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CMYK Butterflies and Galaxy Art: Interview with Daniela Kroehnert

Posted by Michelle Chandra on

Whenever I think "colorful" and "cool," I think of the art of Daniela Kroehnert, who creates beautifully detailed CMYK pen plots of butterflies, star clusters and insects (along with many other scientific subject matter!) Daniela built her own pen plotter, and is an expert on hacking pens, inks and color mixing. Daniela shares insights on what inspires her scientific art, and how her background in architecture guides her work.

Like many of the artists I follow on Instagram, I actually don't know much about your background and how you ended up creating plotter art! What led you to plotting? Do you work as an artist full-time? How long have you been making plotter art?

daniela kroehnert cmyk butterflies

I would love to work as an artist full-time, but on the other hand there are myriads of other things I love to do as well! The best fitting label for myself is probably “maker.” I love learning new skills, translating ideas into physical matter and sharing my knowledge. That term probably coins it best.

Sometime in 2015, I got my first PolargraphSD. Since then, I definitely spend most spare minutes of my life on pen plotting. The fever really started way back in 2009, when I saw a little Makerbot Cupcake (3D printer) in a photograph in a Wired article showing the dream makerspace of then “today." I was in architecture school at the time and decided I needed my own 3D-Printer for my thesis project so I started sourcing and making the parts for a Reprap Mendel. 

daniel kroehnert pen plotter cmyk butterflies

It took me a whole year (there weren’t really any stores selling 3D-Printer parts then) and in the end, I never really got it working. I revived most of its parts as the axi-draw style pen-plotter I built during the first pandemic lockdown in Austria in 2020. All of these years, I have been very fortunate to work in a big and very supportive architecture office in Vienna, which has an amazing, well-equipped digital fabrication workshop. They have encouraged my experimentation and specialisation in that field which ultimately led me to run a Digital Fabrication Workshop and teach these subjects at a local art university now.

My two favorite artwork series of yours are your CMYK butterflies, and your Stardust stippled prints. What inspired these works? What is your process of creating them?

I’ve always wanted to become an astronaut and am obsessed with our solar system since I can remember and have always been a science fiction aficionado. Everything remotely space related is hot, I can’t help it. The universe is simply mind boggling!

daniela kroehnert nebula pen plotter art

I like to think of myself as a “Knowledge sponge” (I kindly borrow that description from Amanda Palmer.) I want to understand the micro and macro of our world. Insects are fascinating creatures. Butterflies as a subject have the additional benefit of presenting the most amazing colors which gives me so much space to experiment with in CMYK. 

I start with photographs and split them into different color channels in Photoshop. These individual greyscale images are then translated into geometric shapes within a software package called Rhinoceros 3d/Grasshopper 3d from McNeel, which I also use to generate the gcode for the plotter. For the nebulas, I use EvilMadScientist’s stippleGen

daniela kroehnert nebula stippling pen plotter art

It's kind of mixed digital media art. I choose tools that I think will get the job done most efficiently. I never have the patience to program everything within one environment. One nebula drawing from start to end can take me from two full days to a whole week of experimenting until I am satisfied with the result. Not very efficient, but I like to also have me, the thinking, breathing and messy human present in the process, in other words: I like to be in control!

Why are you specifically interested in butterflies (and star clusters!) as subject matter?

While attending a biomimetics seminar at another university in Vienna, I learned that there is not one single blue butterfly on earth (the colour and in that context I mean “pigment.”) Blue generally doesn’t occur naturally in/on any animal on earth. These amazingly blue shimmering morpho butterflies just appear that way to our eyes because the microscopic crystal structures in their wings are exactly as thick as the wavelength of blue light. Technically they are completely transparent.

daniela kroehnert butterflies pen plotter art

Sometimes my “scientific” research related to my subjects escalates quite a bit.

For those who would like to make colorful art, what advice would you give on where to start?

I think the most important thing is curiosity and an internalized urge to fail, to do it again and fail better (I might have borrowed that last part from Tom Sachs.) I also recommend the book “Tate: Colour: A Visual History: The Exploration of Colour from Newton to Pantone” by Alexandra Loske.

You mention on your website that you are inspired by the work of Chuck Close. Whenever I think of the importance of distance when viewing an artwork, I think of the self portraits of Chuck Close, and I can definitely see the importance of distance in your own pieces, especially your stippled stardust series. What do you find inspiring about the work of Chuck Close, and how has it informed your own work?

My first encounter with one of Chuck Close’s works at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC in 2004 started a continuing fascination with how our human light receptors and brains process information and make colours and shapes appear that are physically not there. That is why I started pixel and stipple drawings. 

chuck close magnolia jacquard loom portrait woven tapestry

Excluding his hyper realistic works, his oeuvre not only shows you different levels of information depending on the viewing distance but in the general depth and layers of a drawing. At arm lengths, some can be read as an abstract geometric piece that lives from the tension between local areas of compositional shapes and colour fields. From the other side of the gallery, they represent a figurative portrait. Having both art forms not only present in one piece but being the piece is what tempts me the most. I am not quite there yet, in my work that currently only ranges from the phone camera close up to the other side of a room. Need to scale the work up at one point.  chuck close francesco

His hand painted CMYK hyperrealistic portraits are mind blowing and his Jacquard Loom Series at least subconsciously might have inspired me to do such work with a CNC-machine. I love playing with these physical phenomena. Such drawings animate a spectator to move in space and interact with them, they do not just hang around passively on a vertical plane.

chuck close painting

What other artists do you find similarly inspiring and why?

That is a very long list. But I’ll pick out some.

Christo and Jeanne Claude. First and foremost because I admire the drawings and collages for their large-scale environmental installations and wrapping projects. Besides the effective and poignant use of colour, they equally contain so many layers of information and the added element of layout and their resemblance with architectural plans and drawings are very satisfactory. I can’t hide it, I am a classically trained architect. Now that I think about it, they also either have this element of pixelation or repetition of equal elements (I also use exclusively equal sized dots or equal length lines) with a slight variation in their relative position to each over time and space (e.g. “the Umbrellas”) or they hide and blur objects and stimulate one’s imagination (e.g. the “Wrapped Reichstag.”)

christo and jean claude the umbrellas

Not very long ago, I came across the Austrian caricaturist, graphic artist, and illustrator Paul Flora and instantly fell in love with his work. His pen stroke is absolutely exceptional. There is this dynamic quality to his drawings and particularly his blurry and subtle coloured Venetian Scenes are the most beautiful cross-hatching excesses I have ever seen.

paul flora black and white drawing

I consider Vera Molnár a personal role model. Her pioneering work in computational drawing is undeniably very visible in most of my drawings anyways. It is awesome and very special to not only have her but many great female artists being an integral part of this discipline since its beginning. That is a very rare - maybe even unique occurrence in the history books of the “white western world”.

vera molnar squares

Slowly moving away from fine and sculptural art I have to mention Tom Sachs again. “Life is fear! Be afraid and do it anyway.” I closely follow the work of several makers that inspire me on a daily basis. Laura Kampf, Simone Giertz and iJessup are the most important ones. I value their hands-on and constantly encouraging DIY approach with the additional benefit that they are not too serious about what they are doing. They all nurture my more 3-dimensional endeavors. 

Thanks for sharing insights into your work! Where can people find you online to see more of your art and follow along?

Thank you so much for your interest in my work and the possibility to share my thoughts with the world wide web. I can be caught in the act on instagram @daniela_kroehnert and one can find some of my pen-plotting art and other creative projects on

michelle chandra of dirt alley design

Dirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes. In 2019, she began a new project - generative prints created with code and drawn with a pen plotter. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @dirtalleydesign where she posts new spirograph designs daily 

artist process plotter

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