Why is HalTenny’s stuff better?

Alternate title: Creativity in Fractal Art part 5 ½

Rip van Winkle

I’ve been trying to catch up on 6 months of not visiting DeviantArt.  While browsing through an enormous amount of artwork I started to think that the 3D fractal revolution (mandelbulb) was losing steam because no one seemed to be making anything of interest for the last 6 months.  I did spot a number of new usernames but not much of their work stood out as noteworthy.  In one last act of desperation I clicked on something by HalTenny and jumped over to his gallery to see if this creative drought was raging there too.  What a surprise.  What a difference.

I could call it “The Haltenny Effect”.  I was browsing through his latest gallery uploads and repeatedly asking myself, “Why is Haltenny’s work so much better than everybody else’s?”

This is a massive theoretical issue and not just, yet another, idle comment about “how bad everything looks on DeviantArt lately.” Haltenny’s work shouldn’t be that much different than anyone else’s if the medium of 3D fractals is entirely algorithmic expression and not personal expression or style.  This was a serious scientific moment.  What is he doing that (apparently) no one else is doing?  Or at least, very few are doing?  Is he just better at making parameter guesses?

If one person can produce fractal work that other users can’t then there must be some personal component to fractal art and it’s not entirely a matter of combinations and permutations decorated with a few personal “touches”.  This is the essence of the question, “Is there personal style in fractal art?” I’ve come to conclude that what makes HalTenny’s work stand out is more than just some quaint photo includes and lucky parameter finds. There is a clear artistry and personal creativity element in his 3D fractal art.  And that’s what’s missing in so many of the others.  This personal creativity element in 3D fractals wasn’t so noticeable to me until I did the Rip van Winkel thing and woke up 6 months later, stumbling and disoriented.

Mutationism?  Mechanical Creativity?

Over the summer (2017) I’d written a series of postings on the mechanical (automatism) aspect of fractal art and concluded that even when artists make alterations to the imagery by hand it doesn’t alter significantly what they’ve already made with the machine, that is, the parameter settings they’ve chosen for the program’s formulas and rendering options.  And so, fractal art and even 3D fractal art is essentially just a matter of rendering the vast number of parameter combinations and permutations that already exist in potential in the limited (but extensive) range of possible parameter combinations.  Anyone can do it and anyone who does do it is only discovering or uncovering what was already there, in potential.  The creativity in the imagery is all from one’s lucky parameter finds; there is no personal creativity even possible.  This is a concept in computer art that’s been around since its earliest days in the mid 20th century.

But it’s clearly not that simple.  At least it’s not that simple in the 3D fractal area that HalTenny primarily works in.  If everyone else can stumble across HalTenny’s secrets just by playing with the program then why haven’t they?  They can all see what he’s doing just by looking at his work and yet his work is largely beyond imitation (in an art form that is characterized by imitation and imitators).  There is still a mechanical aspect to all this, that is, permutations and combinations of parameter values; but there is also a personal, hand-directed artistry part of the equation, too.  And that personal artistry component is a major one, not merely a minor one as I had concluded before.  If it were minor it wouldn’t have given HalTenny such a huge advantage over other 3D artists.  I mean, how lucky can a guy get?

The hand is the printer of the mind

In keeping with the terminology and concepts of the summer series, these discretionary effects that HalTenny has been employing, like lighting, photo includes and composition, are handmade rather than mechanical and therefore enable the artist’s mind to literally enter the picture.  They are an expression of the artist’s mind and imagination and not the program’s graphical algorithmic engine.  The artist is going beyond discovering or uncovering preexisting parameter combinations existing in potential; the artist is moving or adjusting lighting effects and inclusions with their hand or at their discretion.  The artist is in direct control of these things and not merely pulling the arm on a graphical slot machine.  Such direct control expresses personal intentions rather than mechanical permutations: it contributes something original that is independent of the machine’s contribution and adds to it.

The hand connection is the mind’s connection because the hand is the printer of the mind.  Your computer display is the printer of the computer and when disconnected from it, the computer’s “thoughts and intentions” are entirely unknown and unknowable: invisible.  In the same way when the artist’s hand is disconnected from the imagery through the lack of mouse movement inputs and intentional alterations to the actual image (not just parameter fields), the artist’s mind is disconnected and unable to express its ideas and intentions due to the input constraints of the program’s design (ie. adjust the parameters but don’t touch the image).

I have grouped HalTenny’s creative efforts into three categories:  Lighting;  Photo Includes; Creative Effect; and Composition.  The first and last involve the use of the program’s own features (Mandelbulb 3D, I think) while Photo Includes and Creative Effect is much more independent and wholly at the whims of the artist and therefore more likely to distinguish their efforts from others.


You wouldn’t think this was such a big deal but really, in photography, lighting is often the very element that creates something great out of something common. The awesome photograph by Ansel Adams entitled, “Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico“, is, in the author’s own words, entirely a product of the effect of the approaching sunset’s unique effect on a location that he’d already passed by earlier in the day without looking particularly interesting. The way the tombstones in the graveyard caught the disappearing daylight and of course the effect on the sky has all changed by the time dusk begins. The entire mood of the scene was transformed.

Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams (1941)

I’m not really familiar with the 3D fractal programs like I am with the older, 2D ones, but it’s plain to see that lighting is not a formula parameter but rather a discretionary choice by the artist controlled entirely by their whims and contains a number of options which literally cast the fractal imagery in a different light. This makes a big difference to the artistry although it doesn’t change the structures produced by the program’s fractal parameter settings. Two different artists can come up with the same scenery in a 3D fractal program (eventually) but the final result, artistically, can be as different as the two San Hernandez’s which Adams saw in the morning and the evening.

~Click on images to view full-size on original site~

Fungal Habitat by HalTenny

See what I mean by the lighting?  The fractal imagery is interesting, of course, but the bright sunshine and shadows makes the “interesting” imagery become real and vivid.  When imagery like this takes on the feel of a National Geographic magazine photo, the effect is categorically different.  It’s believable, vivid and compelling, not just “interesting.”

Curvaceous Architecture by HalTenny

This one’s a bit more complex.  The lighting gives an outdoor feel and also accentuates the unique pen and ink style of rendering.  This image looks like a watercolor and not a photograph.  I’ve never seen anything quite like this, although Vidom, another talented 3D artist has some works that resemble this style somewhat.  A note on the gallery page: “I’m suffering a little eye strain from allergies the past few days, I hope I’m not posting bad renders~ :)

Inviting Dark Tunnel by HalTenny

This one is just a masterwork of lighting.  It sets the mood, it creates the “inviting” sensation to the otherwise dark tunnel.  Notice the fine detailed touch the lighting adds to the “railing” on the left side.  You can see how lighting style can add depth by modifying the qualities of the shadow.  The trees fit right in and build on the warmth and hospitality of the scene.  This is not a subway entrance, it’s a ritzy hotel, restaurant or lavish home.  The parameter work alone would have left us with a London tube station or worse, a sewer main from Star Wars.  HalTenny’s lighting elevates the whole thing to a higher plane.

Temple of Fractology by HalTenny

There’s quite a few images by other artists on DeviantArt featuring scenes like this.  HalTenny’s makes a better impression on me I think because the stark, natural lighting and misty background elements instantly convert these 3D fractal shapes into a large, outdoor building and it’s that context that makes the stain glass church window photographic inclusions effective in expressing the “temple” theme.  In fact, the more I look at this one, especially at the large tower in the right upper half, I start to think more and more of the image is photographic overlay because it just looks so natural and well done.

The Big Empty by HalTenny

I’ve explored quite a few abandoned houses in my time and this “place” has such a wonderful “Big Empty” feel to it.  Note the lighting way back in the distance and on the “pillar” on the left.  Also, note that the imagery, although very similar in shape to the previous, “Temple” image, does not look outdoor and building like but rather indoor, wooden and at a human room scale.  It’s not the parameter work that does that, it’s the lighting and rendering that Haltenny has chosen to give that intentional effect.  This image I find is a little surreal and spooky.  This was the place of some weird and powerful activities; alien and not human.

Not Much of a View by HalTenny

Quite a lot of artistic renovation in this one.  He’s added a whole wall in there.  I find this one even more surreal and disturbing as is often the case with abandoned building interiors.  There’s a strange complicated sensation of death here, like a concentration camp photo.  The decay of architecture is perhaps symbolic of the decay of civilization.  Who says fractal art is always about sunshine, bright colors and eye-candy?

Compare with this classic example of surrealist art by Kurt Schwitters:

Kurt Schwitters Merzbau Photo: Wilhelm Redemann, 1933

3D fractals have some interesting connections with established art forms.  The 3-dimensional aspect creates the enormous potential to depict the theme of “place” as well as sculpture and also the combination of both.  It makes for a much more profitable medium from a creative perspective.  As a side note: note how drab and uncomplimentary the lighting is in this photo.  It’s okay, but I think it could have given better contrast and definition to the shapes if it was more effectively done.  The artist didn’t make the photograph.

This Old House by HalTenny

What makes it a ruined house?  First off, there’s no roof.  That alone will do it.  But what makes you think there’s no “roof”?  Because you can see the sky and treetops in the background above the structure?  And what makes it a house?  Is it the doorways, windows and balcony?  But those things were created by HalTenny and not the program’s algorithms.  The doorway was invented when the artist put a door in it.  Same with the windows and the balcony.  They came into existence when the artist changed the context of the original fractal shape by filling a square hole with window shutters or putting a railing on a ledge to make it a balcony.  The sunlight shining in highlights the relief of the “walls” as well as the holes in the “walls” which are now instinctively assumed to be walls even though, if you look carefully, the “walls” have no additional photo imagery to them and the “wall effect” is a by-product of the transformed context that the other elements produced.  I think this may be the best example of the creative artistry that 3D fractal imagery makes possible above and beyond what the fractal imagery has produced.  This is weirder than that old house on the hill in Hitchcock’s classic movie, Psycho.


The Big Tower by HalTenny

I can’t spot a single photo inclusion here.  The choice of fractal imagery is so good that it needs nothing else to make it interesting.  The architectural details are quite amazing.  The patterns and structures are both industrial as well as decorative; a kind of Star Wars Art Deco theme.  Lighting and surface texture give the impression of size, substance and allows for good contrast of structural design details.  I think this was the first one that caught my eye on HalTenny’s gallery.  My tour went from garbage to grandeur with one thumbnail click.

3D fractals have some unique properties

It’s like a photographer’s studio, a 3D fractal program.  The photographer doesn’t create the face in the portrait or it’s expression, they capture it.  In the same way the 3D fractal artist doesn’t create the imagery drawn by the parameter settings, they merely capture that too.  However, the lighting, focus, depth of field, composition, background and other props are entirely at the discretion and control of the photographer and it’s these things that make for a great photographic portrait instead of a passport picture.

3D fractal programs contain elements, like lighting effects, that have no equivalent in the 2D fractal variety.  As a result, an artist like HalTenny has the potential to exert some degree of creative control over their fractal artwork that 2D practitioners don’t.  3D fractals work a little differently as a medium; they allow for hand-directed involvement which in turn makes personal creative expression possible in a way that doesn’t exist in 2D programs or especially genetic art programs like Kandid which are one-click wonders.

Creative Effect

Generally, fractal artists are like Mr. Bean when it comes to touching up or adjusting a work of art: a series of small, ever-increasing disasters. They generally degrade fractal art instead of complimenting it.  I’d  love to show some of the colossal artistic disasters other fractal artists have committed over the years by layering in photographic imagery of their pets, friends and flowers.  Suffice it say that having it turn out well artistically is a lot harder than it looks.  In the 3D realm it’s probably even more difficult.

Alien Tree Incubators by HalTenny

A fine example of the less is more rule of thumb.  There’s plenty of room here for more foliage, birds, wolves, water and majestic cloud filled skies but HalTenny wisely resisted.  Furthermore, the fractal shapes, although somewhat interesting in their uniqueness, are transformed into functioning technology with the mere addition of a small tree.  The fractal imagery is now doing something and suddenly has a purpose.  The lighting further suggests the outdoors and makes the smooth pillars look like some natural southwest U.S. eroded sandstone feature.  So much from so little and it’s all from HalTenny’s inspired imagination.  No one hijacking his computer and clicking away on buttons  would have produced this scene in a million years.  Have you ever seen it done better than this?

Most of the ones I showed in the lighting category are examples of photo inclusion creativity, but I put this one in a separate section because, although the lighting is also important, the photo includes are the major creative effect and they’ve been done so tastefully and effectively.  If the scene was overgrown with foliage and animals it wouldn’t make the same sense that it does with just three trees in just three incubators.  The fractals are growing the trees rather than the trees sprouting on their own in three fractal pots.  This image has a lot of thought in it.  And machines don’t think.  It must have been the artist.


Sphere in Hiding by HalTenny

I think HalTenny just liked the way the reflective ball fit into the picture and wasn’t aware of the profound irony taking place here.  The ball is the center of the tunnel composition and we look into it.  But remember, the ball is reflective, it’s a mirror.  Shouldn’t we see ourselves looking at it or someone pointing a camera at it to take the picture?  We are looking backwards in the center of the image, not forwards as the composition suggests by the rounded “roots” which form a tunnel or passageway.  The distant horizon in the ball and the warm, golden glow are not ahead, they’re behind us. This is an image that M.C. Escher fans would appreciate.  I’m not sure HalTenny intended this, but then I’m also not sure Leonardo intended the Mona Lisa’s “smile” to be the main feature of her portrait.

Eye for Composition

HalTenny’s images have a familiar composition to them which works well.  It’s generally what in portraiture is called a three-quarter view, the head turned 45 degrees away from the viewer.  This one below has similarities but is much more than just such a simple view.  As far as I can tell, there are no photographic additions here and image is just an interesting 3d fractal structure enhanced by the artist’s careful lighting.

Underground Railroad by HalTenny

The “roadway” or “railway” and it’s accompanying “walkway” or “windowed enclosure”, all in the right foreground, falls forward towards us showing it’s rich details and “private” view.  It then flows off like a snake and blends into the distance showing us it’s faraway, distant, blurred, view.  It’s like one of those alway interesting photos of a road disappearing off into the distance but starting off in the foreground in crisp focus like we could step out onto it with our own feet.  The contrast between the two perspectives is an effective artistic theme.  HalTenny’s has the added dimension of a more interesting curving composition that following good design principles moves us to the outer third of the image and then back following the flowing road up into the top third.  A combination of vertical and horizontal thirds.  What it comes down to is it looks good and gives a balanced, full use of the image space.

This is just as hard to do with photography because in fractal art you have to search out and find such compositions, you can’t make them.  Photographers capture great landscape scenery, they can’t arrange hills and trees like props in a studio.  In the same way, a fractal artist like HalTenny has to do a lot of legwork to find a scene like this.  He also has to recognize it in the rough when browsing around in the program.  I think that’s why most artists miss things like this, they pass them by.

Painting with Light

An interesting note on the the “extended creativity” of the lighting: note the big structure in the left fore and mid-ground.  It’s the train tracks and windows with the brightly lit floor area behind it.  In particular, notice the pattern of the shadows and how it creates the impression of a floor space and internal “office” or “public building” area.  The fractal structures created by the parameters of the algorithms drew the windows (and everything else) but the shadows, which have such a transforming effect, were drawn by the lighting.  And the lighting was “drawn” or directed and placed by the artist and not the fractal algorithms.  Here we have an instance where the fractal artist, algorithmic artist, is actually able to draw or create a pattern in the image through their own direct control.  The shadows could be moved by the artist by moving the location of the light source and it’s characteristics (ie. sharp or dull light).

If it seems like a trivial point, then you haven’t grasped the significance of fractal art’s mechanical, automatic origins.  I suspect very few do.  HalTenny “painted” that shadow which forms the central focus of the this image.  3D fractal programs like the Mandelbulb 3D have this unique capacity to allow the fractal artist to actually interact with the image in a meaningful way which is not possible in 2D fractal imagery where “lighting” is not a part of the medium.

Look at how lighting changes the appearance and mood of a common architectural scene:

Giovanni Battista Piranesi interior of the church of our lady of the angels called the charterhouse which was once the… (mid 1700s)


Giovanni Battista Piranesi interior view of the basilica of st peter in the vatican (mid 1700s)

Someone switched off the lights and let the natural light take over.  It has a strange, post-apocalyptic feel to it.  I guess, back in the 1700s, these sorts of large buildings didn’t have interior lighting when they were merely open for the tourists and had nothing important going on in them.  On the other hand, why would an artist sketch the interior of such an impressive building as if it were a ruin?  I guess he just liked the effect of the big, indoor cave which natural lighting gives.  We’ve all seen photos, paintings and drawings of great cathedrals, but have you ever seen one like this?  Piranesi didn’t make the architecture but he did capture the unique lighting effect which makes this otherwise commonplace engraving exciting.  That’s the artistry, the creative effect.  In the same way, the 3D fractal artist doesn’t draw the fractal structures but they do place the lighting sources and adjust their characteristics which in turn can make a commonplace set of parameters –exciting.

Back to the topic of composition: The glass ball image mentioned previously has a nice composition to it as well but is not as complex and subtle as the Underground Railroad.  There’s some blurring, it appears, in the Sphere in Hiding around the sides to focus the viewer’s mind on the parts that are not blurred and to prevent them from being distracted by irrelevant details on the periphery.  I think that’s another hand-made touch that he’s added but I think bright lighting and the hazy, volumetric fog can also produce that without extra editing.  As all fractal artists know, composition, or, “framing up” can be done well or poorly but the doing is entirely the work of the artist’s ability and not something generated by the program.  I’ve often found that my own “random zooms” can produce more interesting compositions that I can myself when deliberately trying to do so.  It’s one of the big challenges and creative edges photographers can have in their medium.

What else to say?

Well.  Looks like I learned something about fractal art.  When it comes to art you should always listen to your gut.  I had this gut feeling while browsing HalTenny’s gallery that there was an extra factor in the fractal art equation working here that I hadn’t been aware of before.  “What’s he doing differently?  And why can’t the rest copy it like they have everything else he’s done?” (Sorry, but didn’t HalTenny introduce us all to the big copper pipe, brewery, onion-shaped structures that went viral in fractal land a few years ago?)

It’s only in the 3D variety of fractal art that this level of personal involvement is possible, but who cares about any other kind of fractal art nowadays?