In conversation with Tyler Hobbs

"Can I write a program that creates a painting?’”

August 30, 2022

Tyler Hobbs leaning down to write on a work surface

Generative art is a discipline that, despite its origins in the 1900s, has witnessed a phenomenal rise over the last 2 years with the introduction of technologies such as NFTs.

Tyler Hobbs, is a visual artist working primarily with algorithms, plotters and paint. He's also been instrumental in propelling generative art into one of the most desirable digital artwork categories over the past 24 months.

Ahead of an upcoming collaboration with Avant Arte, we spoke to Tyler about his creative process and the craft that goes into producing generative artworks.

How did you get into generative art?

I started working as a programmer at a tech startup in Austin, working on a database engine, which was a really fun job. But I always worked on art in my spare time.

Programming was such a big part of my life, it really moulded how I thought about the world in terms of patterns and processes. So I figured I needed to involve that programming in my artwork. I made a few failed attempts at integrating maths into my drawings and paintings – mathematical concepts and equations, and some other bad things like paintings of coding environments.

I didn’t know about generative art at the time, or I didn’t know what it was formally. Maybe the closest references I knew were things like screensavers, or a couple of digital artists here and there. But it didn’t seem like a real possibility to me. I asked myself: “I wonder if I can write a program that creates a painting?”

Tyler Hobbs facing two computer screen with graphics and coding
Tyler Hobbs standing outside, looking up
What is your creative process? Can you describe the different steps that go into creating a new work or series of works?

1. The idea
At the core of the generative process is creative coding – writing programs that generate artwork. The deep involvement of the computer’s native language – programming instructions – informs everything about the structure of the work and its appearance. I start with very simple ideas. I like to draw and paint in a small sketchbook. Sometimes I know what I want but I need to sketch out ideas on paper to get a better feel for it. Other times, I start a new program from scratch and experiment without any clear direction.

2. Programming
This is where the magic happens. I write the “raw” code and start with a very simple program. I then make little changes to the code to see how it changes the output. I repeat this cycle over and over, even one to two hundred times, changing and running. The process is experimental and exploratory. I’ll test out wild ideas and occasionally add bugs that accidentally make the work way better than it was before.

Tyler Hobbs looking at a small notebook
Tyler Hobbs leaning over a surface area in a light-filled studio
Tyler Hobbs drawing with a machine and a pencil
Randomness occasionally presents solutions that I hadn't considered.

3. Curation
My programs are varied because of the randomness that I carefully build into them. They often generate 100 or 200 images, from which I select a few of my favourites. I try to choose the ones that stand out to me instinctively and show the “range” that the program is capable of. The images will be used for only one print/drawing/painting each, making them unique works.

4. Creating an NFT
If the work is an NFT and is created on the blockchain, I create a generative script (e.g. Fidenza) that is written to the Ethereum blockchain, making it permanent, immutable and verifiable. I specify how many iterations will be available to be minted, typically 100 to 1000. When a collector mints (purchases) an iteration, the script is run to generate a new output, which is wrapped in an NFT and transferred directly to the collector. Nobody knows precisely what will be generated when the script is run – it’s a real surprise.

5. Creating a Physical Object
There are several ways that I take the digital image and turn it into a physical object. The most common is for me to commission a local fine-art printing shop to create an archival pigment print. I also create a large number of works utilising a plotter. This is a robotic device with a pen attached that you can feed instructions on what to draw. The designs are carefully planned to ensure they will work and tend to be fairly different from my printed work.

Take a look at Tyler's process as he creates a generative landscape artwork.

Who, or what, inspires you?

I often find myself inspired by natural biological processes. The universe is generative, and everything that’s happening around us is a result of these processes. They might be really complex processes – weather systems and geological systems – guided by the laws of physics and chemistry, but nature is process driven. Thinking in terms of systems and processes is a really beautiful way to analyse and appreciate the world around us. I’m most intrigued when I’m evaluating anything through the lens of structure and chaos.

The list of artists I’m inspired by is long, so the short list is: Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Joan Mitchell, Wassily Kandinsky, Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, Henri Matisse, John Cage and Manfred Mohr.

an abstract blue painting by Robert Motherwell

open #75 by Robert Motherwell, 1969

an abstract painting by Cy Twombly of blots and drips of coloured paint forming tree-like shapes

Camino Real (ii) by Cy Twombly, 2010

an abstract original painting of colourful vertical lines laid over a white background

Straw by Joan Mitchell, 1976

How do you see your art developing in the future?

I’m enjoying exploring the intersection of physical and digital work and the different avenues for that to happen. I like to take one project at a time, stay open to new ideas, and try not to plan too far ahead.

For more on Tyler, visit his artist page.

Studio shoot by Sarah Karlan.
Artworks courtesy of Tyler Hobbs, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Joan Mitchell.

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