Drawing in Code: Pixels, Pencils, Process

Author: 
Bailey, Jason
Completion Date: 
2010
Collaborative_Drawing_01-thumb.jpg

Throughout my life I have changed the tools I use for drawing, starting at a young age with markers, crayons, and pencil, eventually learning to paint with oils and watercolors. Painting is a process which I still consider drawing, only with a brush. In my undergraduate studies I learned to printmaking. And then it happened... about eight years ago I started using the computer as a drawing tool. Now I use it almost exclusively. It wasn’t until the last year of my graduate program that I asked myself, “Why?”

I decided computers are good at illustrating space and time, facilitating interaction by managing input and output, storing and presenting data, running and storing complex algorithms, and distributing information to a large audience at little or no cost.

When I thought about this list relative to the history of drawing, I made a dramatic realization that these issues have long been of primary interest to artists using analog drawing tools. The computer was not just a fancy calculator for crunching numbers, but also a natural extension of the history of drawing.

Thesis introduction

I have spent my whole life using drawing as a means of understanding and clarifying my environment, synthesizing that understanding, and sharing it with others.

Sometimes drawing has meant trying to accurately recreate what I see around me, such as creating a still life of some interesting objects on a table or a portrait of a family member. This experience provided me an opportunity to examine my world in much closer detail than I otherwise do in daily life.

Drawing has also meant taking highly technical information, like the complex physics involved in a car accident, and boiling it down into an easily understood graphic so that others might understand it better; or illustrating statistical data, like the variable temperature in a data center, and turning an overwhelming list of numbers into a clear visual story.

Drawing has also been about journey and discovery for me, often starting without clearly defined objectives and letting the process unfold and dictate the outcome. Not always drawing the reality that is infront of me but creating a new reality. Paul Klee described this process elegantly when he stated: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. ” (Chipp, 182) It is this last aspect of drawing that I have always enjoyed the most. This mode of drawing allows me to find questions that I wouldn’t otherwise think to ask. The process has always delivered me better ideas than simply brainstorming or even writing.

Throughout my life I have changed the tools I use for drawing, starting at a young age with markers, crayons, and pencil, eventually learning to paint with oils and watercolors. Painting is a process which I still consider drawing, only with a brush. In my undergraduate studies I learned to make linoleum prints and then intaglio prints (etchings, drypoint etc.). And then it happened... about eight years ago I started using the computer as a drawing tool. Now I use it almost exclusively. It wasn’t until the last year of my graduate program that I asked myself, “Why?”

At first, I thought I used computers to draw because that was the only way I could make a career of doing what I have always loved most: drawing. There was a good argument for this, as I don’t know anyone personally who lives off of drawing without using a computer (with the exception of a family friend who is employed full-time as a political cartoonist). There had to be more to this permanent switch in tools, so I asked myself what computers are good at, and came up with a list six key things.

I decided computers are good at illustrating space and time, facilitating interaction by managing input and output, storing and presenting data, running and storing complex algorithms, and distributing information to a large audience at little or no cost.

When I thought about this list relative to the history of drawing, I made a dramatic realization that these issues have long been of primary interest to artists using analog drawing tools. The computer was not just a fancy calculator for crunching numbers, but also a natural extension of the history of drawing.

For example, Marcel Duchamp’s painting Nude Descending a Staircase explores several themes from my list. In this painting, Duchamp is playing with the Cubist algorithms for deconstruction of space, reducing the figure into simplified geometry and displaying it from several angles. He goes beyond space and tries to represent time by showing the figure in multiple positions on the same static 2D canvas, which also suggests motion. Unlike more representational paintings, Duchamp’s painting required the user to interpret or decode the visual system of the painting in order see the motion of the figure and better understand the complex space it occupies.

Duchamp was also one of the first artists to draw attention to distribution in an increasingly mass-produced society. His ready-made sculptures like Fountain, an everyday urinal, challenged the viewer to question the value placed on art as craftsmanship and one-of-a kind artifacts by executing the conceptual act of placing a machined, mass-produced object in a gallery.

The more time I spent thinking back to art history and the history of my own drawing process, the more confident I became that the affordances of the computer were a match for the historical objectives of drawing. Using the computer, I am able to build and display models of 3D space on a 2D plane, generate drawings that change over time, turn data into drawings, write algorithms to generate near-infinite visual iterations of my work, distribute my work to a larger audience, and allow for greater interaction from that audience.

The computer also provides me a means for pushing drawing in new directions beyond its analog origins. When digitized, all media share a common language of ones and zeros, allowing for uniquely digital, cross-pollination of media. For example, I can now make drawings with data taken from sound or compose music with data from video.

My thesis is comprised of a series of stories describing the process behind several of my drawing projects, both digital and analog. I have tried to capture the discoveries I made about the computer, how I use it as a drawing tool, and how it has changed the way I work as an artist.

What I learned from my projects is that it is best to involve people at every stage of development and that taking this approach is not only more effective, but more fun. This was counter to my instincts of going off and developing things in isolation based on theories of interactions. Sharing the process was more important than sharing the results. For this reason, I decided to write primarily about my process in my thesis. I wanted to tell stories, stories of successes and stories of failures, in the hope that others may learn from my experiences as I have from theirs.

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