7 Posts in Category 'Art'
I've been getting into pixel art a lot lately. It appeals to me on a lot of levels.
The coder in me likes it because it's so precise. Every pixel is placed just so. The color palette is limited to a dozen colors. Building a drawing out of such limited means reminds me of building programs out of primitives. There are design patterns in pixel art: dithering, manual anti-aliasing. There are abstractions that work and abstractions that don't. There's a lot of goofing around with RGB values and transparency settings; it's perhaps the most deeply computer-based art form you could come up with, and as a deeply computer-based human, I really like it.
The gamer in me is still partly stuck in the early 90's, so it's a huge injection of nostalgia to look at pixel art. NES- and SNES-era games had a charm that is unmatched by anything since. And I don't think that's entirely nostalgia talking; I still play old games and they're still so much fun. And the art in a lot of those games was just darned good. If you stop and look at it really carefully, and start to get an understanding of how it was made, you can't help but be impressed.
The "artist" in me (if there is such a thing in my brain somewhere) is blown away by some of the things good pixel artists can produce. Go look at foolstown.com and try not to slobber. Some of this stuff just looks amazing. Not "good for a pixel drawing", but good on a level anyone could appreciate.
Pixel doodles are also good practice for the RPG my wife and I are still ever-so-slowly creating. Creating art and music for a game are turning out to be much harder work than programming it.
In any case, I drew a cow standing beside a tree. And I made a new pixel art page to house my admittedly still-amateurish drawings.
Why am I writing about origami here? Partly because I'm excited. I bought some methyl cellulose for the first time, and it's like some kind of wonder potion. You dissolve it in water and smear it all over some paper and when it dries, the paper has gained magical origami powers. Suddenly it's stronger, it's crisper, and it holds a fold better. What a wonderful chemical. It cost $25 for a tiny bag of the stuff, but that bag will probably last me a decade, so it's all good.
The other reason I want to write about origami at the moment is because I feel it's my duty to spread the joys of origami to fellow geek-kind.
Origami is a geek hobby if ever there was one. There's more science behind it than most people realize. Designing a model has close ties to circle packing. There's math involved (PDF) that I just barely understand.
It's is deeply satisfying in exactly the same way computer programming is satisfying. It's the satisfaction of taking a set of very simple rules and ideas, manipulating them in novel ways and coming up with something cool.
Origami actually has a lot of similarities to programming. There are primitives: mountain fold, valley fold. They are combined into something like procedures: reverse folds, sink folds, pleats and crimps. And those procedures are combined into more complex maneuvers, and when you combine them enough you get a finished model.
There are "bases" that are essentially design patterns: certain combinations of folds that are used over and over in different models. All of these things can be put together in novel ways (recursively!). A book of origami diagrams is essentially a book of algorithms.
At the same time there are constraints: use a square, don't cut the paper, etc. The size of the paper is a constraint. The kind of paper you use is a constraint: some kinds of paper fold better than others. In the same way people get a kick out of making impressive videos in a few kilobytes of RAM, there's a great satisfaction in making a model with a dozen flaps out of something that started with four corners. The constraints define a universe of rules that's small enough to understand and master, yet large enough to leave a lot of possibilities. The same square can be folded into a spider or an elephant or a race car or a man on a horse.
But origami is different from programming because (obviously) it's 3D. There's a lot of thinking involved, but there's also a bit of manual dexterity. It's a good feeling to shape matter with your hands. And when you're done you end up with something tangible in a way that a program isn't. You can stick it on the shelf or give it away as a present.
Most people don't understand how complex origami can get. Check out the websites of Brian Chan, KAMIYA Satoshi, Robert Lang, and Gilad Aharoni. It's all (usually) from a single uncut square. It still amazes me what people can create.
numerodix wrote an entry about programmers expeding lots of effort for seemingly odd reasons, and mentioned me as an example. So I'm kind of proud. It's a good post and I think the quotation he posted from The Mythical Man Month is largely accurate.
But I disagree that programming isn't art. Of course not all code is art. Probably most isn't. Sloppy get-the-job-done code written by someone who's doing it for a paycheck, without passion, is probably not art. Any more than a mass-produced badly-rendered copy of the Last Supper is art. But I think good code can be art.
Of course it's hard to define "art". One definition (yes I looked up "art" in the dictionary; yes I'm a nerd) is something "beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance". That's as good a definition as any, so let's run with it.
Code can be beautiful. There is a regularity and symmetry about good code that can invoke an emotional response in people who really understand it. Code is often talked about in aesthetic terms, and I don't think that's an accident. What word do people often use to describe good code? "Elegant". Bad code? "Ugly".
We often talk of a programmer's coding "style", as though we're reading poetry. Some people take this idea literally.
I think code can easily be something "of more than ordinary significance". Sure, a program is in the end something that's designed to be used as a tool. But the same can be said for example about buildings, and architecture is considered art by many. Something can be functional and still be art.
On those rare occassions when I produce good code, I do feel like I'm doing more than pushing buttons on a keyboard. I'm creating something unique. There is an element of emotional fulfillment when I happen upon a simple, elegant solution to a complex problem. There is the joy of having created something, something which is wholy mine, a product of my mind, and having that in front of me in a form in which it can be shared with other people.
I've been trying off-and-on to make an origami Cactuar for a long time. I spent a few hours on it each day this week and finally came up with something half-respectable. I'm proud of it, it's approximately the second original model I've ever made. Maybe I should post a crease pattern.
I'm to the point where I can make just about anything if I have diagrams for it, and I can make a lot of things given a crease pattern and a lot of time. But when it comes to making up my own stuff, I still without exception fail horribly. There are two or three things I've either never seen an origami version of, or don't have the diagrams for, that I'd love to make on my own. But I can't even seem to scratch the surface in starting to make them. Oh how I've tried.
My 12th grade calculus teacher said that you can't teach someone creativity, and there are certain things that you either get or you don't. I'm not sure if I buy that. If there are rules that govern something, if there's any kind of pattern that says "if X applies here it also applies over there", then you can learn it and use it in the future. But I have a fear that there are certain things where there are no rules. Creativity may be loosely defined as venturing into territory where the rules are not yet known and no one has ever been before. Consistently being creative means consistently moving through territory where the rules are unknown, which is rather functionally equivalent to living in a world where there are no rules. Which is probably my worst nightmare.
But my goal isn't to forge new mathematical systems. There are thousands of years of tradition here and in the past hundred years there's been tons of formal mathematical progress. All I want is to tweak things that I and other people already know and end up with a bit of a different result. It's not 100% creativity. In fact it's mostly not at all. So I have hope that no matter how bad I am at it, I can learn this. Assuming that "creativity can't be learned" is at all valid in the first place.
This site was impressive enough that I just had to post a link: dollar bill origami. Someone at origami club this week mentioned that they'd seen a dollar bill flower in a pot, but never could find the diagrams. There is a picture of a similar model at this gallery. I do believe I can reverse-engineer it, which should make a few people happy at least.