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Introduction to Generative Art

Generative Art and Probability

Generative Art uses probability to create patterns.  The process moves according to predetermined algorithms and the artist will never know exactly how it is going to look when it is complete. 

Mozart used this idea with his "Musikalisches Würfelspiel" (Musical Dice Game) in 1757.  He created a series of musical phrases and rolled dice to determine the order in which they would be played.  Author William Burroughs did something similar in some of his writing, cutting up sections of text and rearranging them randomly.  Artists from many different genres have explored ways to incorporate randomness to make their art more interesting.

Artist Ellsworth Kelly often used chance as he selected colours and rearranged shapes on the canvas.

Computers are excellent tools for creating generative art.  Users can write simple programs to create autonomous systems that generate beautiful patterns.  Those patterns are different every time the program is run.

This piece, called Substrate, was created by Jared Tarbell.  You can visit his website and run the program to generate a new version of the image.

Generating your own

We will learn to create our own generative art using a digital tool called Context Free Art.  It is a very simple programming language where the user writes a program that incorporates simple rules based on probability.  When the program runs, it draws images on the screen.  Because some of the instructions in the program include random elements, the images will be different every time the program is run.

Visit the gallery and see some of the artworks that other users have created using this program.  Then download a copy of the program and install it on your computer.

To get started making our own generative art, we are going to follow this simple tutorial that will walk us through the basic grammar of Context Free Art.  It should not take you long to get the hang of it.

Once you have finished the 10 steps in the tutorial, start playing around with the numbers.  See what happens when you make changes.  For example, when drawing the pattern in the tutorial, it curves one way 98% of the time and curves the other way 2% of the time.  How does the pattern change when you change those values?


Take some time to share the images that you have generated with your classmates.  When you have finished, spend some time digging a little deeper into Context Free Art.  Have a look at some of the tutorials below, find your own or just play around.  For homework, try to create an original piece of generative art that you can share with the class.

Taking it further

There are a number of good text-based tutorials available on the Context Free Art website.  There is a lot of information there to help you get started with using more complex shapes and patterns.  Another good set of tutorials that starts with the basics can be found at Magic and Love Interactive.

Another great programming language that allows you to make generative art is called Processing.  There is an enormous collection of resources available to get you started, including books, videos and websites.  Processing is popular as an introductory programming language in high schools and universities.  Websites such as OpenProcessing and StudioSketchpad are popular places for artists to share their work.

  Daniel Shiffman's Savannah incorporates a digital camera, generating remarkable patterns from photographs that it takes of viewers.