Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Abstraction Generator

One reason I never understood the quarrel between realism and abstraction is that representational painting involves a constant attention to the dance of pure shapes, both at the micro level of brushwork and the macro level of composition.

Nature is full of delicious abstract forms, many of them powered by the controlled chaos of fractal logic. Concept artists in particular need to be able to freely invent and resolve abstract forms.

H. R. Giger, John Berkey (above), Moebius, and Syd Mead are a few artists who create fascinating abstract forms without sacrificing their representational power.

For those who work with digital tools, there’s a open source application where the computer partners with the artist at the level of random shape-generation. (Above: Andrew Jones).

Seeing those computer-generated shapes then stimulates you to come up with more ideas. (Above: Nicolas Francoeur) It's like mutation and natural selection. You can rationalize them in any direction you want. Or just leave them and enjoy them in all their inchoate glory.

The open-sourced Java-based app is called Alchemy.

Ten years from now, I'm sure software like this will do a lot more than just 2-D shape generation. Imagine a random form generator using a deeper database including anatomy, perspective, nature-based texture logic, and interactive lighting.

A tool like this would become a fundamental ally of concept artists. You'd start with a lump of digital clay, set some parameters---gravitation, climate, habitat---and the lump would evolve before your eyes (with a little guidance, of course) into whatever sort of creature, architecture, or vehicle you're trying to come up with.

For those of us who still work with brushes and pencils and paint, there’s always the sponge, straw-and-ink, toothbrush splatter, crumpled paper, tea leaves, wood grain, Rorschach ink blots, and erratic hand-movements.
Alchemy website and videos.
Thanks, Ben Schram, who told me about this. Visit Ben's website and see some of his Alchemy-inspired sketches.


Lydia Burris said...

This is an interesting software idea! I work more traditionally and I love the element of chaos - Looking at this inspires me to continue using randomness and allow for unexpected elements, perhaps in a different way than what I have already been doing.

armandcabrera said...


Great post. I always thought the argument with abstraction was non-representational painters claimed a higher ground of purity and more insight in their art, freed from subject and facility. Of course realists would not be happy with that assesment since good realist art was always concerned with edge and shape and texture along with subject.

Erik Bongers said...

Actually, just like with the advent of Photography a century and a half ago or so, hyperrealistic CG and indeed 'generators' will challenge traditional artists once more to prove that they do have enough 'added value' in comparison to The New Technology.

But I'm not worried. As long that there's no mechanical brain that can compete with our own, we're still safe.

Amber said...

Donato Giancola uses a similar technique when finding compositions (though it doesn't involve software or computers). He sketches several abstract thumbnail compositions that are shapes of light and dark. When he finds one that strikes him he proceeds to develop it into a more detailed drawing before moving on to the next step.

While it was a practice that was new to me at the time, this post really reminded me of Donato's process.

Thank you for bringing to my attention an issue/argument that I wasn't aware of. I will look more into this!

Thank you James!

James Gurney said...

Amber, you reminded me of another abstraction-idea generator. Landscape painter Thomas Moran used to look at newspaper photos upside down through squinted eyes to get inspiration. (I mean he turned the newspaper upside down, not that he stood on his head.)

Legend has it that one of his paintings was based on an upside down photo of a train wreck!

Oscar Baechler said...

Alchemy is awesome!!! David Revoy, who's doing concept art for Blender's Project Durian (Blender also being an open source program) did a demo on it at Blendcon 2009, and it was really exciting to watch in action.


Haven't used it in a while, as I still felt it needed an Undo button (even if it's only a one-step undo), but I've since then played around with recreating its shape drawing introface in Photoshop.

Fantastic post on something I've thought for a long time. I read something about Frazetta's process, where he starts by just drawing abstract shapes that he likes to start with, then later working it up to something meaningful.

And lastly, one drawing exercise I like to do is draw completely abstract blobs to start, or completely abstract and motive-free lines of action, then see if I can figure out what it is representationally.

Christopher Thornock said...

James - I think that some of what Armand said is right. I don't think that abstraction and realism differ on grounds of mark making, as commonly thought. It is more about the intentionality of the work. Abstraction rises from many things, from a desire to "get at the essence or truth" as in artists like Modrian for example. Or a reaction to the horror of WWI and the 'lost generation'. Think of our own reaction to 9/11, there is the "how do we continue with the way things were in this new reality." Much has to do with the notion of the avant garde, the idea of always being at the leading edge and rejecting the old. (Read the futurist manifesto by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, good thing he wasn't put in charge of the worlds museums). Also many writers, critics and philosophers had huge sway over art in the last century. For some, art became more about the 'making' and less about the object, like the real art was the making, the dripping, the action, and what we have left is the artifact. (see The American Action Painters' 1952 by Harold Rosenberg) There was a desire by many to make art different from other art disciplines, to bring out what was unique only to visual art. To take it from the realm of literature (something that tells a story) into a place of 'purity' for lack of a better word. (our friend Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch' 1939, or Towards a Newer Laocoon, 1940, or Kandinsky even.) And I could go on. (My wife isn't here to stop me)
To quote a famous realist, there really is nothing more 'abstract' than realist painting. (And the term 'Realism' is problematic too, but that is for another post, I will spare you all)

Daroo said...

Cool post. I especially like the generator that combines fonts -- it imparts a calligraphic quality to the piece.

Two other real world abstraction methods: Loomis' informal subdivision graphing method -- shading in the shapes yields something similar to Alchemy (albeit much slower). Also, Kevin Macpherson suggests using a canvas panel as a palette surface while painting, then when it is dry, using the canvas panel as an abstract color ground for a whole new painting. (I think Richard Schmid experimented with something similar early in his career too.)

Björn said...

I also think there's an inherant problem with software that auto-generates and procedurally create greebles based on input is that it leaves its' stamp far more than I find acceptable in the end. As production artists when you need to perform all the time on a tight deadline, this is an invaluable tool.. Illustrators should rely on their own identity to create artwork.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Oscar, Christopher, Daroo, Jon, Amber, and everyone else for your interesting feedback.

And Bjorn, I know what you mean about any process leaving its stamp. I guess the analog equivalent is when you look a the foliage on a painted tree, and it's obvious that it was all laid in with a sponge. The eye is quick to pick out systems--even systems of randomness.

Daniyyel said...

u were right . like the deepmind from google generates images now . u r a visionary .