Making DNArtwork #3: what will it look like?

Today I’m going to write about the challenges in selecting an artistic style for genetic artwork, and at the end of the post give a sneak preview of my early work.

In the last post in this series I looked at the existing offerings in the personalised genetic artwork market and decided that there’s a gap in the market for something that:

  1. Looks like art, not forensic science
  2. Shows relatedness between people – more related people should have more similar artworks

I’ll go into more detail about how item 2 will work in the next post, so for the moment please take two facts for granted:

Firstly, it’s possible to define how related two people as a percentage: you’re 100% related to yourself or an identical twin, 50% related to your siblings, 25% to grandparents and half siblings, and the number gets lower for more distant relatives.

Secondly, most genetic art is currently based on “genetic fingerprint” images like the one to the left, processed on a computer to make them look more attractive. The reason that this image tells you how related two people are is that each column represents a gene and can have one of three possible flavours, with each flavour producing a different pattern of lines. People who are more related will tend to have the same flavour for a greater proportion of their genes, so more of the columns on their image will look the same.

What I want is a style of artwork that works like a genetic fingerprint, but looks like art.

Art: where to start?

Creating something that looks like art isn’t hard. The trick is that you start with art, then modify it to contain genetic information. This is as opposed to the approach taken by most genetic art available today which is to start with the genetic information and modify it to look like art, a process that in my opinion only Genetic Ink has successfully achieved.

I’m not a natural artist myself, more of a craftsman, so I need an artistic collaborator who can define a distinctive graphic style that can be reproduced by a computer program and modified to contain genetic information. One day I’d love to partner with an artist and create something truly original, but for this summer project I’m going to pick an existing artist and “borrow” their style.

Not all art is suitable. In order to indicate relatedness I need an art style that naturally breaks down into many distinct sections or objects that can be independently changed, like the columns on the genetic fingerprint image at the shown earlier. The more related you are to someone, the more of the sections in your artwork will be identical.

First, here are some styles that wouldn’t be suitable:

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Left: Georgia O’Keeffe, “Blue Morning Glories”; Right: Willem de Kooning, “Excavation”

O’Keeffe’s painting depicts an object and so doesn’t split apart into individual components. In fact, I can rule out pretty much all figurative art for this reason. Not all abstract art is suitable either. De Kooning’s painting above is in improvement over O’Keeffe’s in that it consists of many discrete shapes, but they run into another, and they’re all fairly similar.

After spending a few lovely afternoons trawling around London’s art galleries, I settled on the art of Wassily Kandinsky:

A selection of Kandinsky's works.
A selection of Kandinsky’s works.

There are a few great things about Kandinsky that make his style suitable:

  1. Each painting is composed of discrete objects
  2. Each object has a distinct personality and is quite recognisable – much more so than the lines in a genetic fingerprint.
  3. The objects are made from simple lines, geometric shapes and flat colours, which are much easier for a computer program to reproduce than, for example, de Kooning’s fuzzy sketching.
  4. Kandinsky died in 1944, meaning that the copyright on his works expired in 2014 in the UK. It’s a grey area whether what I’m doing counts as “copying”, but I really don’t want to get on the wrong side of a living artist or (probably worse) a deceased artist’s estate.

A sneak preview

So I set about identifying some of the objects in Kandinsky’s paintings. Kandinsky developed a distinct visual language consisting of recognisable shapes that appear regularly in different variations. One such shape, which I call the checkermoustache, appears in many of his paintings and twice in his most famous work, Composition VIII:

Composition VIII
The checkermoustache is the black/white grid with two arms extending away from each other at 90 degrees and certain squares filled in with complementary colours. There’s one in the centre-left and one in the upper-right.

Two days into the ten that I’ve allocated to the program that generates artwork, and here some early results. I think that the oil painting effect is important to make the end result look less like a computer graphic.


For more posts in this series, check out the DNArtwork category on this blog.

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