A Year (2020) of (almost) Daily (code) Sketches

I have always been very very bad at habits.

This is shocking to a lot of people. Maybe because I love makeup and skincare and those are habits. Maybe because I always check if doors are locked a bunch of times before leaving. Or because I’ve conned MIT out of degrees.

But I am actually not amazing at habits, especially daily ones. I have never been good at journaling or meditating or keeping a consistent workout or sleep schedule. Life is varied and I am someone who has tunnel vision on each variance.

This year I challenged myself to do daily sketches in code.

These sketches started as a suggestion from one of my advisors at the MIT Media Lab, Zach Lieberman, who does his own daily sketches and has written about them.

So the fact that this year I programmed 263 sketches says a lot.

Sure, 263/365 is only 72% but I have definitely gotten worse grades in my life and doing something consistent for 72% of the hellscape of 2020 isn’t the worst.

Below are the screenshots of all 263 sketches, grouped by month, except for June where I did not do any sketches:

Here is a video of them all animated and stuff which I posted on my Youtube channel which I swear I will upload things to when I am not a student.

A video recap of sketches

Motivation

The motivation behind these daily sketches, at least for me, is iteration and the ability to focus on a visual creative thing at least once a day.

In my day to day life I am not always being the most creative. I’m a graduate student so there are things to write and debug and meetings to attend. I have also been spending a lot of time in these last few months on hunting for post-grad plans and coordinating thesis things.

So this guarantee of spending 5–30 minutes each day (in theory) on a code sketch is super great. I never spend more than 30 minutes, otherwise this would become way too stressful of a hobby.

Furthermore, as with anything, the more you practice at something, the better you become. When I started this challenge for myself in January 2020 I chose to do it in p5.js because I hadn’t touched p5.js a lot in my graduate education and since many days I feel like a glorified mathematician in a programmer’s world, my JavaScript left some to be desired.

I can definitely say my JavaScript is a lot fresher and better now. I can also say that I have learned a lot this year about creative coding, sketching, and my views on it all — which was another motivation for this endeavour.

Process: Sketching

Sketching with code is different than sketching with a blank canvas. Mostly, because of a good old copy paste.

Most of my sketches are derivatives of each other. I often also get inspiration from the p5.js website and documentation and OpenProcessing, where many creators post their sketches.

When I first started this year, I was very uninspirsed. I was depressed from a tough semester, sitting on my mom’s couch, and wanting to do daily art.

So I sort of started just by working through a lot of examples. Things like particle systems, etc. Things I “knew” but needed refreshers on.

My very first sketch of 2020. Ah, how little I knew of what was to come.

I soon started to remember how to iterate.

I iterated on sketches throughout the year. A few clear iteration trains are below:

But I also learned that along with iterating, good sketching comes with pivoting. Constantly switching about the diversifying.

I had an architecture professor who once told me that a good designer and a good scholar is someone who is willing to “kill their darlings”. Someone who is willing to go deep into an idea, prototype, or aesthetic but then kill it off if it isn’t working. There is a strength in that.

I have felt this sense on a large scale throughout my graduate education, but on a smaller scale with these sketches. This was good I think.

The trajectory of my sketches was bold and varied this entire year. And while there were definitely some patterns and trends, there was also me forcing myself to constantly kill design darlings. Day to day going to very different designs. Some dramatic shifts between days are below.

I think this combination of constant iteration and constant pivoting has definitely made me stronger in terms of sketching, visual design, and creative coding.

In terms of the sketching process, it’s honestly just me coding. Sometimes I seek out something to improve on. Like I will look up and re-learn how to do fractals for snowflakes. Or see something that inspires me.

But I think it’s also gotten to the point where I have lots of bits of components that I am constantly reusing and recycling.

Another reason I want to do streaming with these eventually (when I’m not a student) is so I can better track and document the process behind these.

Process: Posting

I at first posted all of these on a private blog which I set up on a Slack RSS feed that Zach and I had access to. But I soon realized that as a human being who craves attention, posting these to my public social media would be better.

So I started at first by posting on my own Twitter, @ninalikespi. This was awesome but in late October I made a stand alone account @ninasketches just for the sketches. This of course garnered more focused attention and allowed me to reclaim my own feed a bit.

I just post stills. I did some GIFs for a while but honestly I lost the bandwidth to do it. Also I think there is power in designing my sketches to look good in skills. My early ones certainly didn’t have this in mind. I also like having some sketches with no animation at all.

Lessons Learned: Sketching and creative process

As I mentioned above, I learned a lot this year about code sketching and I reacquainted myself with a lot of drafting and sketching and visual grammars I had been rusty on.

I think the main thing I have learned is to go into this process as if it is a tool kit. I think the most valuable tools in my toolkit are expressed in this workshop I did in October 2020 but I tried to summarize my main code sketching lessons below:

  1. Color spaces, line weights, and different opacities. These are so important in any visual art and reminding myself of them was important this year.
  2. Background opacity and motion (how you get “trails” on a single shape to give a more complex effect). It also gives you a fake 3D effect sometimes.
  3. Sinusodial motion can give some really beautiful effects and forms. Basically getting used to what trigonometric motions do in my drawings.
  4. Polar coordinates are your friends.
  5. I finally got comfortable with different noise functions.
  6. I divorced myself from strict particle systems that look like particle systems.
  7. I took inspiration from other artistic trends and mediums like cubism, Art Deco, and more.
  8. I finally made my peace with arcs and bezier curves.
  9. Messy code creates some beautiful effects visually.

Lessons Learned: Reception

I want to thank all of the people that followed the art and even went to the workshop I held in Fall 2020. My mental health and life I guess, like many others, has not been the best in pandemic times. I have, if I’m honest, been having a hard time since 2019 fall semester and it just hasn’t stopped.

You have no idea how much your comments and engagement and appreciation of my silly sketches motivate me, especially in the current insanity of the world.

Below are just some comments, but honestly, they all mean so much to me so thank you so much:

I also loved it when people asked about the sketches, how they were made, etc. It was them that inspired me to hold a workshop in October. It was part of Zach Lieberman’s class at MIT, but I invited anyone who wanted to go. And it was nice to see folks come out. Materials are available here.

And yes — there will be more in the future after I finish my thesis this term.

Future Work/Goals for 2021

After my 2019 and 2020, I am not making resolutions for 2021. But I have some hopes for my daily sketches.

  1. I hope I can hit the 300s for 2021 number of sketches. That’d be neat.
  2. I want to do more workshops about these sketches. Teach people how to make these things in an easy and approachable and friendly way. Life is too short to be presumptuous about a sine function.
  3. I want to get involved with the p5.js community and other open source and art tech communities. I have been in purely academic and institutional circles too long. I also want to carve out what I want my role to be in this space. Creative coding isn’t my main thing, but it’s a hobby I love and I think it’s a valuable educational tool as well.
  4. I want to stream myself coding these sketches. I want to normalize messy coding and stream of consciousness and having more women live coding. I also want to challenge myself to do this, because I suck at live coding.
  5. I want to have better documentation for these sketches and post all of them to a more organized website. This is already done here.
  6. I want to make more stuff on my Redbubble, because it is extremely satisfying to have my sketches in my physical life.
  7. I want to post on Instagram as well as Twitter.

I don’t think a lot of these things will happen until I graduate, if I’m honest. I need to knock out this thesis and solidify my post graduation employment.

As I write this, I have may interviews and some prospects lined up, but I haven’t signed any dotted lines, and that and my thesis are my number one priorities for 2021. Along with not catching a virus that would most likely kill me (wouldn’t recommend being immune compromised during a pandemic).

But some of these, as I’ve mentioned, are already started. And I hope you will follow along @ninasketches to keep seeing the art and new developments regarding the art.

Conclusion

A lot of people find me through sketches and ask me “What do I do?” Am I an artist? Is this what I want to do full-time?

The truth, I’m not sure. I don’t think of myself as an academic or an artist most days. I don’t super want to have a full time artistic pracitce. I also don’t think of myself as someone who takes themselves too seriously.

I currently consider myself an interdisciplinary researcher who uses computational and artistic methods to explore visual communication and culture at scale.

But really, I think I just care about using computers to make people think about other people. And if there is one thing we have learned from 2020, there are too many who are not doing that.

And while these sketches are decoupled from data, I cannot help but think about the “art x tech” space they exist within.

One of the best essays I read in 2020 was “When Proof is Not Enough” by Mimi Onuoha. It was assigned in my advisor Ekene’s class. I encourage anyone who works at the intersection of tech, art, and data to read it. It speaks to the limits of tech and data and the fact that we cannot data visualize or prove our way out of the human condition or bias.

You see, I think someday when we look back at a lot of different technology bubbles, including creative ones. We will see a lot of great educators and people who released amazing tools, some of whom I am lucky to know.

But we will also see people who have tried to gate keep these processes and fields. People who got lucky and were able to sell it as genius and create a monopoly on an art form on a technological scale.

Perhaps that is why I am still on the edge of these spheres in a lot of ways. That is another reflection I have been doing within this art form.

Nonetheless, it’s been a great year of sketches and I am excited to keep up with this hobby of mine. I think it makes me better in a lot of ways.

I hope you have liked the sketches of 2020. I hope you will tune in this year.

Thanks

Thank you everyone who has interacted with my sketches and attended workshops. ❤ Really, really it means the world to me — especially this past year! ❤

Special shoutouts to: Lenny, Les, Charlie, Novy, Katlyn, Daniella, Kayla, Gonzo, Ethan, Zach, and my friend Kelsey who has been my quarantine rock. Along with folks I am probably forgetting.

Happy New Year, folks. And happy sketching.

Nina M. Lutz is an interdisciplinary researcher who uses computational and artistic methods to explore visual communication and culture at scale. She is currently working on participatory digital artworks regarding langauges for her MS thesis at the MIT Media Lab.

Some of her art is available for purchase on her Redbubble. She is reachable at nlutz@mit.edu or @ninalikespi on Twitter. You can see the art at @ninasketches on Twitter. You can read more of her essays right here on her Medium page.

Her spirit animal is still a white crusty dog — she literally has her friend Kelsey drive her in circles when she is sad. She got through 2020 by way of charcuterie boards, reigniting her love of science fiction, and the mint cookie 7-Elevan brand icecream.

Please hire her after June 2021. She is so hireable and will do code and math and writing and art for you for compensation and health insurance.

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Nina Lutz

Instead of making computers think like people, I want to use them to make us think about other people.