Lars Wander Interview

“Unfolded #400” by Lars Wander

Who are you?

I’m Lars Wander, a programmer living in NYC. 

When did you start making art?

I started programming in college, and quickly found it to be really fun (and really hard, but mostly fun). I majored in Computer Science, and took as many programming courses as I could in the process. However, I regret never taking a graphics course; at the time I was too interested in systems programming & programming languages.

After graduating I was lucky to go work for Google as a Software Engineer. I’ve spent the last ~6 years there, working first on Continuous Delivery tools, then on Cloud AI, and now most recently on visualization & analytics for Storage.

When did you start making generative art?

I started making generative art during the first summer of the pandemic, so about a year and a half ago. I had been considering getting a pen plotter for a while after seeing a video of an AxiDraw in action on Reddit, and finally caved when it hit me how much time I was spending locked inside a tiny NYC apartment. Luckily, the pandemic was the perfect time to get into pen-plotting, and I made several hundred plots during the shelter-in-place period (I’ve posted my favorites to my ).

Later, I found it really challenging to go from art made for the pen plotter to purely-digital art like we see on FxHash. Rendering an artwork with the pen plotter automatically adds depth to the piece from the texture where the pen & paper meet, the grain of the page, the ink flow, and countless other imperfections. Rendering the same artwork digitally (e.g. as an SVG) looks bland by comparison. I also didn’t like the idea of “replicating” the look of pen-plotter art in a purely-digital piece (i.e. emulating how a pen draws on paper), since doing that felt redundant when I had the pen-plotter sitting next to me. It took many failed attempts to get to the point where I was happy to share my digital-only art, and even now I feel like there is massive room for improvement. 

Unnamed Plotted Piece by Lars Wander

Do you consider the work with analytics and visualizations that you do for Google storage systems art?

Good question… I guess it’s hard to draw the line between “art” and “not art”. The work I do there is focused on providing a visual interpretation of the massive Google-scale systems using non-traditional, innovative visualization techniques. That work is much more purpose-driven, and far less playful than what I make at home, so it doesn’t feel like the two belong in the same category. Maybe it just feels silly to call the work I do at Google “art”, but I also don’t see any firm reason to say it’s “not art”. Unfortunately, I can’t share the work I do there publicly, so I guess it will have to remain a mystery!

How did you hear about FxHash?

I don’t remember exactly where I first heard about FxHash, but I know it was somewhere on Twitter. I think it was a retweet of [Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez’s Contropuntos], which is an absolutely gorgeous series. I then became excited to release on the platform when I saw that it’s open for anyone to create a piece, filled with great artwork, and backed by a wonderful community. It’s my one of my favorite places for generative art on the internet right now.

Gossamer was your Genesis piece. What was the story of how that came to be?

Gossamer was my first time using P5js, and also my first long-form generative series. It’s heavily inspired by my plotter work, taking advantage of a few techniques I developed while pen-plotting. Each piece is generated with the following steps:

  1. Create a curve by tracing a particle through a Perlin noise field, and compute the “normal vector” to that curve at each point.
  2. Compute 1,000’s of new curves, using the normal vectors as offsets. I used this technique heavily when pen-plotting to simulate “bold” strokes of varying thickness.
  3. Take each of the new curves, and break them up into dashes before drawing them.

Ironically, despite being plotter-inspired, the sheer number of lines in each Gossamer makes it almost impossible to plot without ripping the paper you’re plotting on. Maybe I’ll update the algorithm one day to be more watercolor or pen-friendly.

Are there any Gossamer mints that you think came out the best?

I have a few favorites! In mint order:

#12 looks like it’s smiling at you:

“Gossamer #12” by Lars Wander

#114 has an elegant appearance:

“Gossamer #114” by Lars Wander

#395 borders on chaotic, but has an overall beautiful form:

“Gossamer #395” by Lars Wander

#513 I find calming to look at:

“Gossamer #513” by Lars Wander

After Gossamer was “Unfolded” which is inspired by origami. Did you learn anything from making Gossamer that helped with Unfolded?

Definitely. I think the biggest takeaway from Gossamer came from actually seeing all 519 mints, and realizing that it’s a lot of artwork. I shrank the edition count to 412 Unfolded, and I think I will shrink it further for new pieces. Even with a diverse-enough set of outputs, having hundreds and hundreds of iterations of an artwork can feel almost overwhelming. Viewing the whole collection while still appreciating each piece in detail becomes more difficult as the number of mints increases. 

I also approached creating features a little differently. In Gossamer, all the features occur with close to equal probability. My reasoning was: if one feature is very aesthetically pleasing, it seems counter-intuitive to make it more rare. This diminishes the overall aesthetic of the collection by rewarding a smaller number of collectors with the rarer, more beautiful outputs. Instead, I focused on making each possible outcome in Gossamer as visually pleasing as possible, balancing rarity with feature diversity. However, I really loved the rare colors in [William Mapam’s Dragons], and realized that having a few, rare mints really adds some real excitement to a collection. This led to the Gold & Inverted color schemes in Unfolded.

What inspired the color choice on Unfolded?

I wanted the placement of the colors to accentuate the slight symmetries and repeating patterns in the resulting unfolded plane, while balancing the intensity of all the sharp angles and narrow shapes that some of the unfolding patterns created. I chose colors that I thought looked pleasant next to one another, while leaning towards slightly more subdued, paler tones for a calmer effect.

Picking colors has been the hardest part of each generative project for me. For some reason, purely generative patterns and forms can look extremely pleasing, but purely generative colors (not chosen from any color scheme) are rarely as eye-catching. It feels like there is a parallel between generative music and generative colors: both can be generated entirely by a computer, but without some curation the result will rarely be enjoyable to a wider audience. As a result, I’ve always opted for creating a color scheme by hand, and then letting the computer pick from those pre-selected colors.

“Unfolded #323” by Lars Wander

What adds value to your art?

I want my art to explore the beauty of complexity in a way that can only be done by using a computer. I work hard to find new, unique ways to express this complexity, and (at least I think) my work is original as a result. When exploring complexity there is always a fine line between order and chaos, and the most interesting things happen at this boundary. However, it’s not an easy boundary to find, let alone express visually in a way that’s appealing.

I always try to abide by these three rules:

  1. Each piece should be beautiful to look at, without necessarily understanding what’s going on.
  2. Each piece should be self-contained, and generated entirely by the computer with only a few parameters as input. (No data viz, no hand-made drawings, etc…).
  3. Each piece should evoke a sense of wonder and mystery about the underlying process that created it.

To me, the most exciting part of creating these pieces is discovering new systems that produce an endless variety of outputs. There’s something enchanting about simple rules coming together, creating something you could never have predicted knowing the rules alone. My hope is to share that excitement with others using my art.

What do you have planned as we enter 2022?

I have a few ideas for new FxHash collections that I plan to release in the first part of the year. I’ll also be releasing a series on (i.e. FxHash but for pen-plotter pieces) that’s focused on watercolor plots. But what I’m most excited about is getting to play with an A1-sized AxiDraw that should arrive in a few weeks – I really want to make large scale watercolor plots with thousands and thousands of tiny brush strokes.

Is there anyone you want to shout-out?

I’m glad you asked. I have a few:

  1. [Jonathan McCabe]. He’s pushing boundaries in generative art most of us aren’t even aware of yet. 
  2. [Colin Reid]. Stunning artwork, and very much flying under the radar. He generates some truly unique patterns, and applies them to rendered clothing.
  3. [M’Beth Shoenfeld]. Her 3D paper sculptures are unlike anything I’ve seen, and are simply gorgeous as well.
  4. [Toni Marinara]. The first to buy one of my NFTs – sometimes a little support from a random internet stranger goes a long way.

What do you have planned for 2022?

I think I will keep the same path because I’m still a professor and leader of some projects in real life. But I strongly believe the community is getting stronger. More and more people would love generative art. Art and artists are evolving at FxHash so I’d better prepare more research otherwise I have to move to the forsaken island. XD

Anything else?

Thank you for having me! I’m excited to be a part of this generative art space, and can’t wait to see how it evolves over the coming years. There is so much great work being created right now by so many different people – it’s a real pleasure to engage with this community. Feel free to DM me on Twitter if you want to talk about generative art, I’m [@larswander].

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