In March 1951 Escher made a print with the deceptively simple name Plane Filling I. I say ‘deceptively simple’, because at that moment he had been a graphic artist for thirty years and had already made countless tessellations. The principle of the regular division of the plane formed the core of his artistry, the subject to which he always kept returning. Why then suddenly a work that seems to suggest it is the first time he makes such a thing?
Plane Filling I is an anomaly, a tessellation that does something diametrically different from the so characteristic ones with birds, fish, insects and other recognizable figures. Sometimes he combined two or three of those figures in a print, but all these tessellations are characterized by the principles of symmetry, repetition and reflection. In Plane Filling I none of these principles are respected: every figure is different and nothing is mirrored or repeated. It is an experiment in which Escher shows that a tessellation is also possible with forms that are all dissimilar. Plane Filling I does contain two other principles that he used in his regular divisions of the plane: recognisability and color contrast. Escher has always strived to use identifiable forms in his tessellations. Although sometimes difficult to define, and sometimes more fantasy animals than existing ones, all these forms are immediately recognizable as ‘animals’. Or in a number of cases as ‘people’. The second characteristic is color contrast: as in a chessboard, every white figure is interspersed with a black figure, both horizontally and vertically. Each row contains six figures and because there are six of those rows, this tessellation is populated by 36 figures, 18 white and 18 black ones. That alternation between white and black is very logical. If everything would be the same color without any contrast, then all figures are invisible.
In 1957, Escher would once again venture to such a print, filled with special creatures that are all different. Number two goes one step further: where the creatures in Plane Filling I arrange themselves roughly into a checkerboard pattern, in II he sets them free completely. In a lecture that Escher would have given in Canada in 1964 (because of health problems it was cancelled), he says about Plane Filling I and II:
Yet each of them has the form of something, either a living being or an object, which the viewer “recognizes”. Putting such a tessellation together is a tiring activity and at the same time a thoughtless game. It tires the draftsman, as if he were not the ringleader himself, but as if he, unwillingly, allowed his creatures the freedom to determine their own shape and character.