Arts + Culture

Computers as the 21st century pencil and paintbrush


See this:

size(600, 600);
for (int i = 0; i < 500; i+=4) {
  float angle = random(TWO_PI);
  float length = random(TWO_PI);
  arc(300, 300, i, i, angle, length);
It’s computer code written by UCLA design | media arts professor Casey Reas that created this:

“This short program demonstrates one way to draw with code. It balances random values with the order of concentric circles,” said Reas, who not only wrote the computer code that drew those circles, which appear differently each time the same code is run, but he also co-developed the computer code language, called Processing, used to create the picture.

“Software is the only visual medium that allows me to make what I imagine,” Reas said. “For example, drawings are static, video is linear. Like life, software can be unpredictable and unstable.”

Reas’ prints and sculptures have been shown in art galleries as well as projected on the 7,000-square-foot wall of a Frank Gehry-designed building in Miami. Reas’ work has also been the guiding theme for the stage design used by the indie rock band Yeasayer during its last tour.

With the success he has achieved, Reas wants to help other artists, particularly his students at UCLA, explore the possibilities of creating in the digital world. But when just drawing a line that moves on a screen can require a page-and-a-half of computer code using a standard programming language like Java, many fledgling artists have shied away from computers. “It’s not a really complicated program if you’re a [computer science] professional,” Reas said. “But if you’re a visual arts student, it’s an impenetrable thing to look at and try and understand.”

This piece is titled Process 18 (Software 2).

Growing up outside Dayton, Ohio, Reas was always sketching. At the University of Cincinnati, he majored in graphic design with a special interest in book design. His journey from the analog art world of drawing on paper to the digital domain began in the mid-1990s when he interned with a San Francisco book publisher, which was launching its website. In the nascent days of the web, Reas had to teach himself HTML because no one could show him how to build a website.

“I realized that page layouts no longer needed to be static as they were in a book,” Reas said. “And that led to a real curiosity about how to write the software to make dynamic media.”

After college Reas worked for several years in digital design studios before leaving to study at the MIT Media Lab, where teams of computer scientists, architects, mathematicians and artists combined visual arts and computer science. Reas’ advisor was John Maeda, who wrote "Design by Numbers," the first book to teach computer programming through visuals. Working with Maeda eventually led Reas and fellow student Ben Fry to create Processing.

“Sketching is a way of thinking,” Reas said. “[Processing] was designed primarily to be what we call a software sketchbook.”

For the first time, visual artists were able to replicate the creative but sometimes chaotic immediacy of drawing, erasing and then redrawing ideas in their digital work. With just a few lines of code, artists could now create a small image or animation, rewrite the code on the spot, save their diagrams and then refine them later.

Reas’ first pieces were inspired by the work of Valentino Braitenberg, an Italian neuroanatomist, who dreamed up simple vehicles that moved according to certain rules. For example, imagine a one-wheeled vehicle that moved in a specific direction and at a specific speed in response to light. If you moved that light in a circle, the vehicle would move in a pattern you could observe. Reas applied Braitenberg’s ideas to Processing and came up with images filled with fragments of geometric patterns that resemble designs that children might create with dense repetitive scribbling.

In the last 12 years, Reas has had six solo shows in galleries. This past October, one of his pieces created with Processing sold at a New York auction house. The piece, “Americans!,” involved melding 20 minutes of television footage with randomly generated grids to build a collage.

Reas, who has been on faculty in the Department of Design | Media Arts since 2003, said that he enjoys introducing students to the power and possibilities of using computer programming to create stunning visual artwork in ways far beyond mastering software programs like Photoshop and Illustrator.

“As designers in the second decade of the 21st century, everybody is working on computers using different pieces of software as tools. Working at a research university the caliber of UCLA, we need to go a little bit deeper,” Reas said.

“Photoshop is a different version of working in a dark room. Illustrator is a different way of doing drafting. The kinds of things I’m now exploring don’t have an analog.”

“A few lines of code would have scared me off a few months ago,” said 21-year-old design | media arts major Dorothy Lin, who had limited experience with coding prior to taking Reas’ class. Lin took his class, though, because she admired his work and was excited to learn from him. “What really excites me about programming is its ability to generate visuals from live data ( for example, using a live camera), and its ability to translate from screen to the physical world.” 

With the push for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, Reas and others like him are advocating for STEAM, adding the “A” for arts. He has joined supporters of the’s “Hour of Code” initiative, which aims to expose every K-12 student in America to an hour of basic computer science this week during the National Computer Science Education Week.

“We’re working on new exercises that give insight into programming through art and design,” Reas said. “It’s not necessarily about creating coders, but about having people understand the role code plays and that it can be empowering.”

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