Procedural Drawing

This text is an updated & extended version of a post from my doctoral research blog, entitled “Procedural Drawing”, written in 2014


Procedural properties are ancient problem solving techniques in communication, art, crafts and all type of human activities. We can see its incarnations in everyday life, from beautiful handmade indian rangolis to formalised design practices, mathematics, geometry, music, architecture and even pure code language. Controlling process involves a continuous cognitive effort from the maker: a presence, combined with some kind of respect and patience while applying the pre-scripted rules.

Rangoli (South India)

Media and technology has an overwhelming relationship with our cultural society. Stream of events, speed of information sharing grows rapidly, it is hard to catch up with the latest directions of specific areas of tools, art and technology. New social contexts, cultural interactions arise day by day. These days designers need to focus and reflect on the ‘here and the now’ and have an overview on the current methodologies, design practices. We can always learn and adapt new, short term, overestimated technologies that are sitting on the top of the hype cycle, but it is much harder to grasp the underlying phenomenons, ancient design decisions, the human factor. My recent procedural drawing workshops were about to catch these properties under the hoods. The method relies heavily on the practice of fluxus and some exercises of the Conditional Design team.

The language of the workshop is pseudocode. There is no specific type, no predefined syntax, we do not rely on any computers, function libraries, we use only pens, lines, papers, logic, repetition, rules, process. We are following the path that many philosophers, engineers, inventors, mystics have been followed before us: think and draw.

A simple, branching structure by Lindenmayer

A very beautiful procedural example is the system made by Aristid Lindenmayer who was trying to describe complex biological and natural growth with a simple set of rules. This system is named after him. He also wrote a really inspiring book on “The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants”. He wanted a way to test his theory about the growth pattern of a particular type of algae. His theory stated that the cells of this algae could be in one of two states: growth or reproduction. An algae in the growth state eventually grew into the reproduction state. An algae in the reproduction state eventually divided into two cells, one of which was in the growth state and the other in the reproduction state. Lindenmayer’s grammar system proved a fantastic method for proving his theory. What Lindenmayer could not have predicted is the incredible usefulness of his system in many other areas, both in biology and in mathematics.

A Lindenmayer grammar is fully defined by an initial axiom and a set of one or more transformation rules. The initial axiom consists of a “string” of characters (e.g., alphabetic letters, punctuation, etc.). Each transformation rule gives a set of characters to search for in an axiom, and a set of characters to replace the original characters with. Applying all of the transformation rules to the initial axiom produces a new axiom. The rules can then be applied to this second axiom to produce a third axiom. Applying the rules to the third axiom produces the fourth, and so on. Each application of the transformation rules is called an iteration of the grammar.

Another interesting aspect of procedural, algorithmic thinking is something that we can call the “stage-analogy”. As Rohid Gupta (Fadereu) refers to the analogies between stage, performance & programming: “As much as our machines, we have become the processors of information, but we do not read text and instructions line by line as computers do. We scan in less than a blink and get an overall visual sensory pattern — like the notes in a musical chord, or the Fourier Transform of a rich spectral signal from atomic emission, we break it down in a subconscious way.” Actors, performers are acting based on predefined set of rules, be it improvisational or fully, “strictly” followed algorithms.

Pen Drawing from the Course: Attila Somos was experimenting on how to formalize & define recursion

Visual arts started to adapt these concepts with the rising of the Dada movement in the first decades of the twentieth century: artists, performers were giving instructions, pseudo codes for interpreting (compiling) their piece. Like musical notations, which are originally interfaces for representing different events that are distributed in time, drawings, visual arts also reached a state where the liveness or the actual “happening” of the concept is separated from the thoughts aka the software. Fluxus in the sixties, conceptual artists, Sol Lewitt, Miklós Erdély with his creative drawing workshops and conceptual works also continued the tradition.

Pen Drawing from the Course: Marcell Török gave instructions to synchronize your length of line with the time you are breathing in and breathing out

This tradition is widely used and democratized today, since we are working with software separated from hardware, we can find this concept embed very deep in our everyday life. The first workshop was then followed by a second one, where participants were also practicing computational thinking without the use of machines. This event was made together with Artus Contemporary Arts Studio in 2014, Partapur (Rajastan, India). The following images are a selection of some executed, completed examples.

Drawings and corresponding instructions from the Indian workshop

Extended Cognition

Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism’s interaction with that environment. Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world. When creating procedural artifacts, the human mind also extends some of its cognitive efforts into its environment: specifically into the (pseudo) code that acts as the ‘dna’ for the unfolding traces of the piece. By extending cognition, the mind can take care of other aspects of presence: it is freed from ordinary decision making and problem solving, and acts as a more open entity to its environment.

One such beautiful example in nature for extended cognition can be found in the relationship of the spider and its web. In fact, there are very similar things happening with humanity as with small creatures that would need too much energy to improve their inner brains, so they outsource cognitive efforts into their environment. With the interconnected digital networks, note taking, computational tools, books, or recorded descriptions in general, humans are also extending their cognition in order to face the ever growing complexity of reality.

Moreover, some thinkers go even deeper with this observation, and they say we extend our cognition into each other, resulting in a form of co-existence, where consciousness is not living only in one separated body, but within a cluster of people who know each other.

Extended cognition can be cached or visualised in several ways that would go beyond this text, however I would like to highlight one interesting field that can be treated as the materialisation of extended cognition in information society: the field of neural networks. These constructions are similar to the human nervous system in terms of emergent behaviour that is based on simple function gates called perceptrons. A common thing is with them that they need lots of (preferably ‘big’) data from large corpuses in order to train them function well. These data can result from all regions of recorded life events (accounts, media, texts, biological data etc). Some people refer to neural networks (and machine learning in general) as ‘statistics on steroids’.

Predictions for a simple circle-like curve, from the Sketch RNN database, in the “bird” category. Each drawing starts with the same circle shape (usually ends up as the head), which is then completed by the network. The process can be thought as steps within the exploration of the latent space

One interesting data set is called Sketch RNN, where human drawings are collected and categorised into a recurrent neural network (RNN), that is able to construct stroke-based drawings of common objects. The model is trained on thousands of crude human-drawn images representing hundreds of classes. The system outlines a framework for conditional and unconditional sketch generation, and describes new robust training methods for generating coherent sketch drawings in a vector format.

These images are resembling a very large corpus of extended cognition, organised into a latent space.. Observing this or similar datasets can give interesting highlights between cultural differences on the act of reduction, understanding, and representing the world through simple lines of drawings, since this shows how people filter, understand and interpret everyday objects around them.

Building a polargraph

Lately we have been asked to make a small exhibition that is fulfilled with inspiring constraints at our studio house. One of these interesting limitations is that the walls are painted black and it is only possible to draw in the exhibition space with chalk. However creating an image with chalk is quite ephemeral and slow, so the method itself serves as a very interesting thought for critical thinking on the creation of contemporary images.

Our PolarGraph in action

Photographs are shot and shared rapidly over social media sites with no intention on the quality of the image itself. Also, countless images are created by machines for machines only that leaves behind human awareness from the loop, using CCTV and other automated, networked technologies.

As a matter with chalk: it is a perfect contrast for these hegemonies, where the act of drawing (thus image creation) is extremely limited in terms of colours and line qualities, so we decided to automate the process of chalk drawing, by building polargraphs that are drawing algorithmically formalised thoughts on the wall.

Variations for single line topologies (images: Bence Samu, Agoston Nagy)

A self chosen constrain was that the tool can not elevate the chalk from the wall: so we have to create a kind of ‘single line’ topology, where all shapes are segments of a continuous line, usually originating from a spiral or similar one lined structure. Limitations are some special rules within a system (such as gravity in a playground: how many interesting games evolved by tackling only with this limitation) that lead to strange and unintended creative outputs. Building such custom tools (software, polargraphs, music instruments, etc) is really balancing at a state where the snake bites its tail, where the thing you would like to say determines your language.

Made famous by artists such as Paul Klee, there are clear stylistic benefits to this method of drawing. The demand of using only one line allows greater freedom in that an impression of your subject is all that is expected, rather than a true to life reproduction.