Thoughts on Art


I’ve been thinking a lot about “art” recently. Specifically, what people call “generative art”, “algorithmic art”, “code art”, “math art”, etc. Here are some random thoughts.


I’ve never been one to try to communicate some message through the things I create. I really only try to create things that are visually interesting. I can get very excited about the way a piece looks and I just want to show others and hope that they get a taste of that excitement too. Sometimes things I create can evoke various emotions – they can look ominous, dark, scary, energetic, fun, etc. I often find that when I feel a certain way about a piece, others tend to experience that same feeling. I guess you could call that a message if you want. But I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down to create some digital art with the thought, “I feel like creating something dark and ominous today,” or intentionally tried to create any emotion before I started.


For me, creating art with code is way more about discovery. I play around with some technique, or combine one technique with another dis-related technique just to see what happens. Then I see something interesting and I zoom in on it. Sometimes this means literally zooming into some detail in an image. More often it means focusing on some combination of parameters that have created a particular result. There’s a promise of something even more interesting there. I start tweaking numbers to see if I can bring out more of that something. I increment a parameter a few times and that thing I saw goes away. So I decrement it and maybe that thing becomes bigger, or more clear, or more detailed. It’s more like mining than creating.


I love math, or “maths” if that’s how you think of it. I love finding some new interesting formula. I subscribe to recreational math blogs, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds. I go to the math section of bookstores and libraries. I scroll through Wolfram and Wikipedia looking for new ideas. Old copies of Scientific American, Omni, Quantum and other math and science magazines. I get sucked in by anything that has a graph or an interesting diagram. It’s got to be visual. For me, math is the ultimate creative tool. It’s the canvas, it’s the paint, it’s the brush. Really, it’s the artist. All the images are already there. I’m just carefully extracting a few of them out of the sea of numbers. If I have to have a message in my art it’s “Look how amazing math is.”


Random is evil. Random is lazy. Random is OK when you’re starting a new piece. It’s OK when you have a formula and you’re searching for an interesting range of input parameters. But once you find something interesting, lock in those parameters and start focusing. My code framework is set up to allow me to easily create animations by changing parameters over each of many frames. Sometimes I’ll generate several hundred frames all with random parameters. I’ll print the parameters right on the piece. Then I’ll sift through the frames one by one and find those that have something I like. I’ll grab those parameters and hard code them and start tweaking them as described above. But random should come at the start, not at the end. I never continue to use random parameters to generate a finished piece. I’m totally lying. I do it often enough. But I feel lazy when I do it.


People often ask me what technology I used to create my images. I think they expect that I’m using some app or framework that has all these kinds of image generation tools built into it. I don’t. I write mostly in Go (Golang). I have some custom Go bindings for the C library, cairographics. Cairo is a pretty powerful drawing API, but that’s all it is – it draws lines and arcs curves and rectangles, sets colors, etc. Nearly identical in most important ways to the HTML Canvas drawing API. That’s all I need – those 2D drawing primitives. I have a framework of my own that I’ve built up over many years that does all the complex fancy stuff. But it’s all based on those 2d primitive drawing actions.


I love monochrome. Black and white. I love to be able to bring out form and emotion just by the relative brightness of black and white pixels. Sometimes I’ll experiment with color. I have a random RGB function that makes me feel guilty when I use it. I like using HSV colors better. You can create nice gradients. You can keep one hue and vary the saturation or value. You can create a range of colors with a similar hue. I’d like to take a deep dive into learning color theory some time. But I’m very comfortable with black and white.


One of my best techniques is a meta-technique. I mentioned it above. Every time I learn some new technique or formula, I do a mash up with that and some other technique I already know. I know I’ve talked about that in other posts in more detail. It’s the best way to discover something that has a chance of the elusive “nobody has done this before”.


  • AI/ML/GAN stuff. It just does nothing for me. To me it just looks like Photoshop filters on steroids. I know there’s a lot of impressive stuff going on behind the scenes, but the result is not interesting to me.
  • Glitch art. I think this is due to the fact that I grew up in the 60s and 70s and 80s. Everything was glitchy. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. I like that things are not glitchy now. I like that I turn on the TV and see a clear picture without bending the coat hanger stuck in the back into some new shape.
  • 3D. By this I mean slick, realistic 3D stuff done in professional 3D rendering packages. I like occasionally hand-coding lofi 3D stuff.
  • Shaders. In either 2D or 3D. I probably should like shaders. You can do some impressive math-based stuff with them. I’ve used them. I even written about them and touched on them in some videos, but they never stuck as something I wanted to continue working with.

OK, now here’s where you’re going to say, “You should check out _____ (AI/Glitch/3D/Shader thing).” And I’ll say, “Thanks, that looks cool. Maybe I’ll check it out.” But I never will. But really, thanks! I appreciate your enthusiasm. I’m not saying any of these things are inherently bad. Just sharing my tastes.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Art

  1. Right on Keith! I always forget to check out stuff people tell me about, but I there’s too much to follow up on these days. Does one really learn anything without trying it out for oneself? I like to be inspired by others, but I want to understand the techniques and in order to do that, I think one really has to “walk the walk” and type in the code and tweak it to get a feel for how things work directly. I kind of missed computing when it was in the 80s, even though I had a computer. I never made the leap that you could do the stuff you see on your own computer. Now I am trying to go back and relive those days– but I found that there was a LOT of creativity in the smallness of things. I’m interested in the creativity of constraints, and for me, it’s kind of interesting to see what parts are tinkerable and isolate the essence of some small bit that speaks to me. Ofcourse, this is crazy and often mundane for others– but I kind of dig those little iterations on a theme. It’s my theory that we should aim for good at small scale and repeat it. A good career is built on a bunch of small good works. A good life is made up of a bunch of small good days. In any case, it’s just really good to see others, like you, finding joy in the exploration. For me, that’s the whole point– making the “day-to-day” a bit better because you did something creative.

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