Computer Art

The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal.

-- William James

Very little computer art could be described as "realism" or "representational", but much John Art falls in this category. The viewer sees trees, flowers, birds ... readily recognizable by anybody. Much of this art can be viewed as a branch of "nature" art.

The object of John's art is to use a computer to create natural-looking scenes. The position and color of every flower, twig, etc. is computed and placed in a file. A computer program, typically of 2000-6000 lines, is used to do this. Thus the creative process consists of writing the program in some general-purpose computer language such as C, Basic, Java, etc. Because the program is written from the ground up, there are no limitations due to the views of the software company engineers that create well-known graphics programs such as Illustrator.

In a natural scene, no two things (trees, flowers, ...) are quite the same. This is also true in John Art, where random numbers are used to give each thing a somewhat different size, position, color, etc. The use of random numbers may be the most unique thing about this art. Conventional art and drawing programs do not have any built-in feature for the use of random numbers, but if one creates the program from the ground up, the color, shape, etc. of everything can be computed. The final object is to compute a scene that resembles nature, in a somewhat stylized form. A John Art image, like a real natural scene, presents a balance between order and randomness.

The picture below shows the detail that exists in the files and is printed on paper, and how this relates to the much-compressed images on this web site.

John's art is in a sense impressionistic. Even a brief inspection shows that the objects shown do not have photo-realistic detail. In the composition and implementation much thought is given to "What overall impression will this make on the viewer?" The sense of serenity that so many find in nature is one of the intended results.

John's art reflects the place where he lives -- Minnesota. John is often seen walking in the woods and fields of our many parks, and accumulating visions and ideas for his work as he does so. John grew up in Colorado, has friends and family there, and this is another strand of his experience. Twelve years spent in California in the 50s and 70s is also an influence.

Much computer-generated art is created today. Many artists produce images based on distorted or overlaid photographs. There are many software tools, such as Photoshop, that can be used for this. These images are usually somewhat surrealistic. Other artists use mathematical formulas which produce "fractals" -- a concept from pure mathematics. These are often colored or distorted to produce purely abstract images.

John's art does not fall into either of these categories.

Each time the program is re-run to produce another output, the set of random numbers is different. This means that no two pictures are identical. Each differs from the others in detail -- the position and color of a flower, etc. example

John's art is largely unrelated to pure mathematics, but takes its digital sources from "applied" or "numerical" mathematics and technical graphics. It is a significant and relevant fact that any reasonably smooth curved line that an artist can draw with pencil or brush can be approximated by just a few numbers. For example, any smooth S-shaped or U-shaped curve can be well approximated by a Bezier curve. Such a curve requires only 8 numbers to define it, with each number being either an x or y coordinate in the picture plane.

My program directly creates a vector graphics file. This is then "rasterized" to produce a printable file for an inkjet printer. One consequence of this is that the image consists of uniformly colored objects, somewhat like cartoons. There is no "texture" although if there are enough things in the picture they begin to look like texture. There are no shadows (again like cartoons). Objects are often outlined in a different color, somewhat like art deco. The number of available colors is 16,777,216, and all of them are probably used in one image or another. (It can be noted that two colors whose RGB integer values differ by no more than 2-3 are usually indistinguishable to the human eye.)

There can be 100000s of objects in the picture, so that the level of detail approaches photography. Some people upon first viewing such an image take a minute or so to decide that it isn't a photograph. The printed file will have 50-150 Mpixels in it -- far beyond a camera image. Modern inkjet printers can easily reproduce this level of detail. Because of the limitations of the internet, the images shown here are much coarser than the actual prints would be. The full impact of the fine detail can really only be seen in an actual print. For those who live close to John, he is happy to have people visit his home for a personal view of what the actual printed art looks like. Just contact him by EMAIL or phone (see main page).


The artist first began to think of images like this in the 1980s when computers were new. The first attempts foundered on various rocks, mostly due to the limitations (both software and hardware) of the computers of that era. In 2006 he took a new look at the possibilities and came up with a new software scheme which has been the basis of his work since.

Nature photography has been an interest for some time. But one may find that there is a wonderful scene but the light is poor, some of the flowers are wilted, etc. The paint artist gets around this by the magic of his brush, and likewise John Art can make a field of flowers where all are in full bloom at the same time. And ... these scenes have, in photographic terms, an infinite depth of focus.

What other artists are admired? John has long been fascinated by the 19th century Japanese printmakers Hokusai and Hiroshige. They do so much with line and form, and like John's art the images are stylized. There is little to compare between John's art and that of Van Gogh, but his use of color has often been inspiring. Pieter Bruegel's astonishingly detailed paintings have been an inspiration. The painting of contemporary Japanese-American artist Hiro Yamagata is much admired. There are affinities with the Iowa landscapes of Grant Wood, with their stylized trees. There are also parallels with Grandma Moses. Both Grandma and John took up art in their grandparental years. Both went to the same art school. Both belong to "realism" and show nature -- grass, trees, hills, clouds, ... .

I am also indebted to Benoit Mandelbrot, whose ideas (as they relate to art) are much misunderstood by both mathematicians and artists, many of whom believe that the only fractals are deterministic ones.  I suppose that Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier should also be cited as an inspiration. The popular writings of Leonard Mlodinow and Mark Buchanan describe the kind of randomness-based thinking that permeates my outlook on art and much else.

The artist's formal training in art ceased at the end of first grade. He is also self-taught in computer programming because he went to college before colleges had computers or taught about them. He is not self-taught in science and mathematics.