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Generative art

— 8 min read

Last year we organized a meetup in the city where I reside about generative art.

I started such a meetup, CodePen Hamburg, back in 2016. Over the years, designer and developers friends I met in the local tech community have helped co-organize it.

I've been exploring generative art for approximately a year, and I'm currently in love with this craft.

I thought of sharing the small research I made back then, in addition to how I got started with generative art, in case someone wants to learn more regarding the topic or is new to it.

Before I explain what generative art is, narrate some of the origins, and point you to resources, I'd thought of sharing how I first got interested in generative art.

If you prefer to skip my story, go to the section that interests you directly:

What sparked my interest in generative art?

I cannot recall hearing of generative art, before my very good friend — @_ok_bai told me about it.

At the end of 2018, she shared with me she discovered the world of creative coding, and that she wanted to learn coding to create visuals and generative art. I was excited she wanted to code! I could now teach and talk code with a dear friend.

Once she explained more of it and showed me the creations of a few artists, I was hooked.

I realized I've seen and experienced generative art all my life since I was a teenager, and I had no clue it had a name. Before knowing what it was, I'd call it abstract art.

I've seen generative art while attending concerts in the form of visuals for musicians. I've seen video art, posters, and paintings based on generative art in coffee shops, galleries, and museums. I've seen GIFs and video art of generative art on the web and TV... and yet, I had no idea it was a thing!

It's most likely I heard of generative art in the past, but I didn't pay attention. My interest was somewhere else that only recently I felt I discovered it.

What is generative art?

I like how Joshua Davis summarizes it in the trailer of his class:

Generative art is making art mainly driven by a computer program. Being able to look at the screen and have the composition make decisions out of gesture. A system for generating an infinite number of random compositions.

The artwork generated in the end, it's unique to the individual creating it, because they've made all the decision-making within the parameters.

So generative art is an algorithmic art, computer art, a kind of art that always introduces randomness as part of its creation process. A place where geometry, abstraction, spontaneousness and chance meet. An artistry where chaos and happy accidents are embraced.

It has been said that generative art is highly influenced by modern art from the early-20th-century:

  • Abstract Expressionism
  • Bauhaus
  • Constructivism
  • Cubism
  • Dada
  • Futurism
  • Surrealism


When did generative art begin?

[preface] I wouldn't be able to share a bit of generative art history without existing resources. If you want to read in detail the beginnings of generative art, make sure to go to the links in the references. A lot of the words written in this part are not mine but adapted from the resources.

The first wave of generative artists emerged in the '60s and '70s when computers had no monitors, and the artwork created was shared by printing the art on plotters.

Some of the artists emerging from this era are:

  • Frieder Nake
  • Georg Nees
  • Ken Knowlton
  • Lillian Schwartz
  • Michael Noll
  • Vera Molnár

In the late '90s, John Maeda started Design By Numbers. A project in which he created and shared a computational process, allowing artists, designers, and other non-programmers to start with computer programming.

In 2001 Ben Fry and Casey Reas built a free platform called Processing. A software inspired after working together as students with Maeda in Design By Numbers.

Processing is aimed at anyone with an interest in learning to sketch with programming. It makes generative art accessible to anyone in the world with access to a computer. One doesn't need to be a computer scientist or developer to create sketches and art with code.

The born of Processing has extremely influenced the growth of generative art over the last two decades.

Over the years, many software and tools have risen inspired by this open-source movement and generative art.


How I got started with generative art?

[preface] There are a lot of resources out there pointing to places for learning generative art. I am sharing here the links to the ones I've found helpful. This doesn't mean they're the best or only resources. Every person learns differently. Take this list of recommendations with a grain of salt.

One YouTube channel helped me getting started with generative art and creative coding using the p5js library:

I find useful a little website by Ruth John and Tim Holman, with both, tutorials and a podcast to tune in about all generative art-related — generative artistry.

I've mentioned this course in my last blog post, but the canvas and WebGL course by Matt DesLauriers at Frontend Masters teaches concepts of generative art. It has inspiring exercises to create and understand how generative art can be done via different tools.

There's an interesting read by Ali Spittel and James Reichard — Intro to Generative Art, which in my opinion explains well what generative art is, and tells you how to get started with it via tools like p5js. It even has a small cheat sheet for p5js beginners.

There's a German book of generative art — Generative Design. I haven't ordered it yet [it's on my list...], but I've consulted on/off recently since they have open-sourced the sketches created for the book in p5js. I think it's wonderful so far the book is available in three languages: English, German and Japanese.

I read an interesting interview with Manolo Gamboa Naon - Generative Art Finds Its Prodigy, where he talks about how he got started with generative art. He mentions what inspires him, which tools he uses to create, among other fascinating aspects of generative art.

Not long ago, I discovered a blog post by AIArtists — Generative Art Guide, with several inspiring examples of artwork done by talented artists, recommendations of software, and tools to make algorithm art.

What tools are available for generative art?

To name a few, I'll list tools to make generative art that to my knowledge are available in this year of 2020.

I've tried some of them, and others are used or mentioned by creative coders and digital artists I follow. If you want to dig deep and know every existing tool, you'll have to research more outside the scope of this post.

[beware] I won't tell you which is the easiest, fastest, or best tool to create generative art. Every person is different and might have a dissimilar background. What I find best, easy or hard, you might not think it's best, easy or hard.

What I can recommend is trying more than one tool, until you find the one(s) you feel more comfortable with to create generative art.

Here are a few tools aiding in the creation of generative art: