An Introduction

The Synthetic Aesthetic

The Synthetic Aesthetic is the artistic appeal of mechanically made imagery.  That is, imagery that is not made with the hands but instead is made remotely, through a device or machine.  Although it sounds modern, I think it’s probably the very first form of art –the original art form– because  it depends solely on hunting and gathering.

Art without an artist

Sounds unlikely or maybe just uninteresting but creating imagery that lacked human intention and was disconnected from the guidance of the human mind was one of the favourite ideas of the founders of the surrealist art movement.  But it’s less about eliminating the constraints of the human mind than it is about featuring mechanical creativity: syntheticism.


Because the results can be exciting.  It’s art: the moving of the mind.  It’s not a subjective thing either or a matter of opinion, the results can be seen.  This blog is an exploration of that mysterious creativity which has achieved a renaissance in the era of computer algorithms and yet is still as old as the hills.  A weird thing.

Computers can draw but not sing

Computer programmers have never been very successful at designing software that can actually compose music or write poetry all by itself. Those kind of creative arts seem to depend entirely on the faculties of the human mind and yield very little of interest when harnessed to the powerful calculating machineries of computers. But the graphical arts work differently than music or writing and computers can actually be creative when applied to the visual medium.

Blind artists

Mechanical devices are fast and prolific producers of imagery, but ninety-nine percent of the time the results are just garbage; computer algorithms have no sense of aesthetics and can’t see or reflect on what they’re doing. They’re digital idiot-savants and they need help. That’s where the user’s contribution to the creative process comes in: they steer the machine in a more profitable direction, ignoring the steady stream of junk that pours out and watching for that sudden exotic curiousity that eventually –just happens.

Mechanical creativity

There’s something fascinating about a computer, or any kind of machine drawing a picture. Obviously we can’t call them artists, but at the same time, once you clear away all the garbage, those few “curiosities” that remain have a certain artistry to them and while they may not rival the work of the greatest artists, they certainly qualify as rivals to the average artist.

About Me

This is my hobby.  I don’t have any professional qualifications or training.  I’m a stay at home dad in his fifties and I don’t know much about programming and I’ve never finished reading a single book about art.  But all my life I’ve been preoccupied with art and trying to understand my own reactions to it.  If the existence of an Aladdin’s lamp of art interests you then I think you’ll find the images and commentary in my blog postings practical and relevant.

It’s not all about fractals

I get bored with them often and that’s what drives me to experiment with other devices: cellular automata; voronoi things; IFS cloud pictures from Kandid; photoshop filter gauntlets; block-wave transformations; and various other programs of which many were never intended to have artistic uses or rather, misuses.

It’s about art

…from pushing buttons.  Not any particular buttons either.  Most digital art enthusiasts are really computer craftsmen whose pursuit is technical rather than artistic innovation.  But someone whose primary interest is art is less devoted to the specific techniques and methods of their medium than they are about the actual artwork that comes from them; the technology is just a tool and maintaining the purity of an unmixed medium has no purpose.  Synthetic methods have more variation than those of the traditional hand-made arts and for that reason are harder to categorize, define and build internet fan clubs for.

January 11, 2017

Fog and Fyre

When it comes to making art by pushing buttons and turning dials, there ought to be a general rule of thumb that says push every button, turn every dial.  If it’s there – turn it.

I just discovered the blur thing.  It’s always been there, but I guess I just thought it made things blurry and that’s not terribly interesting.  But I’ve discovered that the two blur parameters, blur-something and blur-something else are very interesting.

The second image in a series I’ve titled, Smudge.  The first one didn’t look cool when I looked at it a day later, so I deleted it.  The blur effect is quite powerful and adds a unique style to the images.  I guess you just don’t know what the result of some parameter change will be until you see the results.

The above was left to render for a much longer time in order to made the light, translucent forms more visible.  The blur does create the expected cold, foggy, wet, rocky seashore look and the black and white color limitation actually enhances the style.

Above, nothing in particular to say about this one except it shows more of the blotchy, translucency of the humble blur feature.  I think the blur enhances the graininess which in turn gives an aged or patina effect to the image.

There’s a minimalistic feel to many of these blurred Fyre images.  In fact, the ones with more elements in them don’t look as good, in my opinion.  This combination of blur and the simpicity of Fyre (it only has a few rendering options) have a powerful effect.  It’s almost like the program has a whole new dimension to it.

If you have Fyre on your computer you can open these images in it and rework them as all the parameter settings for the program are stored in the images. The authors of the program, David Trowbridge and Micah Dowty, where pretty smart when they included that feature.  The image, and the “genes” that made it, are right there.  They’re alive, man.

This algorithmic stuff is too far out.

April 18, 2009

The Wheel of Digital Art

The digital medium allows for some very strange, head-warping things to be done.  For instance, one can take one piece of art in it’s final state, completed and ready for viewing, and use it as the raw material for another, completely new and different work of art.  This is more than a mere “reworking”; it’s a complete transformation of one thing into another where only the artist (i.e. machine operator) knows what has happened.

Made in Fyre, the above image is blown up to four times its size and transformed by Showfoto’s block wave filter.  I then cropped out a piece which is shown just below.

As always, sometimes it makes something interesting and sometimes it doesn’t.  I tried it on twenty or so images and came up with the following results:

The above, using the same procedure I just mentioned, yielded the image below:

The same thing again, from the above to produce the one below, which is a cropped out detail of the 4x image.

Above image used to make the one below.

Fyre makes very “clean” images.  Normally, I use fractals or some other image treated with the India Ink filter that adds black engraving lines in an irregular way onto the image.  The results from that are more messy and not so neat as the Fyre image results.  The Fyre images produce almost a sort of black and white pen and ink style image that has a very distinct style.

One you get used to this sort of genetic recombination of image genes, one thing literally leads to another and I’ve even found myself going back into my old images made years ago because I’ve discovered a new filter that “feeds” on exactly that sort of raw material.

April 15, 2009

Can Bad Fractals be Good Art?


Good software makes images that are too slick.  It’s hard to get good software to make smudgy, jagged, off-color stuff.  Purebred imagery is predictable.  Artists often make junk and crazy mistakes but it’s a process of trial and error that leads to new styles.  Good software and professional skills is a toxic combination that gets everything right the first time and inevitably leads to the best fractals — a dead end.

I’ve given the fractal world many bad examples to follow and, unless my disciples are all off in the desert hiding, no one seems to be following my liquid path down the drain.  But success and popularity are difficult obstacles to overcome.  The encouragement of others is sometimes all it takes to keep someone going down a fruitless path to a heartless goal.

If you want to help someone produce better art, not necessarily better fractals, challenge them with negative criticism and encourage them to give it up.  When the lights of success and encouragement go out, only the glow of your art will be left.

There is something that I call “Raw Style”.  It’s imagery that looks better when it isn’t anti-aliased and when it’s not cooked and simply presented “as-is”.  As fractal software has progressed, it’s become easier to process things and to do more to it.  One would expect this to be a good thing, and it is if what you want to do is make better fractals, but it’s bad because users quickly fall into a routine of tidying and polishing everything they make like obsessive-compulsive cleaning maids.  Imagine what news photography would be like if before anyone took a photo of someone, the subject’s mother appeared and combed their hair and straightened up their shirt collar before the photo was taken — every moment would be ruined.  Good art is often ready-made; but we overlook it because we don’t expect it.

The Great Seal

I’m not saying you shouldn’t tweak and process fractals.  What I am saying is that you should ask yourself “Why?” and try to avoid it because it leads to much better fractals and really bad art.  Fractal art is the domain of the Ugly Duckling; stop choking your swans.

The death of contests is good because contests take artists with talent and creativity and turn them into approval addicts.  After just a few contests most artists already start to exhibit the symptoms of mental degeneration that accompany similar dependency disorders: restlessness; anxiety attacks; obsessive grooming; checking their mail every five minutes.

The anti-art tendencies of contests are easy to spot: judges who don’t like art choose the best fractals and exhibit (no pun intended) an ingrained aversion to the bad ones.  A good fractal art contest will present a very pronounced dislike of good fractals and show a real affinity for bad ones.  But people like that don’t run contests — they run from contests.

A few rules of thumb: Great art is always unpopular because anything that’s so intensely specialized and focused alienates at least 90 percent of its audience.   It’s almost a law of mathematics.  But it’s a good thing because it means that your own gut feelings about your work are probably more important and a more accurate measurement of it’s value than the other 9 out of 10 people who may look at it — if we can only stop deceiving ourselves.  The majority is always wrong because whenever a lot of people think they all see the same thing it shows they aren’t really looking very closely.

Art is all about taking the trivial more seriously.  We can start by making bad fractals.

April 4, 2009

The Golden Shore 2

Although I tried as best I could to hide from the ugly brute, he no sooner awoke than I was snatched up in one of his enormous hands.  However, instead of consuming me like some dainty he in a very refined manner asked me who I was and how I came to be on this island.

Explaining to him as well as I could, for I had not yet recovered much from my unfortunate ordeal at sea, I told him I was Sindbad and had left my home in Baghdad and sailed from Bussorah almost sixty days ago.  I had however been shipwrecked and washed up here after clinging to some timbers which were all that remained of my ship.  I was suitably astonished when he responded in kind and told me that he too was a native of my own country and that if I was able to show him the way, he would carry both of us back there.

The means of doing this were no less extraordinary, for he claimed that once the sun had set he was embued with the power of walking on the sea as if it were dry land.  The only reason he had not already left this lonesome island he said was because he was unable to find his way from here to the next island in time before the sun rose and was sure he would drown in the open sea if he did not reach there by then.

I assured him that while I was merely a merchant and not a sea captain, I could certainly direct him as I had made some efforts to learn the ways of navigation albeit in a casual way primarily as a method of relieving my boredom while on long voyages.  As we were not far off from a series of islands just beyond which lay the mainland, we agreed to set off as soon as the sun set.

(From the 8th Voyage of Sindbad.  Image made in Sterlinware 2.)

March 31, 2009

The Golden Shore

Finally, after more than a week drifting about at the mercy of the sea, I saw in the distance some land.  The coast appeared quite rugged and at first I thought myself to be suffering greatly from my ordeal for I perceived the shore to be golden and glittering like a Sultan’s treasury.  On shore I discovered that the sand that surrounded the cliffs were in fact made of gold just as my eyes had thought when I saw it far off at sea.

I was greatly confused at this for how could it be that such wealth could lie exposed and easy prey for anyone sailing past and yet be as undisturbed as this?  Furthermore, there appeared to be a settlement not far away with a fine harbor and several large ships in port.  My wonder at all this gold was quickly forgotten however when I stumbled upon a enormous pile of human bones and another one of those monstrous creatures whom I had hoped I would never see again.  I now found myself wishing I was back at sea clinging to the wreckage of my ship.  I took some comfort however in the fact that the giant appeared to be sleeping for the moment and unaware of my presence on his glittering golden shore.

(From The 8th Voyage of Sindbad.  Image made in Sterlingware and processed with Flaming Pear’s India Ink, Bayer pattern.)

March 30, 2009

Journey into Bubbles!


There’s an odd render setting in Sterlingware 1.7 and 2.0 called “27. gaussian sine dimension 9”.  It’s not terribly interesting…

Unless you just happen to be in the mood for twisting dials.  It seems that at the default setting of 30 iterations all you get are some dull swirly things.  But when you lower the iterations to 10, then you get these circular, radial wave, glass-like patterns.

It just goes to show that you haven’t really seen everything until you’ve really seen everything.

After that it’s a matter of playing around with the color controls to get something half-decent looking.  Once again, we have to depart from the default settings, that cow-path of creativity that leads to barren pastures and stuff you don’t want to step in.

Low color numbers look good, but the higher ones aren’t bad.  The intense radial pattern tends to turn into dust if there are too many steps from the higher numbers.

It’s all a good example of how algorithmic art, as a creative pursuit, can work.  You change variables and see what happens and keep at it until you find a setting that looks interesting and then you try as many formula variations as you can to see if it makes something of it.  You adjust the machine.

I’m not really sure these images are best described as fractal even thought they are implementations of a fractal formula; they seem more disorganized and more a product of the rendering method’s style than anything resembling a formula.

Sometimes I see something Kandinsky-like in the circles and clusters of circles.

There’s a printed quality to the imagery, but it’s the areas of complexity where the patterns collide that’s most interesting.

Sometimes I think that all the program is really doing is just mixing up a lot of circles and randomly pouring them out onto the screen.

The radial patterns, especially when they intersect, resemble 2D atomic drawings of molecules.

It’s one of the simplest and yet also the most creative aspects of Sterlingware.

In the end it’s all imagery and the labels are as remote and meaningless as the detailed ingredients on the side of a chocolate bar.

March 29, 2009

Ice Star

The heat death of the universe appears to be more than just a theoretical supposition.

Already it has been documented that parts of the universe have reached the level of zero energy, that being absolute zero, zero degrees Kelvin, or -273 degrees Celsius.

This is the domain of the literally, frozen stars.

Observing these entities is quite difficult and requires special instrumentation because their state of zero energy – heat death – means they do not emit light energy or heat energy.

As a result, such domains have been purely hypothetical and impossible to confirm until now.

Now we have photoshop filters and these Ice Stars can be seen for the very first time.

Cheap too.

No probes.  No expensive funky, hi-fi telescopes.

Just me and my Mosaic Toolkit by Lance Otis.

Saving NASA billions.

Since 2005.

Just by pushing buttons and turning dials.

March 23, 2009

Mosaic Toolkit Adventures

Mosaic Toolkit by Lance Otis.  It’s a “photoshop” filter that I use in XnView running with Wine on Ubuntu Linux; that’s why it’s really not a Photoshop filter in my mind, but then I guess “Linux” is just a kernel too and not a whole operating system.

I start with the Vernissage filter by Mario Klingemann that makes colored squares and rectangles; it’s part of his Instant Art collection of filters — a good name, I think.  Then I go over to the Mosaic Toolkit and change the default settings to Square Rings (from just plain Squares) and set the Cell Size pixels to 10.  Then I wait a really long time (it works faster natively on Windows) and click on apply.

After that you have the square shapes with little square windows and railings on the sides and it’s just a matter of trying out different filters to change the colors or other simple things like that.  Because the shapes are so clean and simple, many of the filters have much pronounced effects than when you apply them to more complex and photographic type images.  It also makes for very small file sizes because they can be indexed, often down to 16 colors, and saved as pngs with file sizes as small as 5k.  Of course, we all have broadband now, so who cares about all that dial-up friendly file size stuff?

I learned something deep and profound while doing all this: creativity is inherently algorithmic.  We experiment with things (styles, methods, techniques) not in order to make a single image or piece of artwork, but rather in order to discover a procedure that can produce a wide range of interesting images.  The procedure is a style and style is a procedure — an algorithm, set of instructions.

The mechanical or predictable nature of algorithmic art is therefore something which is common to all art forms, even ones which are “handmade” like painting or drawing.  Artists develop styles by experimenting and finding combinations of things which work and discarding ones that don’t.  Personal style is a big part of many artist’s career objectives and in some extreme cases, the only goal they have — to make artwork that consistently reflects a unique visual flavor.

So when it comes to working with machines — algorithmic art — one should attempt to discover styles or syndromes of effects that produce a type of imagery that is reproducible but capable of great variation.  Vernissage and Mosaic Toolkit are one of those discoveries.

March 21, 2009

Algorithmic Art Thoughts – 1

Algorithmic Art is something like a space station.  In a space station, Earth-people live and work just like they do on Earth; breathing, eating, thinking, moving.  But they do so in an environment that makes many of their routines and habits awkward and simply — foreign.

There’s no gravity on a space station, so something that is completely intuitive on Earth — which way is down — becomes completely meaningless out in space.  Out in space one has to arbitrarily decide where the floor is and sitting “down” in a seat requires one to be forced and bucked into it.

In the context of space, many previously held assumptions are revealed to be based entirely on external forces found on Earth (eg. gravity).  Algorithmic Art does the same thing for art by taking it out into space where the familiar frames of reference don’t exist and can’t exist because they’re based entirely on factors which aren’t present in Algorithmically produced imagery.

Algorithms are mechanical and so there is no human intent or direction in algorithmic art.  Algorithms don’t reproduce imagery from the real world like trees or human faces because they such things are not algorithmic.  Trees and faces are not mathematically expressible concepts and when they do appear in algorithmic imagery then it’s an accident or more accurately, just something that looks like a tree or face.

Photography and human artists are capable of reproducing real things because they have the capacity to copy the things around them.  Algorithms on the other hand are, ironically, are much more creative and what they produce is always original, always new.  That’s what algorithms do best; they create algorithmic imagery, not realistic imagery.

Is Algorithmic imagery abstract art, then?  It would look that way by virtue of elimination, since if it isn’t realistic then it must be abstract.  But I would say that it is more accurate and more meaningful to describe Algorithmic Art as something distinct from both realism and abstraction and subsequently to get rid of concepts that are only relevant to “hand-made” art and just accept it for what it is: more art.

Algorithmic imagery doesn’t look like real things and yet it often does look like concrete things, tangible things, just not really tangible or concrete because they don’t actually exist outside of the world of computing.  So Algorthmic imagery has concrete characteristics and for that reason isn’t really very abstract at all and yet to include it in the category of realism would require one to have a very insane view of reality.

So algorithmic art belongs in a category all it’s own.  I know that sounds like a colossal compromise and taking the easy way out, but if you spend any length of time studying algorithmic art I think you’ll agree with me that it simply doesn’t fit into the categories of realism or abstract by it’s nature or by it’s appearance.


It really is something completely new and I think that’s why it hasn’t been recieved as the bold new exciting thing that it is: viewers and critics get stuck on the elementary question,  “What is it?”.

But like I suggested earlier, algorithmic art’s presence forces many of the boundaries and qualifications for art to be changed.  (That is, unless one insists it isn’t art at all.)  But I think these changes to the definition of art are actually just ideas that have been around for some time, just as the law of gravity has been around for some time but only in the context of space was it fully demonstrated and exhibited.  Algorithmic art enlarges the domain of art and reveals all those Earth-bound ideas for what they are.

(Images made in Sterling2, a fractal program)

March 12, 2009