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Archive for July, 2008

Processing: Finding Beauty in Math

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Processing Rectangles Experiment
Processing Rectangles Experiment

Since last week I’ve been fixated on Processing. What is Processing? Processing is an open source programming environment within which one can write programs using the Processing language to create digital art and animations. Both the art and animations can be either static – using predefined parameters, or dynamic – responding to user mouse and keyboard input. Processing traces its roots back to the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the MIT Media Lab.

I say fixation because I have embarked on a crash course approach to mastering this tool by reading and fully understanding the book Processing: Creative Coding and Computational Art (book cover shown below). Written by Ira Greenberg, the book provides a solid introduction to graphic programming and animation in the Processing environment.

Processing book

Processing itself is a Java application so requires that Java be installed on your computer. The Processing programming language is similar to Java but much simpler. Artists without programming experience may find some of the object oriented programming concepts tricky to follow. Do not let this discourage you. From the book’s description:
"This book is written especially for artists, designers, and other creative professionals and students exploring code art, graphics programming, and computational aesthetics. The book provides a solid and comprehensive foundation in programming, including object-oriented principles, and introduces you to the easy-to-grasp Processing language, so no previous coding experience is necessary."

It has been some years since I have written Java programs. In fact as far as I can tell my Java applet Mars Database of Named Features was the first such tool available on the Internet. Unfortunately I have not updated the data elements since the last program update in 1999.

I have always found algorithmic art fascinating. Many years ago I wrote a Basic program to produce Lissajous curves based on user input and shared it with a few friends. The program was created and ran on an OS/2 system. Do you remember OS/2? OS/2 was the IBM operating system for the PC that was a pleasure to use. Unlike Windows, it was a real operating system and in my mind far superior to its Microsoft counterpart at the time. One objective I have is to revive this old program and port it over to the Processing environment. Perhaps even turn it into a Java applet on my web site so that others can play with it. Of course this is assuming that I can find it (see Doomed Diskettes).

I created the graphic Processing Rectangles Experiment (shown above) using a simple Processing program I wrote. The program has just 11 lines of code. The "vision" aspect consists of having a picture in your mind of what you want to create and then being able to translate that vision into lines of code.

Having only just begun to learn Processing, one concern I have is the apparent limitation to images being no larger than the physical screen size. It appears that Processing does allow large images to be opened in a memory buffer and displayed on the screen one section at a time. I don’t know the answer yet but it may be possible to draw to this buffer area; display sections of the buffer on screen; save the sections to disk one at a time; and then reassemble the image in Photoshop. I do hope so.

Processing Videos and Games

Following is an example of a video created in the Processing environment. Titled Moscow Olympics: Second Trace it was created by Vimeo user Eduardo Omine. It serves as an example of Processing’s animation abilities integrated with audio.

Moscow Olympics: Second Trace.

Another interesting example is a game created using Processing.
Benjamin Nelson’s SlingStar is more easily played than explained.

Processing Resources

For more information about Processing and examples, check out the following.

Happy Processing, Jim

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Photoshop for Astronomy

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008
Trifid Nebula Using Photoshop Tutorial
The Trifid Nebula Created Using Photoshop User Magazine Tutorial

When I received my July/August copy of Photoshop User magazine I was delighted to see that the cover feature was Photoshop for Astronomy. Subtitled Cosmological Uses of Our Favorite Software the article was written by Dr. Robert Hurt, a visualization scientist for the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope.

In the article Dr Hurt provides a quick and simple introduction to using Photoshop to create astronomical images from FITS data. FITS stands for Flexible Image Transport System and is the standard file format for astronomical images. This goes not just for images obtained in the visible light spectrum but for other areas of the electromagnetic spectrum as well. For example: infrared, ultraviolet, and x-ray.

In addition to working with the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, Dr. Hurt is also a member of the team that developed the FITS Liberator plug-in for Photoshop. This plug-in makes it possible for Photoshop to open FITS files.

I decided to follow the tutorial and create a color image of the Trifid Nebula from the sample files available on the National Association of Photoshop Users web site (available to NAPP members only).

Dr. Hurt’s method for taking the three FITS Trifid Nebula files and combining and processing them in order to create a color picture is different in a few key areas from the method that I use.

To illustrate this blog post I have used the image of the Trifid Nebula that I obtained by following Dr. Hurt’s tutorial. For a more detailed explanation of the tutorial, how it differs from my methodology, and for large versions of both the above image as well as a version I created using my own methods, see my Artsnova article Photoshop for Astronomy: An Introductory Tutorial.

For additional online resources, please see Making Astronomical Art With Your PC Resources which I created in support of an astronomical image processing class I taught at the Adler Planetarium. To learn more about the most recent version of the FITS Liberator plug-in, see New Version of Photoshop FITS Liberator 2.2 Released

Ad Astra, Jim

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The Clouds of Ambera

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008
MacDonald Bridge in Fog: Twilight
MacDonald Bridge in Fog: Twilight oil on canvas by Ambera Wellmann.
Picture used with permission.

Last night I came across artist Ambera Wellmann’s blog and was captivated by her oil paintings of clouds. In fact I had planned to use one of Ambera’s cloud paintings to illustrate this post but as impressed as I was by her cloudscapes, MacDonald Bridge in Fog: Twilight, shown above, impressed me more – I’m glad I went back to her blog for a second look. To learn more about this painting, read Ambera’s post New Bridge Painting.

One of the aspects of oil paintings that I like is the ability to provide true surface texture, as opposed to the faux texture that is applied digitally to digital art. Photographically these textures allow digital art to look like their traditional media counterparts. Of course some oil artists abuse the oil medium’s capability by either overdoing it or using it inappropriately. With the advances that are being made in the digital realm, it would not surprise me if one day digital artists have access to printers that are able to reproduce the actual surface texture of oil paintings.

As to canvas itself, I have only printed one piece on canvas – Femme Fatale which I have not yet added to my online gallery but did use to illustrate the post Pirates of the Capricon Science Fiction Convention. Artistically, most of the digital art I create is, in my opinion, better suited to either a watercolor paper, photographic paper, or a textured paper.

But enough about the texture of oil paintings and papers for digital printing. I’d rather be looking at clouds so visit Ambera Wellmann’s Blog and check out her great cloud paintings.Ad Astra, Jim

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Illinois Art Fairs Calendar

Sunday, July 6th, 2008
Schaumburg Prairie Art Festival
Schaumburg Prairie Art Festival

If you are a resident of Illinois or an adjoining state or if you’ll just be visiting, the Illinois Arts Council in association with the Chicago Artists’ Coalition has an online Illinois Art Fair Directory. You can search the directory for Illinois art fairs by city and/or date and/or search term.

This handy tool can be found at

The picture above is a photograph taken at this year’s Schaumburg Prairie Art Festival which occurs each May.

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A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008
The Tentacled Forest digital abstract art
The Tentacled Forest

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So said the bard William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. But when it comes to giving a work of art a title, the name is important. A name can convey meaning, an idea, an emotion. It can be descriptive or suggestive.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I usually find it much easier to create art than to name it. There are times when I know the name for a piece even before I have finished it. There are other times when the right name comes to me upon completion of the art. But most of the time I just sit back and scratch my head. One thing I refuse to do is cop out and name one of my pieces “Untitled“. I just can’t. If I can’t come up with a name then that image remains in existence only on my computer’s hard drive until such time as I do come up with a name. This is one reason why there is far more art on my computer than on my web site.

When I was working on The Tentacled Forest I was going for a dream-like fantasy forest effect. The trees are too few to constitute a proper forest but I felt that to add more would have detracted from the clarity of the form of the trees that are present.

I completed this piece on June 6 but couldn’t come up with a proper name. Fantasy Forest? Alien Forest? Dream Forest? And there were others but none of them appealed to me. Revisiting the image today, I hit upon the name The Tentacled Forest.

So I give you the latest addition to the Artsnova Abstract Gallery, The Tentacled Forest.

Enjoy, Jim.

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The Religion of the Face on Mars

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008
Email about the Face on Mars
Email about the Face on Mars

A few days ago I received the email shown above from a person in Italy. Note that I have slightly cropped the images to fit the space available here. I assume that this email was directed to me because of my previous writings that the so called “Face on Mars” is nothing more than a mesa. In the email I’m not sure if they’re referring to the Face on Mars as a miracle or if the writer is being sarcastic and referring to the subsequent images as miracles of deception. I think the latter based on the reference to the original Viking image as true and the subsequent images as less than true.

Nobody likes having their religion challenged and for those people who believe that the Face on Mars is an artifical structure built by some alien race, these are clearly hard times. Recent imaging by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey missions, as well as ESA’s Mars Express (see this Astronomy Picture of the Day image), have clearly shown this feature to be nothing more than a naturally formed mesa in a region of Mars (Cydonia Mensae) in which mesas are common. Clearly, believers in the alien artifact religion are hard pressed.

That they are so hard pressed is further evident in how they choose to present relevant imagery. For example, take a look at the image below. The inset image is the original Mars Odyssey THEMIS image of the Face from the email. The main image is the original version from the Mars Odyssey web site found here. It’s clear that the version in the email has had its contrast enhanced and highlights boosted, obliterating detail present in the original image thus making the face look more artificial. Purveyors of this religion rely heavily on the ignorance of their audience.

Mars Odyssey Themis image of the Face on Mars
Mars Odyssey Themis image of the Face on Mars with inset image from email.

Why do I call this belief a religion? Because people still cling to this belief in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Which reminds me of a parallel situation. Over 100 years ago the astronomer Percival Lowell offered a complex and coherent explanation for the linear features that he observed telescopically on the surface of Mars. He claimed that they were actually irrigation canals built by the Martians to irrigate the equatorial regions of their dying planet. Despite mounting evidence that the lines he saw were nothing more than optical illusions, and no additional supporting evidence, Lowell clung to his belief – though for Lowell it was not a religion.

One good thing came about as a result of the email I received. In response to this email, I have just published on my Mars Art Gallery web site an article I had written last year discussing the Face on Mars and the visual perception law known as the Law of Prägnanz. If not for this email, this article would probably have never seen the light of day. The Law of Prägnanz and the Face on Mars is an article that explains why we perceive the face on Mars as a face. So my thanks to the sender of the email as that provided me the motivation to dust off the article and go public with it.

Ad Astra, Jim

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