Why I make procedural art

It’s like writing. It’s a way of communicating ideas. I use procedural art to understand the world, what it looks like, and how it is put together. Procedural art is a way of describing this world. It’s a completely unambiguous description what I mean. When I understand the tool I’m using well enough, there’s this giddy freedom given by the ability to express anything (given enough time).

EquationNotebook.pngI don’t look at the world and see formulas that describe things. It’s like I see things and can’t resist taking them apart in my head. Not necessarily piece-by-piece like legos. Imagine looking at a wooden chair. Think of each piece independently – the pieces of wood brought together to make its form. Now separate the shape of one of the chair legs from the texture of the wood. We can go further. The shape is most precisely describable as the mathematical objects that could be used to create it – the one in my mind is an inverted truncated pyramid with rounded beveled edges. Roughly, this means that the chair leg has a square base that is slightly smaller than the top and has smoothed corners. This can be further generalized, but not indefinitely (not in any way I find satisfying, at least). Eventually I’m left with a set of parameters (chair leg height, how rounded the corners are, …) and functions (rounded bevel, pyramid, …). The same reductionist procedure can be applied to the texture of the chair leg, with analogous results. In some sense, it really is just legos.

beveled-tile.pngI can see why Plato was so fixated on his idea of Forms. He thought that everything in the natural world was a projection of idealized, abstract Forms. For instance, that the abstraction of a “table” meaningfully exists outside the minds of sentient beings and everything we call “table” has some connection to it. While it misunderstands the nature of reality, it does a great job at representing reality. If I can reduce a given object into forms I can mathematically describe, then I can not only recreate that object but myriad variations with the same essence. When I develop a brick texture I don’t just want to make one brick, I want to make every brick. How alluring the idea is that these equations are “more real” than any one instance they take.

StreetBricks2.pngI’ve been away from procedural art for some time. Diving back in was … refreshing. Like writing after a day spent reading. Since my main fascination is with photorealistic procedural textures, it’s like everything I see is a page waiting to be read. Some, like bricks, are simple and easy to read (any introductory procedural texture text will devote at least a chapter to bricks). Others are much harder – I lack the vocabulary and grammar – but will get easier to decipher with time.

My old tools are still there, much improved but with the same flavor. I mainly use a program called Vue. Partly because it’s the one my parents happened to buy me ten years ago, but mostly because it now supports Python scripting and function graph refactoring. My math degree and my professional knowledge will come in handy.

It’s nice to be back.

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