Take It to the Limitations

I was really glad to read Damien’s recent entry. I completely agree with him that all fractal artists post-process and that no one fractal tool is proprietary. He is absolutely right. It makes no difference whether I knock my fractal around with masking and layering in Ultra Fractal or import my fractal into Photoshop and put it through similar paces. And I also concur that no one definition of fractal art can be definitive. It’s not surprising I’d see eye to eye with each of these statements. I’ve been saying all of these things for almost ten years.

It’s probably true people might see my work as digital rather than fractal unless told otherwise. But I believe the same could be said of much of the more creative, experimental work that many cutting edge fractal artists have produced in the last few years. I did not mean to pull up old corpses — only to show the difference between then and now. It’s getting tough these days to separate what’s fractal and what’s digital. It’s likely the judges of the 1999 contest I referenced would not recognize most work coming out of UF and other programs today as fractal. That’s because everyone is indeed post-processing — and doing so more and more with every generator upgrade.

So, given that the fractal/digital divide is fuzzy, and knowing that we now live in a new golden age of fractal tolerance and latitude, why are limitations still being placed on artists? Oh, I know sponsors of contests can set their own rules. As a writer, I learned early on not to submit a free verse poem about baboons to a formal poetry contest about kangaroos. However, at least the literary contests will always specify the guiding parameters when reporting the winners: best rhyming poems about kangaroos. By contrast, some major fractal competitions strongly suggest that the winners represent the best fractal artists in the world. In truth, what these contests really showcase is only someone’s idea of what a fractal ought to look like. I wonder whether the public ever comes to see that the selected art represents only a substratum of our multi-faceted, rapidly mutating genre. How ironic is it that these limitations are still being put in place at the very time fractal art is relishing blowing up its boundaries.

Maybe this is all just one big technical vs. visual practicality dichotomy. Or maybe fractal artists should be considering less theoretical and more practical questions. Like: Should a contest’s incomplete snapshot of fractal art be presented as broadly representational to the public? Who stands to gain by using limitations to set the agenda for what the public sees as legitimized fractal art? Damien, I think, said it best: “So really, who gets to decide what is and is not fractal art?”

My last blog post wasn’t just about post-processing. It was also a plea for fractal artists to insist on having artistic freedom without limits. The stakes here could not be higher. If we, as fractal artists, continue to believe that our art must be a particular something to be accepted — whether to “look fractal” or conventionally spiral away over the days of each month — then we shun rather than follow our Muses. Even worse, I fear for the future of our genre. We risk getting stuck in permanent craft mode and never breaking into the blossom of becoming a broadly recognized and established artistic movement.

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20 thoughts on “Take It to the Limitations

  1. It’s not entirely true that post-processing is responsible for all the confusion about what is fractal and what isn’t. Everything that was done in 20th century abstract art can be done in Ultra Fractal. Post-processing is optional.

  2. I wish I could post a more substantive response, but all I can come up with is, where are the limitations? Who is holding their boot on your head and shouting at your to create endless spirals? I’m been involved in quite a bit of the “mainstream” fractal art action and I can’t say that I’ve seen any such oppression. I *have* seen endless spirals and flame after flame, all of which apparently voluntarily created by folks who were doing what they wanted to do.

    Much of my work is not fractal (in the technical sense), but that doesn’t keep me from doing it. I’ve never been barred from entering any fractal contest because of the type of stuff that I do. It may not win, but almost none of the entries do. Just like the rest of the world. That “traditional” fractals are often chosen for exhibitions and calendars and such is certainly a reflection of the tastes of the choosers, but it’s also a statement about the current state of fractal art. If 95% of the entries to a contest are spirals, then it shouldn’t be surprising if spirals show up in the group of winners.

    Just keep doing what you’re doing. The world will change, maybe in your direction, maybe not. Doesn’t matter–just keep doing it.

  3. “I completely agree with him that all fractal artists post-process and that no one fractal tool is proprietary.”

    too bad, because both of you are wrong:


    that’s no less than 5 proprietary programs, absolutely no postprocessing involved. yes, that’s a religious matter! :P

    even the core rendering algorithm in my latest program is proprietary and only loosely based on previous techniques: http://ompf.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=442

  4. Thomas,

    You completely missed the point. If you only think of “post-processing” as taking an image out of one program, loading it into another, and working on it some more, then yes, all of those images you produced in one program would be done without post-processing. (Those are some very cool renderings, by the way; my favorite is Medieval Fractal.)

    The point, though, is that this definition of post-processing, and using it to brag about the quality of an image, is kind of pointless. Many of the things that we used to have to use Photoshop for can now be done directly in UF, for example. This even includes text, even though UF has no native text ability.

    Let’s say I write my own program which combined 3D rendering of fractal shapes and special artistic effects filters normally found in graphics programs like Photoshop, does that mean now I can use them without it being called post-processing? If the answer is yes, then the whole distinction is silly, because the definition of post-processing changes based on the software I have at my disposal. If the answer is no, then the whole distinction is silly, because the definition of post-processing is based on some prior assumption about which algorithms are allowed and which are not. And as I pointed out in my “Myth” post, ALL fractal rendering uses some kind of algorithm and choice by the artist, so it’s all processed in some fashion.

    This is the point, Thomas: that the distinction of whether an image is post-processed or not is a purely arbitrary one made by the artist. This does not mean that one’s self-imposed limitations aren’t interesting; saying, “I did this within these constraints” tells us about your process and the boundaries you’re striving against. But it’s not correct to suggest that because you used only one program, your image is any more “pure” than another that passed through three or four before it was “done”.


  5. I’ve nursed for some time a pet idea about this whole post-processing thing and would be interested in any reactions: I’d like to make a distinction between ‘processing’ and ‘post-processing’. If we consider a ‘fractal’ as as a simple bi-coloured shape or collection of dots, then anything considered as ‘fractal art’ must be a processed fractal. This involves mathematically-based manipulations which work on the pixels as though they were numbers. Post-processing, on the other hand, treats the pixels as colour values only, therefore allowing divergence outside the original structure. Clearly, some fractal software is capable of both (layering would be post-processing by this definition).

    I don’t claim it removes the old baggage of controversy, but rather offers a valid functionally-based distinction for those who feel the need to make it.

  6. Vicky,

    Even if UF can replicate “everything done in 20th Century abstract art,” such a feat could not possibly be accomplished without accessing the “post-processing” masking and layering tools built into UF.



    In case you haven’t noticed, the limitations are hard-wired into some contests’ submission rules. For one competition, images have to look “uniquely fractal” and are deemed “not as desirable” if they look less fractal. The resulting display contains only the judges’ selections of images restricted to “fractal looking.” In no way does it expose the public to a diverse spectrum of current fractal art.

    Another limitation of the same contest is that images must be rendered at huge sizes (at least 8000 pixels in the largest dimension). That leaves many artists, especially Apo users, pretty much out. Maybe the sponsors think bigger is better, but why do all images have to be printed at the size of a plasma TV? Why not print at many different sizes — including even a few 8×10 small works on paper? That’s a quick path to presenting more variety and allowing more entries.

    Maybe 95% of the artists submitting to the “Fractal Universe” calendar really dig spirals. Or maybe they’ve just read the handwriting hanging on the wall. I don’t fault the artists who conform to what they know will stand a chance for selection. Nor do I fault the screeners who work hard each year to submit wide-ranging styles to the publisher.

    I do fault the marketing campaigns in both cases though. They present these contests as fair, representational snapshots of contemporary fractal art and use hyperbolic claims that these contests will showcase “the most important fractal artists in the world.” Neither claim is true. Moreover, year after year, such contests continue to perpetuate a truncated picture of the state of fractal art. Meanwhile, the artists, who adhere to the restrictions in hopes of acceptance, are designing their art to someone else’s prescription of how it must look and what it must be.

    You’ve had your experiences, Kerry. I’ve had mine. They differ.

    You’ve written your manifesto. This blog post is probably as close as I’ll ever come to writing mine. They also differ.



    Do you really believe not post-processing is a “religion”? It sounds to me like you may have joined a cult.

    Actually, I agree with Damien’s reply. He and I concur that “post-processing” (as it has been discussed here) is an artistic choice and inevitable — even if we reached the same conclusion by traveling different paths.



    “Processing” vs “post-processing”? So now we are going to further parse the phrase with semantics? Let it go. Damien’s correct. Post-processing is inescapable. The myth is that one can somehow avoid doing it.

    My initial post outlined a dream where post-processing no longer mattered at all to anyone. No stigma. No guilt. No taint of shame. No more sense of somehow “cheating.”

    I’d much prefer a world where one can freely choose any and all instruments to use one’s gifts and abilities to make the best work one can. No one’s fractal art should be automatically considered better or purer or truer simply because particular tools were used.


    Of course, everything I’ve expressed here is my opinion. Anyone is always welcome to jump on and air their views as well.

  7. replying to two comments, as previously i only replied to damien.

    demien: i didn’t miss the point, you just didn’t read what i wrote (i think); nowhere did i say anything about multiple programs! i explicitly said: NO postprocessing, in any of our programs.

    please note that i’m not against postprocessing in general, it’s just a more difficult set of constraints which i impose on myself.

    cruelanimal: you may have missed the tongue-out-smiley. i’m poking fun at this ages-old issue, and expressing my preference – i don’t feel strongly about it except insofar as *my own* images are concerned. is that what belonging to a cult means to you?

    postprocessing is not inevitable, it’s a choice.

  8. btw, just to cement what i said…

    WHY not use any postprocessing at all?!

    1. because if you’re good at postprocessing, it makes you focus on making good images in other ways. i.e., it’s a good handicap.

    2. because it forces you to achieve beautiful things with mathematics alone, which is an end in itself.

    3. because you’re still competing with people who do, and if you can match that without any pp you’re doing well.

    4. it’s just a style. not everyone has to paint the same way, for example; i take pride in my way of doing things.

  9. I’ve always believed that an artist has the right to use whatever tools and processes at his disposal to achieve his artistic ends; no matter how unorthodox or impure others may consider these tools and processes.

    Personally, I’m often impressed when someone goes outside previous boundaries to achieve something special. Many was the time I stared at a piece of artwork, scratched my head, and said “How the hell did he do that?” Sometimes, it inspired to figure it out for myself. Often times, I can’t figure it out, but instead come up with a technique of my own. Even if I do figure out how it was done, I often times find myself wanting to take it a step or two further on my own.

    This very thing happened to me one day, several years ago, when surfing the web. I stumbled upon fractals and fractal art. I was impressed by the surreal and ethereal qualities of it all. It wasn’t algorithms and formulas that inspired me that day. (I couldn’t understand half of it, anyway.) No, my inspiration was purely visual. I said to myself, “How was THAT done. I’d like to try my hand at creating something like that.” I did a little research, got a hold of some fractal software, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

    Now, I sometimes have people asking me “How the hell did you do that?”

  10. Thomas,

    Maybe I should have used a smiley, too. Then you might have seen my cult comment was meant as a joke.

    I think Damien’s reply outlines clearly why similar processing takes place whether an artist uses one program or many.

    And some post-processing is inevitable — even using the conventional definition you prefer. Your fractals were altered in some manner (image compression? size changes? thumbnails made? etc.?) in order to upload them to DeviantArt.

  11. no alterations *whatsoever*, and the thumbnails – in what way do they matter? i’m talking about the original image. jpeg also doesn’t count, even though i don’t use it (yes, each and every pixel is my own – like i say, that’s a matter of pride for me).

    sometimes i’ll add some sort of signature, but that’s < 1% of the image, which is completely without postprocessing. the *whole point* for me is to do render images entirely on my own, using only maths and no “fancy special effects”. i like that approach and have been following it for years; it irks me that people here seem to think it impossible…

  12. btw, that’s two mentions now of “my definition” of postprocessing. since when is there more than one valid definition?

    iamge postprocessing: you take an image, and alter it (in whole or in part).

    if i sometimes put a small signature on the image sure, fine, that’s postprocessing. it doesn’t bother me because it’s not changing the desired result at all (usually it’s because i am aware of how much art is stolen from da), and it affects < 1% of maybe 5% of all the images i've ever produced. i still feel entitled to say i don't postprocess my images, because you're always seeing *exactly* what my programs produced. anyway, i’ve expressed my opinions and methods here pretty clearly and have no desire to further defend it. nothing has changed really, i’ll continue to post un-procesed images at my da page (lyc) for the forseeable future, whether or not people believe it’s possible :P (that’s actually a strange compliment)

  13. Thomas,

    All of the “post-processing” effects that you dismiss with a hand-wave are based on a pretty solid foundation of mathematics. I have no problem if you choose not to use them as a self-imposed limitation. The point we’ve been trying to make is that there’s no reason for you to decide that “this set of maths is post-processing” and “this set of maths is not.” That’s a logically inconsistent stance.

    I love your work and I have no problem with the way you do it.


  14. “That’s a logically inconsistent stance.”

    just because i haven’t proven it doesn’t mean it’s logically inconsistent ;)

    i say i do no postprocessing in my app, and people either believe me or don’t – inevitable is taking a pretty hard stance towards the latter. i’m not even saying it’s implausible- from my involvement with the demoscene i’ve learnt a lot about postprocessing techniques; however this is exactly why i’m avoiding it, i want to try new things.

    i’m glad you like my work, but calling me a “hater” (?!) because i think apo and uf are limited doesn’t make sense, it’s just a fact. actually, in the case of apo it’s basically as unlimited as my approach, given that the user is willing to edit the code (which many do, though usually only the transforms). logical, no? i don’t know how you come to read such extreme views into my plainspoken opinions, in which i’ve clearly said i’ve nothing against other applications or postprocessing…

    well, now that i’ve defended both my views and finally myself, i think i’ve said enough and will see what’s said in summary.

  15. hmmm, I am trying to find the place where I, as an editor, said that the calendar was a contest or that it represents the best fractal art of today. I can’t because it isn’t there. No one has ever said that.

    I am getting $600 for my 2 images. I don’t know, should I turn that down for violating somebody’s notion on what good fractal art is? I don’t think so. I need a new lens for my camera.

    What is “fractal art” anyway and who should define it?

    I built “Hummingbird” out of Apophysis flames in Ultrafractal, but I would never market that as fractal art because I don’t think that it is fractal art. It’s a freaking bird, not a fractal. It is also one of the most “creative” images that I have ever created. It is was creative because I had to build it in Ultrafractal. It would have been so much easier to use a paint program to draw it, but no, I had to go through all of the trouble of digging through hundreds of flames, coloring them and then layering masking and positioning them in UF. I could give you the UPR for that image and it would appear just as it is – no post processing except contrast adjustments ;-)

    I am honestly wondering about the value of putting a definition on “fractal art”. I still believe that outside of our little world most people would not know a fractal if it hit them in the head. If fractal art were defined, it might make it easier to explain. Maybe that’s why the contests need something that looks like a fractal in them.

    I am not saying that every fractal artist should only build images that look like fractals, which is why I brought up Hummingbird. I am saying that for contests and calendars, it’s OK to ask for something specific. Maybe that does put a constraint on creativity for those particular contests or calendars, but I don’t think that my involvement in them has sucked the creativity out of my head. I’ll still build whatever I want, any way that I choose.

    Where is the best place to buy Olympus digital camera lenses?

  16. Keith,

    You imply many things I never said. I would prefer to focus on what I’ve actually written.

    What I did wonder, especially if the bias against post-processing is now a myth, is why some contests continue to enforce archaic limitations. I do not buy the explanation that the restrictions come about due to a formal vs. technical definition as to how a fractal looks. Instead, I questioned who stood to gain by keeping these limitations in place and suggested that the rules are possibly designed to privilege certain artists, programs, and styles. I noted some contests do not welcome diversity; instead, artists must tailor their submissions to conform to the sponsor’s often rigid expectation of what a fractal should look like.

    I complained that some contests are not honest in their promotion and marketing. There are two types of contests that compel me to challenge the truth of their broad and subjective pronouncements. Type one is the contest that claims to showcase the genre’s finest artists. As an example, this contest openly trumpets “it will exhibit high quality works by the most important fractal artists in the world.” Read for yourself. Here’s the link.

    Type two is the contest that claims to be a representative collection of contemporary fractal art. The Fractal Universe calendar falls into this category. In the FAQ section of the calendar’s Fractal Forum, the editors state they try to “produce a calendar that is representative of the current state of our art.” Here’s the link. Now I ask you. Is this statement an accurate description of the final product? Or would a more honest tag line be: a compilation of mostly fractal spiral forms made mainly using Ultra Fractal?

    And, Keith, you’re telling me that you never said the calendar is a contest? Are you saying it is not one? Are you prepared to argue that inclusion in the Fractal Universe calendar is not competitive? Aren’t entries juried with winners ultimately selected? Aren’t the chosen entries compensated while entries not chosen are neither published nor paid? Do you think using a euphemism like “image selection process” masks the fact that you are conducting a contest?

    As for Hunmmingbird, you should feel good about what you accomplished. As Damien observed, it’s admirable to strain against one’s boundaries. But you are hardly alone in doing so. Good artists constantly engage in pushing their tools — whether a brush or Photoshop — to the artistic edge. But I’d really like to know, how many layers of non post-processing processing did that image take? Damien and I could not be any clearer that similar processing occurs whether you use one program or many. That being the case, it makes no sense at all to argue that your math is acceptable and difficult because you stayed strictly in UF, but my math is unacceptable and easy because I exported to a graphics program.

    Good luck with your new camera lens. Maybe you can use it to focus on an examination of the ethics of editors and judges whose own work is somehow included in the fractal publications and exhibitions they are assigned to objectively oversee.

  17. Terry,

    Don’t get all twisted on me. You started out by saying that contests and calendars put limitations on fractal art. I think that contests and calendars can do whatever the hell they want and creative limitations are self imposed by the artist.

    I believe that contests and calendars are only a small part of getting this art visible. It’s ridicules for thousands of fractal artists to depend on contests and calendars to get themselves noticed when only a few of them will ever make it in. If we really want this stuff to get out there where it is noticed then we need to break out of this inbred community. We need fractal art to be hanging on the walls of local galleries and dentist offices, not in some fractal art community where it will never be seen on the outside.

    We certainly did try to provide calendar images that represented the current state of fractal art. The publishers ended up staying consistent with the previous style. They’re the paying costumers. They’ll buy what they want. We cannot depend on them to show the current state of the art (why would we anyway?). They don’t care about this discussion. They have a formula that works for them. They are sticking with it and it would be stupid of me to argue with them about it. Here’s why…

    There are no guarantees that the calendar will happen. Each year the publishers make a business decision on whether or not they are going to print it. I can imagine that it takes some money to print and distribute thousands of calendars and they’re probably not willing to risk a change. My guess is that they look at the previous sales numbers to make that decision. They’re sticking with what works for them, in spite of what we think – including me as an editor.

    Does that look like a contest to you? Whatever. If it does, fine. It doesn’t matter to me.

    For what it’s worth, I believe that the calendar is moving forward. It isn’t keeping pace with the rest of us but it is moving. For example, I was surprised that they selected my image for the cover. That image is not consistent with previous calendar images (the other one is). Sure, it’s a spiral, but it’s also a subtle composition with lots of texture. The calendar will probably always lag us but think that there is hope – if it survives for a few more years.

    As an editor I am guaranteed to have 1 image in the calendar. That’s a payment of $200 for communicating with the submitters, sorting through 600 images and putting up with crap like this. I don’t see how that is unethical. But wait, I am getting $600. That’s because the publishers picked an additional image of mine for $200 and 1 of my 2 is on the cover for an additional $200. The cover and additional image were not guaranteed so that places me on equal footing with everyone else for those 2 items. I don’t see how that is unethical. Terry, I really think that your last paragraph was out of line and uncalled for.


  18. Keith,

    My original aim was to point out general complaints with some contests — not to discuss you in particular. You took matters to a personal level, so I responded in kind.

    It’s good this blog exists to serve as a place for the open and free exchange of ideas.

    I do not post without careful consideration, and I stand by everything I have written previously.

  19. It’s hard to not take it personally when you are talking about me. I am a calendar editor and I was offering you my unique perspective as such.

    You can’t get much more personal than to question my ethics. That’s way beyond a free exchange of ideas. Go right ahead and stand by your statement. I’m done. Exchange away.

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