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Applying Visual Design Principles to Generative Art: Part 1

Posted by Michelle Chandra on

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My aspirations as a visual artist began in my twenties when I spent many hours after work exploring film photography, collage, abstract acrylic painting, and graphic design.

I approach creating code art in the same way I approached creating a painting, or a collage. It is the visual repetition of color and shapes that interests me as a generative artist. Pattern is my jam!

My programming skills are not particularly strong (I am no software developer!) But as an artist, I have always believed beautiful art can be created via very simple means. The foundation of it all are the basic principles of visual design. So what are those principles?!

The Gestalt Theory of Design

The Gestalt theory of design was developed in the 1920's as a way to understand how humans find order in disorder. When looking at an artwork, our minds perceive individual elements as a whole. We also group individual elements together to make sense of the complete piece. 

Some of the key principles of gestalt theory include the idea of closure - that we fill in the gaps and close a shape in our minds even if there is only the suggestion of the shape. For instance, in the below generative design, there is a center shape that is the suggestion of a flower. I find when I look at the design, my mind fills in the gap and I perceives the flower as a complete shape.

spirograph generative art by michelle chandra of dirt alley design drawn with axidraw pen plotter

Another important principle is the idea of figure/ground - that we see the foreground first, but the background is equally important for contrast. This is something I love thinking about when I am designing, especially with my 10 print inspired patterns. For me, the patterns that appear in between the central star shapes are equally as important and interesting!

We also group elements that are close together, and group elements that are similar. I think about this a lot with my latest 10 print inspired pattern (which will be up in my shop August 27th!) In grouping the starish shapes together, bigger shapes appear, but also the forms in between the shapes (that look like clouds to me!) are as equally important. 

These are just a few of the principles of gestalt theory!

Color, Color, Color!

Equally important to visual design principles is COLOR! While at community college, I took a semester-long class dedicated entirely to color theory. I love exploring color as a code artist, although I wouldn't say I am particularly sophisticated at it!

pen plotter art by michelle chandra of dirt alley design made with processing code

In my color class, we learned how to mix the primary colors to arrive at all the colors of the rainbow. It is important to understand the difference between additive color (color mixing related to painting, ink, etc.) versus subtractive color (how color mixes on a screen!) 

When thinking about color, you need to be thinking about the actual color itself (the hue), along with it's level of saturation or brightness (how muted or neon bright it is!) 

However, it can be helpful to start the process with a design that is in grayscale values first so you can make sure there is interesting contrast before applying color. I often start out drawing my designs in black and white before trying a multicolor version. High contrast designs are very eye catching, such as when I draw my designs as white ink on black paper.

generative art drawn with a pen plotter by michelle chandra created with processingWhen applying color, you will want to explore what kind of color palette - monochrome (one color only?) or multiple colors (2-3 or more!) This is where a color wheel may come in handy for you as you choose colors, there are also online websites that will automatically generate color palettes.

seaweed spirograph generative art by michelle chandra

Getting Started Making Generative Art

When I went to graduate school in 2013, I was immediately enamored by generative art. However, I was completely new to programming, and I didn't really know how to "make" generative art, even though I did know how to code (somewhat!)

After graduate school, I had the usual books on generative art, and would look at the code examples, but I didn't feel inspired. It took some time to understand that the best way to make generative art is to have a visual idea you want to explore first, rather than trying to start from a code example in a book.

There are definitely common generative themes and concepts you will probably explore programmatically (that these books cover, which is why they are still useful as a reference!), but those themes and ideas should be woven in once you have a base idea/project. At least, that is how it works best for me! 

Speaking of Creative Code Books

Whether you are a seasoned programmer or new to code art, check out these books on creative coding as handy references for your generative art aspirations:

Making Spirographish Designs Programmatically!

While I was in graduate school, I was fascinated by the idea of creating a spirograph-inspired program. The first semester, I developed a very simple program that rotated lines and shapes. It drew interesting forms, although nothing novel. I had fun slicing up images and making collage-y designs with the program. 

Later in my second semester, I took a class on applying oscillation programmatically, and the application in my simple program was breathtaking! However, it all started from an initial idea, not some random code example in a book. 

Over the past year, I have expanded upon the program trying out rotating different shapes and forms, and exploring different rotation values (you can follow along on Instagram or Twitter where I post new designs often!) That is what a lot of generative art is about, creating many different similar variations over time, trying out different concepts and ideas on a base program. 

Of course, a solid understanding of visual design principles to begin with doesn't hurt!

In my second blog post, a companion to this one, I will share some of the programmatic and math principles that I have enjoyed exploring in my generative art this past year!

All Generative Art, All the Time

But what if you want to learn more?! Check out these additional blog posts:

michelle chandra of dirt alley designDirt 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 - geometry art 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 creativity generative art generative design graphic design spirograph

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  • Thanks for the article!

    Dustin on

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