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

Fractal Guernica

Fractal Guernica, (guernica03.loo)

In the same category as room-temperature fusion, perpetual motion and the age-old alchemical quest to turn lead into gold, is added yet another bold and fearful challenge: to make a piece of fractal artwork that rivals the depth of expression of Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica. I threw down this challenge recently albeit in a very off-handed way, via a blog posting and near the end of it, suggesting it was merely something mythical and hypothetical which would be good for one to contemplate and aim at, even if it was out of human reach.

Well, wonder of wonders, here it is — all algorithm and all art.  You could call it an accident, I suppose, but that’s the whole point of the hitherto mythical Fractal Guernica concept: algorithms don’t express anything other than algorithms.  If algorithmic art is just an accident then fractal art is all about chasing ambulances and spotting crash scenes.

For those of you who like big art, or are just getting old and need to see everything large, here’s a large version.

Anyhow, let’s get the discussion of rich, visual symbolism started, the kind which only a really great work of art can provoke.  Hopefully we’ll be able to decode everything the artist is trying to say, because these things can be pretty complex and convoluted.  And that’s without even attempting to psychoanalyze the artist or take a Marxist perspective.

What’s it all about?  Hey, slow down.  How about, what’s that bull with the half-moon head all about?   That’s what I saw first too (foreground, left).  Did the artist rip that right off Picasso or what?  Actually, we ought to get something straight, right off the bat: the artist is the algorithm.  What does an algorithm know about that?

The bull is actually a cow (unimportant) and is an allusion to the cow jumped over the moon nursery rhyme.  But the moon has now obscured the cow’s head and left it confused and blind.  This is a direct reference to the space race and how it got bogged down once it actually landed on the moon subsequently losing it’s direction and which since then has literally gone nowhere.  The strength of the space age has become deluded by it’s own achievements.  The big green thing beside it comes later.

Background, left (top,left) is one of the most shocking off all images.  It represents aircraft and perhaps bears some similarity to the original Guernica.  The airplane has a huge mouth and is attempting to consume the Earth (the blue round thing).  While in most of the world aircraft represent modern, advanced transportation, in other parts of the world aircraft are entirely different and play the role of the most voracious of all war machines.  Don’t think Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet; think Mig-29 or F-18.  If you’ve ever seen, and particularly heard, a modern fighter jet maneuvering in the sky above you, the deep rumble, the sound of the sky ripping apart and your chest reverberating, ear drums rattling — then this image is easily understood.  The aircraft is depicted not as a gleaming white bird, but like a crocodile, an ancient lizard with a long, teeth-lined snout, pursuing the Earth itself.  Snake of the sky, King of the Air.

Bottom, right.  It is modern man himself (herself).  Notice how long the arms are; very long, they’re extended.  Technology has extended the arms of modern man but at the same time weighed them down and reduced their choices.  The golden glow (a recurrent theme, representing technological enlightenment) distorts his face and his head is turned at an angle which is out of sync with the things around him.  There’s more, but it’s obvious.

Middle, right, above modern man.  The volcano has a strange eruption on top of it because it’s not a volcanic eruption at all — it’s an allusion to the Biblical tower of Babel on top of a natural tower, a volcano.  The tall structure is a broadcast antenna.  Broadcasting what?  Babel sounds.  The communication that links and informs so many all over the world is ultimately a source of confusion and something which discourages people from cooperating: propaganda; biased news reporting; stock manipulation, liar-mercials.  Well, it’s a small part of the total work, so let’s not dwell on it.

Above the moon which is on top of the cow’s head is a series of legged creatures enveloped in a golden glow (remember the golden glow?).  Bonus marks to the art history students who guessed, Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind.  Except in this case it’s the technologically enlightened who are blindly stumbling, one after the other.

Finally, the main element in this work, the golden glob of stuff dropping down (mid-picture) colliding with the green glob rising up.  The golden glob is filled with things coming down from above — space industry spin-offs — biotechnology, genetic engineering, creatures dark and intriguing.  The golden glob is the descending technological world which should be ascending, but has reversed direction and now comes into sharp conflict with the green movement of environmental responsibility and technological restraint.  (Notice the purity and simplicity of the green glob as contrasted with the complexity of the golden one, although there is something like a red scorpion with his tail sticking out, in the green glob.)

On the large scale, note how the elements are at the same time detached from each other and yet in collision with each other.  It suggests that their movements or trajectories are conflicting but not intentionally conflicting.  Instead, the collisions come from the expression of their nature and not any sort of conscious will — a sort of Babel like manifestation of decay through mental confusion rather than through conflicting or competing desires.  Everything just falls apart because it no longer has any connection.  The modern world is freedoms in collision.

Stepping back even further, there is some irony here that a work that depicts technology as some horrible thing destroying people and their relationships was in fact made using a fractal generator, one of the most technological of all things I would say.  In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this artist is in fact a hypocrite; demonizing technology and yet at the same time using it to to make art just for fun.  Is he blinded by that golden glow too?

Whoa.  Far out.  That is so 21st Century.

March 3, 2009

Sterling-Worlds – Interactive Fractal Art

Climb the mountain, explore the caves, or check out the little islands off shore… Just load the parameter file (shellcity02.loo) into Sterling2 and this whole little world is yours.
Fractals are a unique form of artistic imagery.  They are more like sculptures and dioramas than the flat, static paintings they are often presented as because they can be viewed from more than one perspective.

Fractal Art in it’s simplest form is more like photography because the image is made up as much by what is left out as what is included.  Fractal Art is an artform of editing and selection — browsing and choosing — from what the generator creates.

In a simple, single-layer program like Sterlingware however, there’s no reason why an artist has to limit himself to merely presenting still images to his audience.  It’s possible — with fractals — to present the viewer with the parameter file that will recreate the entire fractal environment and allow the viewer to explore it like it was a sculpture to be walked around and viewed from many angles.

In this way, fractals have the potential to be an interactive art form just like the Grand Canyon in the United States is interacted with by tourists.  Despite the fact there are plenty of photographs and documentaries of the Grand Canyon, people aren’t satisfied with all that and still want to see it for themselves and experience it in its natural, interactive setting.

I’m a big fan of Sterlingware because it’s a creative tool that I just seem to get better results with than other fractal programs.  I’ve always included parameter files alongside the images I posted on my blog and website because the parameter files are the Grand Canyon itself, so to speak, while the image is just a single view of it.  With a program like Sterlingware, you can share an entire world with your audience and not merely a snapshot of it.  The program automatically saves a parameter file everytime you save an image; and they’re small too — a 300 byte simple text file.

It’s like the image is a door and the parameter file is the great big world behind the door.  When given the parameter file, viewers can walk through the doorway and explore the whole world instead of just standing there and looking at the door.

Maybe I’ve looked at fractal generation differently.  The way I’ve always worked right from the start with making fractal art is to adjust parameters and watch the effect it has on the appearance of a formula, in general, and then go hunting around for something to take a snapshot of.  A good parameter setting in Sterlingware sets the stage for an ongoing harvest of interesting images.  The combination of formula, render setting and color settings and a few other things creates a gigantic tree which now needs nothing more to complete the creative process than to be climbed and picked.

With multi-layered programs the process, I suspect, is fundamentally different and yields results which are also fundamentally different.  The parameter file of a multi-layered fractal program (like Ultra Fractal, for instance) is like a photoshop file composed more of layers and transformational effects than “fractal stuff”.  The result is that one doesn’t create a Grand Canyon, one creates a Grand Photo.  Nothing wrong with that except that the process ends with just an image or two instead of starting with it and opening up a whole new realm for exploration.  It’s just a difference in the way the two types of fractal programs and creative processes work.

Single-layer programs produce imagery; multi-layer programs produce images.  The imagery from a single-layer program is dynamic and almost limitless because it can be explored, zoomed, browsed, etc…, this gives it the potential to be more than just a still image creator and to exist as an artform which can be viewed from many different zoom levels and explored in many different locations.  There’s a term for this sort of thing; generative art or interactive or something.  This sort of art is more than just a picture to look at and as such, the viewer’s experience can be more than just look-ing; it can also be zoom-ing, search-ing, discover-ing.

I’m not saying something crazy, such as a program like Ultra Fractal doesn’t produce fractal art; I’m just saying that the way it works is much more complex and input-oriented and because of this it lacks a feature that the simpler, single-layer programs have, which is the interactive, flowing, real-time, mission-to-Mars capability that makes a program like Sterlingware so much fun to use and so much fun to share.

When I first started using Sterlingware I saved thousands of images because using it was like going on a journey or expedition.  I took snapshots of everything I saw because it was all so freaky and awesome.  Later on I calmed down and learned to just capture the things that were really exceptional.  But now I’m thinking that the journey and the expedition are unique aspects to the fractal artform and ought to be something presented to the audience as a form of fractal art in its own right.

February 20, 2009

Sterlingware Reloaded

Made in Sterling2
(parameter file: shell01.loo )

That great fractal classic by Stephen Ferguson, Sterlingware, has been been reconfigured by Tad Boniecki (aka Soler7) with 50 new formulas and released for download as Sterling2.  And it’s totally free too.

Now many of you will know me as a sort of Sterlingware sage; the renowned author of Tim’s Sterlingware Tutorial, that classic guide to using Sterlingware 1.7.  I’ve spent thousands of hours experimenting with Sterlingware 1.7, the previous version made in 1997, and learned just about everything there is to know about it.

So you’d think a guy like me would have known that an updated version had been released — a whole 6 months ago!

No.  I only found out about it because I was surfing around and – I forget exactly how – found myself at Paul N. Lee’s list of fractal programs.  My first thought was how old and out of date these listings must be. I could remember visiting this very same web page back in 2002 when I’d first discovered fractal programs and wanted to find and try out every one available.  In fact, I think this was where I originally found Sterlingware 1.7.  So you can imagine how stunned I was to see right below the link to that venerable,  decade-old, SterlingWare 1.7, a brand-new link for SterlingWare “2.0”.

Tad Boniecki tells the story this way:

In mid-2007 I contacted Stephen [Ferguson], as I thought that Sterling was an excellent program that lacked one key feature – a formula editor. He told me that adding a formula editor would be a huge job and that in any case the development environment to compile all the parts of Sterling was no longer available, as it is obsolete. However, he encouraged me to do the next best thing, which was to change the formulae in the program. With his help I set up the development environment on my PC and was able to recompile Sterling and to make changes to just one part of the program, ie the formulae. Other parts could not be changed.

Tad seems to share my view of Sterlingware (aka SterlingWare, Sterling, Sterling-Ware).  The program does an awesome job of rendering fractal formulas and it lacks nothing in its creative powers except for just more of those formulas to render.  The natural response to this, as Tad already mentioned, is a formula editor (parser,compiler) which would allow users to input whatever formulas they like.

I don’t know all the ins and outs about how Sterlingware was built.  Actually I don’t know any of those sorts of things.  But I do know that Stephen Ferguson has other fractal programs, such as InkBlot Kaos and Tierazon, and they both have formula “parsers” which allow users to input and experiment with custom formulas.  I’ve used the formula parser in InkBlot quite a bit and it really extends the creative abilities of the program although it’s not as fast as the built-in formulas that come with the program.  Sterlingware is different in some basic ways, and this is what I’m sure gives it its special, photo-realistic capabilities.  Sterlingware does things that I’ve never seen any other fractal program do.

More of the story from Tad:

Between June 2007 and August 2008, I spent some 100 to 200 hours changing formulae (that’s the quick part) and then testing them to see which ones produced interesting images. It turned out that creating good formulae was much more difficult than I expected. In the process I made and saved some 1,600 fractals. That’s not counting about 30,000 that I partially made but did not save. I have finished this process, so Sterling2 now has 50 formulae, all different from those of Sterling.

“100 to 200 hours changing formulae”.  It’s a lot of work to produce even just a modified version of a program like this.  If Tad spent that much time just adding new formulas, I wonder how many hours Stephen Ferguson must have spent designing, programming, testing and debugging all the other parts of Sterlingware?  It takes real dedication and devotion to produce software of this quality.

I can confidently say that Tad has done a magnificent job in his selection of these formulas.  I’ve spent at least 10 hours over the last couple of days since I downloaded it (only 437K) and I’m very excited about the potential for making great images that these formulas have.  The image up above was made with one of Tad’s new formulas and it’s precisely the kind of formula that worked so well in the original Sterlingware (1.7) and is the kind of formula I would have hoped a new version of Sterlingware would have.  Tad’s new formulas are right up there in the same category as the original ones Stephen Ferguson included in version 1.7.  A really excellent addition to the previous Sterlingware version.

I want to stress that all credit for creating this program belongs to Stephen Ferguson. My role was restricted to modifying the algorithms. I also want to thank Stephen for helping me to modify his program and for allowing me to release it as freeware, here on my site.

Hey, that’s no empty, trifling comment that Tad is making.  Not only has Stephen Ferguson helped him out by providing the source code and help with configuring the “obsolete” development environment to allow for recompiling the program, he’s also allowed Tad to give away the revised program for free from his website!

Three cheers for Steve, man.  He’s made one of the greatest and most creative fractal programs ever, and now thanks to Tad, one  very talented and hard-working fan, it’s just been reloaded with 50 spectacular formulas for a 10-year anniversary encore performance.

Let the fractal feasting begin!

February 18, 2009


I subscribe to the Project Gutenberg (public domain electronic books archive) recent additions RSS feed and it often brings to my attention books that I would never go looking for.  One of these I checked out recently was called Pictorial Photography in America 1921 by Pictorial Photographers of America.  I was just curious…

I found this passage interesting (1921):

Is Photography to Remain a Black and White Art?

[Question] “What forecast, Mr.White, do you make of future developments in photography? Is it to remain a black and white art, or are photographs in natural colors to supersede the familiar photograph of the present day in our exhibitions and in our homes?”

[Answer] “I think that the fundamental expression of photography is in black and white, and as we develop what I would call the definite photographic quality, black and white will maintain its present ascendency.”

Anyhow, at the end of the long gallery of Pictorial photos I found this ad.  Everything is in black and white in this book and the various shades of gray and the great variety of small details made me think that this would make an excellent candidate for block waving in Showfoto.  As usual, it turned out differently.

Once again (I did this before in a post called Spider Writing) I discovered it was the text areas that were the more interesting parts when block waved.  I guess the construction of text is so complex and the combinations of characters has such variety that one gets an enormous amount of unique imagery when you do strange things to it like block waving.  The camera images were all pretty much the same.

It’s a type of artwork that consists of details.  I would call it nano-art.

This is what machines do.  They don’t take photographs — they make photographs.

February 11, 2009

Stones in the Abyss

In Star Trek’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the face of outer space
exactly at the moment when
it first attained the title of
“caribbean cruise”

They run about the screen in an
interplanetary rage
of curiosity
Heaped up
glowing with crystals and orange sand
under pastel skies
in an abstract landscape of painted trees
sculpted rocks alien make-up and silver toys
slippery mind game computers and
and all the final speculative sub-plots
of the
“imagination of science”



Anyhow, you get the idea.  It was a nice vision of space back then when traveling to the Moon was seen as just the beginning instead of just the end.  But now, sending out space probes, which ought to be the start of a great real-life drama instead of the start of a trickle of data, is less like launching a mechanical Columbus and more like tossing stones into an abyss.

(Image made in Kandid.)

February 3, 2009

Evil Seeds from Space

As beautiful and wondrous as the cloud stars are, we must not forget that they also contain dangers.

Just as the enchanted world of the coral reef holds both spectacular sights as well as some of the most ferocious predators found in the sea, cloud stars have been known to have sinister things lurking in their shadows too.

Early on, both space probes as well as Earth based sensing equipment detected small clusters of highly radioactive debris inside a number of cloud stars.

Just as some trees have thorns, these radioactive masses emitted sharply focused, intense beams of ionizing radiation in the form of gamma rays.  The actual number of these “jellyfish” clusters is quite small yet would pose a significant threat to probes and of course to the crews of a manned space craft.

Ironically, these radioactive masses also have the potential to play the role of navigational beacons as their radioactive beams are so focused that they can easily be used in the way a magnetic compass utilizes the directional aspects of the Earth’s own magnetic field.  Barring that, they also serve as their own lighthouses as they’re easily detected by onboard sensors which all spacecraft already routinely employ to avoid radiation hazards in space.

(Images made in Kandid using the Affine thing in grayscale.)

February 1, 2009