Generative Art is as Old as Art

Sketch (details) – Mathew Lewis

A couple of weeks back Marius featured an article about the output of a drawing machine by Mathew Lewis. What was remarkable about the work was how non-computational it appeared. The works, developed on AL – a scheme based environment, are almost childlike, with the energetic marks of an un-steadied hand producing people like objects, or even animals with disjointed tails. I suppose the reason I’m reposting is because this work is a great example, not for the first time, of how generative art needn’t look a certain way; how it can appear to take on certain ‘human’ qualities.

What it also reminded me of artists who have used mental procedural methods to ‘build up’ their art. Artists such as Paul Klee, who is very well known, and whose Pedagogical Sketchbooks are of interest to artists of all terrains, as well as lesser known’s such as Wolfgang Schultz (Wols). Wols used the term ‘crystallization of thoughts into lines’ and many of his works, like Stadt Zentrum, were built up using repetitive gestures to bring a drawing to fruition. Also a while back I mentioned Rangolis, Tribal procedural art found in India.

More recently I think of an interesting body of work resulting from quite meticulous procedural repetition by Witold Riedel. The ‘Complex Drawing’ sequence contains clues in the titles. ’45 minutes 1 seed’ and ‘120mins 12 seed’ are really a set of instructions as to how they were produced, simple code infact. Witold says:

‘Many of my drawings in general start with little clusters of information; one could call them information ‘seeds.’ I place them on a page and then let the drawing grow from them and around them. Some seeds are planted on the subway; some drawings are finished on the train.’

12 concentric circles of 777 loops – Rod McLaren

Similarly, Rod McLaren’s drawings have instructional (or descriptive) titles that reveal starkly the method in which they made. Check out 12 concentric circles of 777 loops, Dotting the largest circular disc possible in an hour and Loop in blue (10 minutes), repeated in dots (25minutes). Some of these drawings form part of the ‘Fully Articulated drawings’ series where Rod asks:

‘Can loops or dots be drawn as fast or as consistently as possible, 50 or a hundred times? How quickly can the brain make the hand move whilst the eye ensures control? Can it be controlled without the watchful eye? Can a loop be repeated carefully at slow or high speeds? How may dots can be made in an hour? Can quality be maintained? Is it pointless (or point-ful?) to behave like a machine or a program? Can something be copied well? Would it be different for a right-hander? And: does anything interesting result from this?’

We should possibly travel no further now than Phil Galanter’s remark in an interview at

’ But the most exciting generative work I’ve encountered in the past few years is by an artist we will never know. Most folks know about the prehistoric cave paintings found in France and elsewhere depicting animals and so on. The oldest of those is about 35,000 years old. But in 1999 anthropologists discovered the oldest known artwork, and this work is more than 70,000 years old. It consists of triangular tiles inscribed in hand sized pieces of red ochre. It is an exploration of pattern and aesthetic form that would be clearly recognized as such by someone like M. C. Escher or generations of Islamic artists. And it is generative in that an abstract autonomous system creates the form rather than the moment to moment intuition of the artist. Tiling systems are algorithms that existed long before there were computers.

As I like to say, generative art is as old as art.’

5 Responses to “Generative Art is as Old as Art”

  1. Rodcorp writes:

    Hi. There are some drawings made on the London Underground too. The artist holds the pen over the notebook, the train provides the movement that makes the drawing. Kinda generative, sorta interesting.

    Lewis and Riedel’s drawings are fantastic aren’t they.

  2. paul writes:

    heh rod, yeah im a fan of the underground train drawings too! they are like recordings of Seismometers.
    They are also kinda like GPS drawings, the space-time is still there, allthough abstracted! nice work!

  3. Sara Ayers writes:

    Thanks for this article; I’ve been trying to find Riedel for years after accidently forgetting his name. I find there’s something so comforting about obsessive drawing, both looking at it and doing it myself.
    Here are two more obsessive/procedural artists:
    Robert Horvitz
    Hiroyuki Doi

  4. paul writes:

    heh Sara, thanks for pointing out both these artists! The Horvitz drawings are quite amazing! While appreciating them it comes as no surprise that his cites particle physics and modern mathematics as inspirations or indeed as reinforcements to his meticulous style. ‘Nonetheless, I did start thinking of my mark as a quantum act caught in a web of symmetries and asymmetries’ he says. Hiroyuki Doi galaxies of circles are equally interesting and inspiring. The ‘procedural outsiders’ are another group who are interesting from a generative point of view in the way they build up complex scenes through repetition via mental refraction. I’ve got another little article about the ‘RAW VISION’ end of the spectrum relating to algorithmic art coming sometime soon. Btw smallbluesphere has great content!

  5. Pamela writes:

    Paul, great resources here. I have been interested in process art for a while, and how it relates to memory, and now to machines (generative via code, or drawing robots). I wrote my thesis at Parsons on Process Art and Memory, and am working on expanding to interactive art. You can check my work at:
    I would love to know what else you’ve found. Also, for some more subway-inspired Process Art, check out William Anastasi

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