A Framework for Understanding Generative Art

In this article, Dorin, McCabe, McCormack, Monro & Whitelaw posits that a framework for the description, analysis and comparison of generative artworks is needed. The authors argued that in order to theorise about generative art effectively, there is a need to have a framework that is uniquely suited to the description and analysis of generative art’s core, which is the dynamic processes employed by the artist. This framework aims to address the gap in generative art theory by inviting critical and creative literacy in generative systems.

Why a need for the framework?

Before diving into the framework, it is essential first to understand why there is a need for a framework.

The authors contend that discussion around art involves frameworks, even if the artwork meanings are implicit. Common discussed elements of art involve “a language-based description of the work, the media, date of execution and the work’s possible meanings”. However, such approaches to art discussion do not capture the essence of process-based works, which prevents further and more affluent comparisons. Therefore, there is a need for an applicable framework for generative art to accommodate the wide variation of process-based works. For instance, both Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, Paragraph 7 and Casey Reas Process 18 are a work that is classified as generative art. Yet both of the artwork’s medium and experience are different. Thus, it would be difficult to compare them without any framework.


Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, Paragraph 7

Cardew’s Paragraph 7 is a self-organising choral work. It involves singing, humming and speaking a fixed sequence of words and phrases. According to the instructions, the singers are given control over their interpretation of the instruction. In each line of the instruction, it indicates a new word or phrase and is repeated a different number of times and at different amplitude levels, as indicated in the score. Members of the choir choose a new pitch for each new line, by matching neighbour pitches and only introduce unheard pitch when no new pitch can be found or sung from the existing group of pitches.


Casey Reas’ Process 18

Reas’ Process 18 is a software-based line drawing system that generates a digital image for printing. It specifies how a set of lines can be moved across a plane, and, when they touch, be joined to create quadrilaterals of varying opacity.


A closer look at both of these artworks reveals an underlying factor that made them both similar, the generative processes. Hence, a framework allows for a conversation to discuss a broad range of generative pieces more consistently. Furthermore, it may also reveal unnoticed similarities and associations between different generative pieces. Therefore to address the argument of theorising generative art effectively, the author introduced a framework that is divided into descriptions of four main properties that constitute a generative art system: entities, processes, environmental interaction and sensory outcomes.

Understanding the Framework’s Properties

Entities refer to the subject involved in a generative process. It could be physical, chemical, biological or mechanical. Entities play a vital role in the generative process in the perceived outcome of a generative artwork. For instance, a computational generative process often involves an agent-based system, which simulates the actions and interaction of autonomous agents, whereby entities are identical, but their individual behavioural patterns are different. An example of my last sketch, “Movement with Neurons”, each of the particles is an entity that demonstrates some characteristic, distinguished by their unique behaviours.


Processes refer to the “mechanisms of change that occur within a generative system”; which involves the operation that influences entities behaviour. It can be described as conditions or events that trigger a particular entity behaviour or cause a chain reaction (domino effect) to the entities. These include the initial conditions ( the state of the entities before the process begins) or initialisation procedures (the actions or conditions necessary to start the process). However, the processes of a generative work may or may not be explicit to the audience.


Environmental interaction refers to the broader environment from which the generative systems draw information or input upon which to act. The inputs could be from the physical world or through devices that detect human interaction. For generative works, the outputs of the generative system will influence subsequent inputs. It can also involve the artist and the work interactions, especially for generative art, the creator will often tweak the parameters of the system based on ongoing observation and evaluation of its outputs resulting in changes to the outcome.


Sensory Outcomes simply refers to the outcomes of the generative work, that arise directly from the interaction of the processes and entity. The interaction between the process and entity can be either perceptible or imperceptible. For instance, in Cardew’s Paragraph 7, the audience is able to directly witness the entities (singers) as they enact the singing process. This system is described as flat, whereby the entities and outcomes occupy a single perceptible layer.


However, for computational works, the processes and entity interactions are not immediately apparent and usually take place behind the scenes during the development of the generative systems. Such systems will be labelled as natural mapping, whereby the structure of entities, process and outcomes are closely aligned. Both of these examples share a similar process, yet their physical manifestations and aesthetic experiences are different. Therefore, to appreciate the outcome of the generative works is to understand the intangible and hidden elements that give rise to the perceived outcomes.


Demonstrating the Framework

Having illustrated the framework properties, the authors’ also made references to different generative examples from diverse mediums and demonstrates how the framework can make a meaningful comparison between a wide variety of generative systems from different periods. It should be noted that this framework is intended to supplement rather than supersede existing critical approaches.


Islamic Star Patterns (ca. ninth century CE onwards)

The Great Learning, Paragraph 7 – Cornelius Cardew (1971)

Process 18 – Casey Reas (2008)


Comparisons using the Framework

Applying the Framework to my own Generative Artwork

Likewise, I will also demonstrate the framework’s utility by analysing and describing my generative project.



Entities Initialisation,


Processes Environmental interaction Sensory


Final Generative Project Lines

(Size, velocity, trail length, colours, Separation between lines,)

Random initialisation; Lines are drawn randomly Entity behaviours: move in random while keeping a distance from other entities. At the same time, leave a trail of lines behind None. Creation of abstract drawings in 3D space.


Artist-defined mapping


Limitations & Future Creative Uses

While the proposed descriptive framework provides a summary of the essential components in a generative system, it does not discuss the aspect of the artistic motivations. Instead, the framework is focused on the implementation and mechanics of a generative system. Nevertheless, this framework can allow an alternative view to make reasonable and effective critics and comparison of various generative works in terms of the processes involved. Indeed, the framework has provided a methodology to make a clear connection of generative works that were previously difficult to articulate.


Hence, utilising this framework, I can compare and contrast similarities and differences to appreciate the process that the artist made in its creation. Likewise, the unpacking of the generative process, I am also able to make use of the different generative traits found in the framework to expand my creativity for future generative systems.

Second Iteration

For the second iteration, I was focused on improving the visuals of the lines and made two significant changes.

  1. Implement different colour for different groups of lines.
  2. Increased visual width of the lines, when the lines are viewed closer.

Implementation of Different Colours

Lesson from my exploratory sketch, the colours in this project will not be changing continuously to avoid confusion. However, colouration will be statically applied to be distinct to all members of each line group. I explored with different colours and chose colours that contrast well with a white background.

Colours: Red, Yellow-Orange & Grey-Blue


Colours Mixing 

Additionally, based on the audience’s viewpoint, there is also a subtle colour mixing when the lines of different colours are aligned with each other. Nonetheless, the colour mixing was not made explicit to the audience, because I prefer such nuances to be discovered through the audience’s perspectives and remind them that there is always more to learn in this art.

Example of colour mixing

There is a green line in the sketch (left side) created not by code, but through an overlay of two different lines.


Video Example


Width of The Lines

For the next implementation, I took Prof Dejan advice on increasing the width of the lines when it is viewed in close up (zoomed in). Initially, I had some problems implementing the code using Processing’s mouseWheel() function because the way the function works and the data produced from scrolling was not suitable for my project. Hence, I came up with a simple solution of modifying the strokeWeight() based on the camera distance calculation, which is controlled by scrolling. I will be showcasing this during the live demo.

Live Demo 

Further Progress

For my next iteration, I will be attempting to implement a function whereby when the audience moves around “something” happens. However, I have not yet think what that “something” could be because I do not want to complicate the essence of this sketch; therefore, this will be an idea on hold first.

Lines and Interpretations,

Final Project Idea:

The final project aims to create a digital abstract line drawing in a 3D space. Additionally, the audience is able to control their perspective and observe the illusion of different elements and nuances that were not seen in the previous viewpoint.

First Iteration

For the first iteration, I will be focusing on the basic mechanism of the system. There will be two parts of the basic mechanisms:

  1. Create a fluid path movement similar to Casey Reas’ Path
  2. Translate the logic of William Anastasi’s Subway Drawing generative system into the code

The First Block of the Code: The Path system

The first blocking of the code aims to create a visually dynamic moving line using Processing’s particle system. As the particles move around the canvas, they leave a trail of lines. The behaviour of the particle was created with references to my exploratory sketch, with less complicated characteristics and solely focusing on the fluid movement of the line.



The Second Part of the Code: Inserting the Abstract

Next part of the code aims to create the abstract mechanism. The idea is to create an abstract drawing based on the movement of the particles. Therefore, I extended the length of the lines, and if the lines reach a certain length, it will fade away to prevent an overload of lines.






The illusion

The generative art was designed to allow the audience to view the abstract path in 3D; therefore, at every different angle, the audience will see a new perspective and meaning of the art. This will be better illustrated in a live demo.

Live Demo 


Further Progress

Different Colours to the Lines?


For my next iteration, I will be exploring the implementation of different colours to different groups of lines, and examine how the colour combinations can play off one another, and in turn how they can influence the viewers.


New Idea | Brain Storming Phase

For my final project, I will be creating a new sketch but using the lessons from my exploratory sketch. Before developing a sketch, I will look at what has already been created and understand their methodology and the process behind the art piece and not just the final outcome of the work. Next, I will block out the basic mechanisms of the code in my head, before actually writing and executing the code. Hence, for this week I will just be solely focusing on the conceptualization process of my final project.

Process Inspirations

William Anastasi, Subway Drawing

One of the artworks that inspired me was “Subway Drawing” not because of his abstract drawing, however his methodology of building a simple with a set of simple rules yet producing such a surprising result. I always tried to create and structure my code based on real-life examples, so this could be one of the methodologies to apply for my basic mechanism.

Key takeaway: Simple system yet producing a surprising result. (Applying this methodology to the basic mechanism of the code)

Casey Reas, Path

A sketch by Casey Reas, who is also the co-founder of Processing. “Path” creates a very smooth flowing of lines, that may look a simple piece of artwork to the audience, yet behind the scenes requires complicated coding to develop such an aesthetic experience.

Programming nowadays serves as a mathematical expression, but also as an aesthetic experience.

Concept Idea for Final Project

For my final project, I will continue to use Processing as my medium. Drawing the idea of abstract drawing and trail from both of these artists, I will be creating an abstract path drawing using processing. What distinct my idea from both of the artists is the ability to translate this abstract path drawing into 3D. Referencing from my past exploratory sketch experience, I will be using a similar particle system; however, with a new set of behaviour and characteristics (Number of lines, Speed of the lines, size, the separation between each line)

Element of Surprise 


The element of surprise comes from the experiences and interpretation of the viewer. The viewing of the abstract paths can change completely depending on the angle from which the audience views it. As such, at every different angle of the 3D abstract path, it will display a new meaning to the artwork based on our unconscious visual bias. For instance, the position of the photographer, the angle of the sun and the formation of the clouds can make all the difference in a landscape shot. Hence, the audience will see different elements and notice nuances that one single perspective cannot accommodate.


This is still a work in progress idea but I believe this idea will be more apparent once the basic mechanism of the sketch is completed. 

Time Frame

This will be the draft project schedule, to ensure that I keep track of my progress.

Week 8 – Conceptualise

Week 9 – Basic mechanism of the sketch

Week 10-12  – Sketch Improvements

Week 13 – Presentation of Final Project