Lines and Colors art blog

Complexification (Jared Tarbell)

Complexification Jared TarbellThere are always some people who, when I say I do digital art, assume that I somehow press a few keys and the computer “makes art” for me. Even after patiently explaining that I draw and paint on the computer with a stylus in much the same way I draw with traditional materials, I can tell they still have the feeling that the computer somehow “does the work” for me.

How much more difficult is it then to explain to the uninitiated the artfulness, esthetic judgment and careful craft involved in creating pieces like Jared Tarbell’s programatic art. Tarbell’s computational images grow before your eyes, when you touch a button. Surely the computer is “making the art”.

Tarbell creates his images by programming Java applets or Flash ActionScripts to construct visual images based on algorithms. He adjusts the programming parameters of his code in the same way a sculptor might judiciously add and subtract clay to a figure, or a painter might add, remove and change color areas on the painted surface of a canvas, until the desired image is reached.

As in work with traditional media, happy accidents are occasionally part of the process. Tarbell introduces small elements of randomness into his algorithms so that when you experience his images, your experience is unique, even though the overall character of the image is within his intended scope. In that way his pieces are slightly collaborative with the viewer.

In a larger sense his work is collaborative in that he makes his source code (and Flash ActionScript authoring files) freely available, inviting others to carry his code forward. He believes the code is only alive when it is being run and is particularly alive when it is changing and growing.

You don’t have to get into worrying about what is or isn’t art just to enjoy these works as interesting images (that happen to build themselves as you watch), or simply as something visually fun to play with.

I investigated several of his pieces, but found myself particularly drawn to the one called Substrate. The image at various stages (see screen captures at left) reminds me of a head-on collision between Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee and a scientific drawing of a fractured geological formation. This one launches in a Java Applet (you can choose a size) and is random enough that it begins in different areas of the canvas each time.

I happen to be both a visual artist (at which I’m fairly good) and a coder (at which I’m modestly competent), enough to have an appreciation for both sides of what he is doing. His source code is surprisingly simple given the variety and complexity of the images.

Tarbell is cofounder of iospace and is on the board of the Austin Museum of Digital Art. His Flash techniques have been featured in several books. His personal site is at



5 responses to “Complexification (Jared Tarbell)”

  1. Kathy Maffei Avatar
    Kathy Maffei

    You noted the comparative simplicity of the programs to the complexity of the designs. These programs are wonderful examples of a concept (and interdisciplinary field of study) called emergence, the phenomenon of complexity derived from the interaction of simpler elements without the benefit of a director. Wikipedia has a great article

  2. Inspirational stuff. I came across Jared’s stuff a couple of years ago and have buried his site in all the other links that get cluttered within. Thanks for reminding me of his work! I know it is hard to see on screen but the SUBSTRATE piece reminds me of a Canadian painter named Jean Paul Riopelle. It could be a detail to his painting called Pavane (1954).
    You guys have a Great site!!!

  3. Kathy, Wow. Very cool. Thanks!

    BTW, I think I owe you thanks for the source of the original subject, by way of a mutual friend, Greg Frost.

  4. Jeff, Thanks for the info about Riopelle. I wasn’t familiar with his work. Unfortuantely, there are only a few pieces shown on his own site, but I found a few other resources. You’re right, though, even the close-up of Pavane here is difficult to see in detail. I’ll keep looking around. Thanks for the comments on the site.

  5. Roland Fairchild Avatar
    Roland Fairchild

    Is Jared Tarbell any relation to the famous American Impressionist artist, Edmund C. Tarbell? Genius must run in that family’s genes.