft, and pop culture.

By immersing myself in the act of the creation of my art assets and arranging them into mandalas, I suspended my inner critic to see where the mandalas would take me. What a journey! There was great satisfaction in being able to create with limited rules. The act of mandala creation pulled me in further and delivered just as advertised; I found that mandalas are engaging, thought provoking, mindful, meditative, and joyful tools. Their swirling patterns and colors and rhythmic repeating nature are fulfilling. And, it was the actual creation of my individual art assets and placing them in their new and repeating mandala arrangements that brought focus to my objective; a combination of Fun and Fine Art!

My working method is as follows. While many of the outlines of members of my menagerie are created in pen and ink and scanned in, others are created digitally by juxtaposing outlined ovals and cutting them up and repeating and realigning them along with solid shapes and colors in layers in Photoshop. I also found th
at while I could apply dots and lines directly in a variety of colors in layers on top, I could also get interesting effects with erasing back shapes and “magic-wanded” patterns with the eraser tool—acting as a cutout of the top color layer showing the color on the layer below. Adjusting the opacity and multiplying colors also brought great and sometimes surprising and pleasing effects. I create my own flames, tie-dye, comic book dots, fish scales and coral hexagon patterns, etc. that can be reused at will. I also create reusable coffee-stain, paint splatter, and brush stroke patterns that are color-adjustable as needed. The character of my color illustrations is somewhat reminiscent of the “dots and dashes” approach that has resided in my pen and ink mark making for over 30 years keeping my technique personal and comfortable.

Multiple versions of my plants and animals are positioned in a central circular design in repeating rotations of equal degrees in formulas of from 2-8 identical shapes. For instance, a moth may be repeated 4 times and rotated equally at 90 degrees. As the images are placed I look at not only the shapes that the organisms form as a positive shape but also what shapes are formed in the negative spaces between each organism. I consider not only the number of repeated organisms in their arrangement but also consider how I have portrayed their size and color. Upon completion, each of my mandalas depict what surrounds the outward “around” boundary, and the “in-bound contained art” becoming the circle that may be represented by a hollowed out log, a plant’s floral array, the edges of a bird or an insect’s
wings, or a bird’s nest.

Noting that mandalas are meant for intense attention and meditation and are packed with shapes, colors, and designs for cerebral storytelling, the challenge became not allowing the overall geometry of the repeating elements in each of my mandalas to overpower the individuality of the organisms to which I had applied artful detail. I did not want to overwhelm the viewer and wanted the story and art to be easily enjoyed for its simplicity. I wanted my subject matter to be enjoyed and appreciated for its craft.

The circular mandala form is the perfect representation and embodiment of structural balance, coincidentally, also found in all plants and animals. Since the dawn of time, nature, too, has been in varying degrees of circular balance and equilibrium. In maintaining this circle, nature repeatedly perfects ways to endure and adapt in the presence of constant excitement and change to re-establish equilibrium followed by calm. I too am trying to capture this same excitement and calm to impart to the reader through my nature mandalas.

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