Everything you need to know about Fractals and Art in one blog post


Fractals are many things to many people but as an art form they’re really very simple:  Fractals are a visual medium.

Do not be fooled by such simple language and such a simple statement,  “medium” is the thin edge of the wedge that splits fractal art apart and reveals all it’s inner workings!  If you’ve ever wanted to get to the bottom of what fractal art is, this is it.

First, let’s define things more precisely: An art medium is the material an artist works with and creates their art from.  More importantly, the medium is what an artist “works in.”  Think of it as a workshop that contains all their tools and all the raw materials they have to construct with and also contains, within its walls, all the ways they can interact or work with those tools and materials.  Whatever can be done in that workshop is what constitutes and defines “the medium.”  To understand a medium is to know how it works: what’s possible and what isn’t.

Fractals are perhaps one of the simplest of all art mediums and therefore ought to be one of the easiest to understand.  Let’s ask the question, “What can be done with fractals?”  The answer to this question ought to be a definition or description of the medium.  This will in turn define the scope of fractal art and explain why certain artistic goals are not possible with fractals as well as explain why others are so very, very easy.

Although there’s no limit to the formulas that can be discovered and the rendering techniques that can be written for a fractal program, this apparent “unlimitedness” is actually quite limited: fractal artists can only work with formulas and rendering methods.

How is this “limited?” especially considering the endless array of options that populate most fractal programs?  You have to understand that I’m trying to relate fractal art to the rest of what is called “art.”  You need to step back and look at the whole world of art and all the many other mediums that there are.  You need to consider the “workshops” of other artists and compare those to that of a fractal artist.  This is why I say fractals are a very simple medium –compared to all the others.

Fractals are artificial, mechanical imagery that lacks both the real world imagery of photography and the imaginary imagery that artists create when working directly on the canvas with their hands.  Fractal artists work by remote control adjusting whatever parameters the formulas and rendering methods allow while the program fulfills the traditional role of the artist by drawing the actual imagery.

Photographers can capture anything they can see and painters can depict anything their imagination can conceive but fractal artists can’t do either of these two things and so their “workshop” lacks the two most common sources of artistic imagery: the real world and the human mind.

How far would Salvador Dali have gotten with a fractal program?  I think he would have found it rather limiting although somewhat interesting in its own limited way.  Yousuf Karsh, the great portrait photographer: how can fractals do what he does?  Which brings us to the real essence of what an artistic medium means: The medium isn’t the message; the medium is the vocabulary of the message.

The fractal medium is the vocabulary that fractal artists work with: it creates and therefore limits what artists can speak with and depict in their art work.  It’s a vocabulary of color, shape and pattern.  That’s the workshop of the fractal artist.  It’s abstract, organic and geometric.  But there’s one other important element to the fractal workshop: it’s computational.  The same thing that creates the artificial and mechanical nature to fractal imagery also gives it a prolific level of output, intensity of detail, and rendering perfection that no other medium can match.

The fractal medium has weaknesses but it also has some strengths.  As an artist, whether you find it engaging or frustrating really depends on what kind of artistry you’re pursuing.  If we can divide the art world into the two categories of Fine Arts and Applied Arts, then fractals clearly fall into the Applied Arts variety.  This is a direct result of the simple color, shape and pattern vocabulary of fractals: they don’t convey complex themes and subtle commentary that photographic or hand-made artworks do.  On the other hand, fractals naturally portray complex graphical designs with unwavering perfection in every single detail.  What graphic designer will ever create imagery that matches even the humble Mandelbrot Set in terms of detail and complexity?  This is what fractals do best.  Actually, it’s the only thing they do:  Abstract, organic imagery that is variations on the three basic visual elements of color, shape and pattern.

There will be no fractal da Vincis (or Dalis), but there will be fractal coats of arms and other works of computational heraldry.  You won’t find fractals in the fine arts category but you will find them rivaling the best works in the decorative arts and even redefining and extending what can be conceived in that genre.  Fractal artists regularly look at the impossible in their fractal programs and I think have grown a little complacent to the sort of visionary imagery that would be a masterpiece on the wall of almost any religious temple.

In fact, that’s how I came to write this blog post and why it took me so long.  While viewing photos of the Buddhist Mogao Caves on the Wikipedia I found myself nagged by this persistent question: “Why does this look fractal?”  Here’s an outline of my odyssey that took me, backwards, to what fractals are as an art form:

-mogao caves: what is fractal about this? – religious art, icons
-religious art: what is fractal? symmetry, geometric, abstracted, symbolic, hierarchical –heraldry
-heraldry: coats of arms, noticed for a long time by fractal artists, natural for fractals, –part of applied arts
-applied arts: what is fractal? the medium, not fine arts, small vocabulary of color, shape, pattern,
-medium: fractals are an applied art medium, they make that kind of imagery because they are limited to color, shape and pattern –separated from photography because realistic imagery isn’t part of the medium

This blog post is just the conclusion of that odyssey.  I will cover the other parts in future posts because this all happened backwards and they’re practically already written.  I’m sure it will be even more convincing because nothing describes art better than the art itself.  You can judge for yourself then if my conclusions seem correct.  The Bermuda Triangle may never get solved but I believe I’ve finally “solved” fractal art.