Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Master your tools

Before starting, let's say that I don't consider myself a fractal artist but a programmer. In my opinion a good fractal or algorithmic artist should be , first of all, a good programmer. Only in this way he or she can really understand the tools used to produce fractal images.

We often forget that the art masters of the past were first of all high-level artisans exploring incessantly new techniques.

Although I have to say little about art, I have a lot to say about this problem of mastering your tools.

To produce my fractal images I use the following tools:
  1. Ufattr - A program of mine that produces random fractal formulas.
  2. Program 2 - In fact a series of small programs written by myself to do some simple fractal rendering of the previos formulas
  3. Ultrafractal
  4. Gnofract4d
  5. Gimp
Now let's show you the latest fractal images produced:

UltrafractalProgram 2
Program 2Program 2 + Gimp

All images were produced starting with (different) formulas produced by ufattr.

Only the last three images I consider to be really mine in the sense that I master completely the tools that produced them.

The other images were really produced by the algorithms in Ultrafractal (or Gnofract4d) with little or no control from myself. This is more or less what Damien Jones called fractal production by chimps. I have a simple recipe for this that I often use:
  1. Browse your parameters collection until you find an image that you like
  2. Replace in all layer the fractal formula with another formula (I use obviously formulas produced by ufattr)
  3. If there is no "inside coloring method" defined try to copy and paste the "outside coloring method"
  4. Delete layers that provide nothing to the final image
And voila' your fractal is ready.

I really would like to understand and master Ultrafractal, but unfortunately this means getting expert of at least four or five subjects that are very complex:
  1. Inside coloring algorithms
  2. Outside coloring algorithms
  3. Trasformations
  4. Colour palette definition
  5. Use of layers
Each one of these requires advanced programmer and also artistic competence to be mastered. In comparison the use of gimp/Photoshop techniques is quite straightforward. For example in image
number 8 I take a few images produced by program 2 and create a simple collage.


Blogger Damien Jones said...

Wow, where to start with this one. I'm tempted to shoot from the hip, since I was mentioned specifically, but I'm going to try to be a bit more rational than that.

"The other images were really produced by the algorithms in Ultrafractal (or Gnofract) with little or no control from myself. This is more or less what Damien Jones called fractal production by chimps."

This is a disparaging way of paraphrasing me. I talked about strong and weak tools, where the result of the artwork may show more strongly the effects of the tool or more strongly the work of the artist. I suggested that artists should prefer the latter, since they had less involvement in the former. And, while I was speaking specifically of fractal artists, I implied that all of us who create are building upon the works of others.

You state that you are a programmer, rather than a fractal artist. That suggests you view your primary area of creativity, at least for the context of this discussion, as software and algorithms rather than imagery. That means for you, the creation of a random formula generator is the creative act, and that the images resulting from that generator, collectively, are an expression of that creativity. The individual images themselves aren't all that creative (each one is the result of the same process) and after a while, particular patterns will become evident, and the constraints in the formula generator--the one you created--will become visible. Thus your creativity is shown.

If the generator does not offer the user any kinds of controls on it, then anyone else who takes it and produces lots of formulas (and then images) with it is not expressing their own creativity, they're expressing yours. Until they put their own stamp on it, they're just turning the crank of the machine. This does not mean the results are necessarily ugly; many random batch Apophysis flames are beautiful in their own right. But they don't express much of the creativity of the person turning the crank; rather, they express the creativity of the Apophysis programmers (who created the random generator) and Scott Draves (who invented the flame rendering algorithm). Someone does not master Apophysis by clicking the random batch button. They master Apophysis by learning how to move triangles and manipulate transformation weights to put their own creative stamp on their images, or by writing their own scripts to manipulate that data.

You whine that UF is too hard to learn. I use the term "whine" specifically because it is pejorative. You state that using gimp or Photoshop techniques is straightforward, but this is utter crap; you were not born knowing how to use either tool (gimp or Photoshop) and therefore you had to choose to learn how to do this. For you, it is straightforward, because it relies on your already-built up knowledge of these tools. Well, for someone who has learned to use UF, it is a no-brainer to add the appropriate transform onto a fractal to achieve a particular result. They took the time to learn how to do it, and so can you. Further, there are no secret algorithms in UF; all of them have the original formulas in an inspectable fashion, should you choose to look. You cannot say the same of Photoshop. You can possibly claim this of gimp, but I would suggest that browsing the source tree for gimp is not as simple as opening the formula source in UF (which provides an easy-to-click button that will show that source to you).

Learning about coloring algorithms, transformations, and computation formulas is learning about fractals and fractal art. If you want to be a fractal artist, that's what you learn. It takes work that you have to do yourself. You do not have to become a math professor; I know good fractal artists whose grasp of mathematics is tenuous at best and react instinctively to the options presented to them. Ultimately, their art improves as they learn more about the math. Conversely I know fractal artists who are primarily excellent programmers; their fractal art improves as they learn about art. But in either case, putting forth the effort to actually learn about what you're trying to produce makes you better. If you've got too many choices, limiting your choices somewhat will help you learn. (Learn a few coloring formulas inside and out, for example. Then learn a few more.)

As for your recipe: yes, you can follow your recipe, but doing so clearly indicates you have little understanding of how your tools work. You are just operating the machine and hoping that something interesting pops out. Such processes (and images produced by them) are of little interest to me, because there is very little creative input into them. I don't want to see what the machine made. I want to see what you made. Even if that happens to be the machine itself.


1/10/2007 2:06 PM

Blogger pinozito said...

First of all Damien I owe you a clarification on my post:
I should have said:
MY USE of gimp is straightforward and not
THE USE of gimp is straightforward.

For the rest I agree fully with you although my view is more pessimistic.
Or perhaps I view fractal images from
a different point of view (I would try
to do a post on this ) so I don't care
if my images aren't creative.
But you describe very well what one has
to do in order to master Ultrafractal
or other fractal rendering programs,
and also what good programmers should
do to master the "Art" part in "Fractal

1/11/2007 6:43 AM

Blogger Damien Jones said...


Thank you for that clarification; it does make a lot more sense.

As for not caring that your fractal images are creative... there is nothing wrong with that, because your creativity is in creating the process behind the images. It is a different kind of creativity.


1/11/2007 10:50 AM

Blogger Tim said...

One of the things that has constantly intrigued me about fractal and algorthmic art is the wide variety of interests that it inspires. Clearly, Zito, you have a different perspective on fractal imagery and I suspect you also have a different type of interest and motivation.

"I don't care if my images aren't creative" I find this statement very interesting. I've always thought visual imagery has an ability to function as something "beyond art", just as modern music for instance can be "narrative", "desciptive" and introduce the listener to sound as something "beyond music".

To me, all images are "orphans". Like children, they are greater than the sum of all their parts and, in time, will become independent, overturning the claims of those who "made" them, even to the point of changing their name to one that describes them better and moving into the homes of complete strangers who admire them only for their beauty.

1/11/2007 2:13 PM


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