The Martin Grids

Martin Grid #4

Some further explorations in a code-based response to art. Last year I stumbled across the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate Modern. I wasn’t aware of her work at all, but one of the joys of Tate membership is encountering surprising things that you wouldn’t normally seek out. I went back again and again, and subsequently read everything I could about her. I can’t really fully explain why her stark abstraction and pale colour palette has got so under my skin, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I don’t mind saying that I got seriously emotional, particularly in the room that contained The Islands.

The mathematical precision of her grid paintings clearly lend themselves well to a programmatic response, and I wanted to explore this a bit in code. As luck would have it, I recently found that the peerless Joshua Davis (who has been a massive influence on my digital life since has made his Hype for Processing tutorials in generative art available through Gumroad.

I’ll save some specific thoughts about Hype (a framework that I used to use in Flash for music-reactive visuals) for another post as I explore it further, but for now, it’s reintroduced me to Processing as a language, which will, finally, now replace Flash for me as my creative technology tool of choice. There are some barriers to entry – mostly in the translation model which is exactly what Hype sorts out for you. For this task though, I wanted to try and stay away from helpers but have a pretty stark method of producing random grids. Nothing remotely complex about any of this stuff, it’s drawing API 101. What excites me, however, is the ability to reduce the process to it’s most fundamental quality. As I’ve read more and more about Agnes Martin’s life and practise, I’ve been hugely struck by her own quest for an ordered simplicity in describing her perception of the world and how it’s translated into her art. As someone who has had a difficult couple of years, this appeals hugely to me. In fact the very basis for my finding a minor creative renaissance in myself at the moment (musically mostly, but also in my appreciation of art) has been in a careful curation of my mental environment, removing harmful things and managing the remainder into some kind of order.

Agnes Martin grid paintings
Agnes Martin, Untitled

I’d like to extend this response to Martin’s grids into a more procedural practise, humanising the lines and introducing additional elements outside the mathematical constructs which are her artistic work at it’s most reductive. As she moved through her body of work, an emotional element enters into it, mostly through the use of a muted pastel palette. It’s this aspect that I found most appealing about her. We tend to think of ordering a busy, noisy mind (whether through therapies or drugs) as a removal of those hurtful, uncontrollable emotional elements. Where as I have found, both in my own experience, and how I perceive Martin’s work, that the abstraction of that noise into an ordered form – the grid, a schedule, a structure – gives space for an honest opening up of emotional responses. And perhaps a more authentic creativity as well.

Examples of Martin grid outputs:

Martin Grid #3

Martin Grid #3

Martin Grid #5

Martin Grid #5

Gallery – 10 outputs of the Martin Grids

Code (Processing):

int pad;
boolean frame = true;
int cols;
int rows;
int gridCanvasWidth;
int gridCanvasHeight;
int tStart;
int picNum;

void setup() {
background(235, 235, 235);
pad = 10;
tStart = millis();
gridCanvasWidth = width - (pad*2);
gridCanvasHeight = height - (pad*2);


void draw() {

// draw the grid every 5 seconds
int timer = millis()-tStart;
tStart = millis();


// press S to save a png
void keyReleased(){
if(key == 's' || key == 'S')
void drawGrid() {
// function for drawing the Martin Grid on the basis of a random selection of columns and rows
cols = (int)random(2,70);
rows = (int)random(2,50);
float spacerX = (float)gridCanvasWidth/cols;
float spacerY = (float)gridCanvasHeight/rows;
float tracker = pad;
stroke(150, 150, 150);
// columns
for (int i = 1; i < cols; ++i) { tracker = pad + (i*spacerX); line(tracker, pad, tracker, height - pad); } tracker = pad; //rows for (int i = 0; i < rows-1; ++i) { tracker += spacerY; line(pad, tracker, width-pad, tracker); } if(frame == true) { stroke(20, 20, 20); rect(pad, pad, gridCanvasWidth, gridCanvasHeight); } }

Code and a response to art


I took some time the other day to go to the Tate Britain and catch the Hepworth display. I had mixed feelings about it tbh – it was rather short and the curation was a bit odd. I didn’t get a sense of time and influence from the layout of the work so it was hard to get the context of each piece. That said, there were some remarkable pieces in there and it’s worth a visit.

I got home and felt like writing some code and so built this response to what I’d seen. I’ve always been struck by Hepworth’s use of string and the similarity with the mathematical models which I used to be fascinated by at the Science Museum when I was a kid. There is, of course, a direct influence which the exhibition touches upon here and there. In this, we see the influence of science on the arts at this time, and a direct reference in her work to non-artistic methods of visualisation.

It’s a bit of a work in progress this, limited to straight lines rather than the arced forms which Hepworth so beautifully renders. Maths is hardly my strong point but I’d like to crack that next.

What did strike me, though, was how like an artist’s process the workflow of writing code can be. You’re building something through process, shaping function and form from the clay of the tooling (language and frameworks). Making aesthetic decisions, sure, but also following a craft to create your vision. I’ve touched on this before in my experience of playing music, but I think it must be even more so with sculpture.

I suspect that all programmers could learn a lot, not only from the practises of artists, but also from their routines and the development of their craft. When I was in Barcelona earlier this year, and spent a hugely emotional afternoon at the MirĂ³ museum, I immediately bonded with the idea of MirĂ³’s trips out of Spain to Paris in particular, where he connected with other artists. This is also true of Hepworth, whose associations, particularly with Nicholson (obviously) and Mondrian can be traced through her early work. In that respect, coding communities do a great job in bringing movements in coding together.

One could argue that we’re in a golden age of community-driven quasi-artistic movement in code. In the spirit of innovation, I’d strongly recommend learning a little about how artistic movements have helped shaped the work of great artists, and drawing some inspiration from the organic developments in the history of art which resulted.

On Rachmaninoff and failing fast

“Failing fast” is an oft discussed principle for innovation, levied particularly at large, risk averse companies that are struggling to innovate in the digital realm.

It stands to reason that you don’t fail at what you already know how to do. It also follows that if you’re only doing what you already know how to do (or following ‘standard practice’) then it is unlikely that you’ll innovate. We learn, and innovate, by stepping outside of our comfort zone and going into uncharted territory. It’s not so much a case of ‘failing’ but having the courage to tackle the unfamiliar or the difficult, being prepared to make mistakes, and working through them until you know how to do it.

I am a *very* lapsed pianist. After going through the grade system, during a childhood of constant study of music, I didn’t really play the piano properly for years. As I have returned to the instrument in adulthood, I’ve found that my ‘chops’ are not what they once were, and I stumble around pieces that I would have been able to play fluidly. I’m a tinkerer most of the time, playing the simple stuff, improvising, allowing myself to make mistakes without correcting them and I tended for a long time to ignore harder passages or unfamiliar pieces because my technique wouldn’t allow it.

Lately though, circumstance has given me a new goal in my musical life which I think acts as a neat analogy for the importance of failure in business. The Rachmaninoff C#m prelude is an awe-inspiring and fear inducing piece of music. It’s in a difficult key, with sections where your hands have to counter-intuitively cross over one another. In the latter section, the score moves onto two staves – sight reading this alone is a head scratcher for an amateur pianist – so many notes, so many accidentals. Better stay safe and rattle through some comfortable Beethoven instead.

Rach Cm Score

And yet, as I make a concerted effort to play it, the piece’s logic starts to unfold for me. Even the last section that is so daunting on the page follows an actually deceptively simple logic – block chords, moving in parallel. Find the right shape with one hand and the other will follow. It requires accuracy and concentration for sure, but if I slow down, repeat parts which I’m stumbling over, become comfortable in the key so that my hands naturally find the shapes they need to be and bring out each phrase fluidly, the more the piece comes together.

And tonight, I actually got through the whole piece, a piece I’ve wanted to be able to play all my life, from beginning to end. It was messy and played with many mistakes, but the notes don’t seem so daunting to me anymore, and I don’t stop at the splitting of the stave as I so often have in the past. In fact one of the reasons why I often stopped at this point was that I love this piece, and it pained me when my execution of it didn’t sound like I know it should.

This pushing through the pain point has also had an interesting side effect – after an hour or so of playing the Rachmaninov, when I subsequently play an easier, familiar piece, say Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin, I play it fluidly, almost effortlessly, my fingers moving across each phrase with such ease that all my attention can be placed on the expression of my performance, and it opens up new capabilities within my technique that makes other difficult pieces far less of an ordeal to play.

As we come to tackle unknown territory in technology, in business, even in our everyday lives, we will *not* learn, grow, innovate or refine our skills, knowledge and capability if we stick to the strategies that we already know. We have to embrace unknown territory, not be disheartened if we fail, break the problem down and work through each section until it untangles before us.

The fear of failure in a large business is analogous to hearing a piece of music played badly. If the work you are producing does not ‘sound right’ – if it doesn’t match to what we think our business output should look like, or what our market expects, then we often deem it a failure and don’t progress further, and this is what kills any innovation.

But if we stick through it, working through each difficult passage and learn from our mistakes, then not only will we achieve things we never knew that we could, but it will also make what we already know how to do easier.

And this is how the damage is done

I know this will be a little off topic – I’ve never felt driven to write about the death of somebody I don’t know personally before. I’ve also never really felt saddened by it. Shocked perhaps, maybe even curious. But I’ve never sat with a tear rolling down my cheek listening to their work and wanting to talk about it until hearing, this evening, about the passing of Nick Talbot, the main creative force behind Gravenhurst.

I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Gravenhurst. I was in Smallfish Records in Old Street. Mike, as usual, had given me a stack of the glitchy, messy, bleepy electronic music which I love and I was standing at the back of the narrow shop skipping the tone arm across each record, looking for something to grab me. Only I realised a few records in that I wasn’t listening to them – I was listening to a voice as pure and direct as any I have ever known floating through the shop PA. I left the shop with a copy of Flashlight Seasons on both vinyl and CD and have listened to that album every single month since.

In 2004 I broke up with a long term girlfriend and moved to Sheffield. Somewhere around junction 26 of the M1, driving my hire van with my life in the back, the betrayal of the woman I loved fading behind me, The Ice Tree came on the stereo and I ended up in hysterical tears to the extent that I had to pull into services and let it all out. “I caress where my lover once lay by my side / Before I turned inwards and forced her to fly”.

And a few years later, and more than once, I’ve had moments where life has seemed insurmountable – where my faults and regrets have overwhelmed me – and Nick’s soft intelligence has placed it’s hand on my heart and centred me again. Flashlight Seasons in particular is more than a record for me – I cannot bear to imagine my world without it.

and it’s the words that get you. The voice, yes, the production, of course. But the turn of phrase: “The magic of stones / when taken back home / is left on the beach”. “Emily said, the things in my head are keeping me from sleeping / If I don’t go to them, they’ll come for me instead, and the company I’m keeping”. “Still the ties that bind us, blind us to the emptiness of the prize”.

I cannot think of another artist whose work – not just a song or a record – but an ENTIRE body of work has caused so much emotional response from me.

I’m not a music journalist and I can’t tell you whether or not Gravenhurst are “important” or give you Nick’s musical lineage (I fear Elliot Smith with be invoked in the obits). All that I can say is that if you love music, really love it…if it fills your soul, centres you and gives life meaning to you, then you know how rarely it is that you connect to an artist so completely. From The Velvet Cell to Animals to The Prize (oh god, The Prize – why is this man not bigger than Jesus?) to She Dances to the heartbreaking, stripped down honesty of The Diver and Damage – This is music to save your life and I can’t stop thinking about how sad it is that it couldn’t save his.

I have tickets sitting right here on my desk to see him at The Scala next Tuesday. I might go down there anyway – see if I can see the ghost on the shore and raise a pint to him.

Sleep well Nick. I never met you, but you have meant more to me than I have words to express.

A grumpy post about Dinovember and digital creativity

Family ipad time

Standard Sunday morning iPad sessions

This week’s cool thing on the internet: A couple set toy dinosaurs up into little vignettes to give their kids a nice surprise in the morning. And I love it. I do. It’s quirky and fun and awesome – it’s dinosaurs being cute, it would be pretty hard to mess that up. Way to engage little minds. I do similar stuff by dressing up as a tiger and letting my fat tummy be a racetrack, I just thought that it was the fun bit of parenting, when you’re not clearing up shit and doing all the washing in the world. I didn’t realise that playing with my kids was a new frontier of creativity.
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