Almost Human Art


The beginning

I had this insane idea. Actually, my wife did. She turned to me about 20 years ago and said Could computers be used to create art? The question was couched between Are we out of peanut butter? and Should I get more Cheerios?

Two decades and several late nights later, here we are. The abstract images you see here are generated (at first) by chance. The computer “imagines” them. Using random numbers to plot points in two-dimensional space, then joining them with Bezier curves and filling the intersections with random colour, you get … rubbish … most of the time.

Then, perhaps every 100th image has a balance, energy or lyricism to it that makes sense to the human eye. Those images are retained, curated, printed and hung for a year to see if they cast a different spell in the morning.

The beauty of chance is falling increasingly out of favour in a modern world dominated by infinite and immediate digital comfort. But chance, risk and experiment will always appeal to us. To be human is to roll the dice and beckon the unfamiliar. Besides, our computers are getting bored. They need to let their hair down. And we owe them.

2D simple render

A 2D simple render consists of a figure (here outlined in white), a shell (the pistachio green shadow that recedes into the background), a series of veins (white lines that overlay the figure), and a semi-transparent skin of colours that inform the render name.

This figure is “Zeffa” and the render is “Spring”, so named after the cool, optimistic colours touched by sun and warmth.

Once the render is finalised, the image is sent to a print lab for professional printing and assembly. A C-Type (chromogenic) print is the usual choice. This is mounted on dibond (a rigid, aluminium and polyethelene laminate) and a layer of art-grade acrylic is glued over the top. Wall mounting elements are fixed to the back and the print arrives here ready to hang.

2D complex render

A complex render entails writing a series of vector patterns into each of the figure’s regions. Individual vectored elements appear as crevices (endo colours) or swollen pools (exo colours). Elements are allotted an initial random colour (itself a blend of several base colours) which can later be amended to create more dramatic contrasts, or change the endo / exo dynamic.

This figure (Zeffa, inverted) is rendered in a colour set called “Moonstone”. The exo colours (warm lilacs) “swell”, and the endo colours (blues and whites) crack and recede. When printed on metallic paper, the pearlescent effect is emphasised, and the pure black background lends the image a glacial, stark solemnity.

3D sculpted

Looking at a 2D print, a friend suggested I might cut out the individual regions and elevate them. So I did (the photo here is a crop of a piece assembled in 2019). It would be quite possible to write a small book detailing the issues encountered trying to get the sections cut accurately and painted nicely. The obvious cutting route (CNC) tended to delaminate or crack the surface acrylic at the sharp points, so more traditional techniques were used, eg a scroll saw.

The elevations are mostly cut from engineering modelling board (more machineable than plywood which proved to be too prone to warping or difficult to finish nicely). Assembled sections are now painted by professional auto finshers and are finished with two coats of UV clearcoat before being hand polished. The supporting frame (as shown) is finished in a German auto manufacturer’s silver. The photo was taken outside under a hot August sun, giving rise to the “white ghost” reflections as the light trapped in the scallops turns in on itself. It should be noted that this kind of finishing (and much of the assembly and fabrication of these pieces) has been made possible only with significant assists from local companies. I am profoundly grateful to the specialists in the boat building and auto repair sectors who luckily live near me, and even more luckily, wanted to help.

Digital vandalising

During development of the various software processes required to generate and render these figures, I adapted a suite of functions to reinterpret or “vandalise” photographs. I wanted something that looked a bit dirty or “smashed up”. Much as I admire the extraordinary skill of digital animators, there is a tendency towards “accidental perfection”. This is partly because making digital look convincingly distressed or wrecked is very hard work.

So, here’s a photograph of a young women painted with a new brush, and a nod to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

As my corporate friend in New York recently said: Thanks for reaching out.

Gideon Fraser, October 2019