Proscenium is an art algorithm that produces a new kind of landscape painting, abstracted both in form and concept; it creates a generative geometry in three dimensions that starts as the snapshot of a world, and ends as paint texture on canvas.
In creating it, I’ve prioritized aesthetic emergence through the interplay of a few simple systems, and even after being my sole focus for more than a year, the algorithm still surprises me in the best ways.
For now, I want the work to speak for itself, so the focus of this essay will be what you can expect to see and how it all works; but before we get into the details, pause briefly here, and imagine: what if paint could bounce?
Based on a generative terrain system I created in 2008, the core component underpinning Proscenium is its heightmap algorithm. Before building the heightmap’s geometry, a scalable mathematical model defines its shape from a combination of land and structures. Let’s take a look at an example using circle-packed domes:
A heightmap geometry is generated based on the model and a formation of paint drops is suspended above. Gravity takes hold, and each paint drop begins its journey, falling into the world below. A deterministic timestep ensures that the simulation is always the same. The magic of watching paint bounce unfolds in the live render:
After all the drops have settled or fallen off the canvas, the heightmap is flattened, all except for the paint left behind by each bounce. This technique, leaving marks in three dimensions and then flattening down to two, creates a rich variety of shapes that reflect the character of the now invisible world.
The unique properties of the simulation begin to reveal themselves. The paint is more sparse around the highest peaks and tends to pool up in the valleys. Tracing a drop as it bounces and ricochets across the scene gives new meaning to the final output.
As I spent more time with the work, the sculpted land and structures began to feel like my brush - the action, emotion, and diversity in droplet shape all arise from the angles and curves of these underlying worlds - and so they became the star of the show: the styles.
The landscapes are categorized into “styles” because the land’s shape determines the final aesthetic more than any other attribute. From rugged mountaintops to sci-fi cityscapes, there are a total of nineteen distinct styles.
Each style contains its own set of unique variables, but most common amongst them is a range of scales that determines the size of the structures strewn across the land. This example from the “Superbloom” style showcases how each of its flower-like abstractions differ in size from very small to giant:
Although the styles are core to the algorithm, it’s only through their interactions with the paint that their characteristics can really be appreciated.
The paint starts in a formation suspended above the world. These formations are a combination of seven “forms”, which you can think of as two-dimensional layouts of paint, three “drops” that control the vertical distribution, and five “densities” factoring into the total number of droplets. Forms are most obvious in their control over the negative space in a composition:
In most outputs, each paint droplet is sized to reach as far as it can without overlapping a neighbor on its first bounce; though, there is an exception: the special “overflow” mode greatly increases the scale of all the paint.
The majority of the seventeen color palettes are derived from paint pigments, and mixes thereof, based on color science. Others are inspired by my love for nature and the landscapes that spark a sense of wonder in my life.
Palettes are weighted to take up an approximate percentage of the output space, as is each color to take up a percentage of a single output. The most common palettes contain upwards of 30 colors each. The leading palette, “Mixed Oils”, will make up about 25% of the collection with a total of 37 colors.
The palettes also have some structure when applied to the paint droplets, driven by one of six “patterns” (color shapes) and one of nine “arrangements” (color sorting). You’ll be able to spot some of these in the palette list below:
Let’s save the final 5 palettes for the release.
As I pushed the aesthetics of the algorithm further, I fell in love with some of the outliers that emerged around the extremes. The first of these extremes to be canonized, I’ve called “rifts”. Rifts are like folds in the fabric of spacetime - blending the default landscape style with an extreme terrain from another world - it’s as though the built up shapes and structures just melt away.
There are two special modes, in addition to overflow mentioned earlier: “Stratum” and “Debug”. Stratum brings a minimalist flair that captures a single horizontal layer of terrain, while debug breaks the fourth wall with a colored canvas, sourced from the paint’s own color patterns.
There’s still so much more to cover with the algorithm, the live render, and the thinking behind the art, but I want to save that for another day.
I have not finalized how the work will be released and sold, but I want to prioritize technical and cultural durability. Although my work up until now has been through my own bespoke contracts, I intend to partner with a platform to bring Proscenium to life and into the hands of collectors.
As time permits, I plan to open source the zero-dependency WebGL engine I crafted for this work, so that it may benefit other artists and creators, and continue to empower my own work as well as theirs.
More updates to follow here and on social media. There may be some minor changes to the algorithm between this essay being published and the artwork’s release. Thank you for reading, thank you for being here.