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Want to make code art? Here’s your book.

I am sometimes asked by my art college students for a good book to introduce them to programming, that explains the basic concepts (such as functions and variables) and that is written for creative people, rather than computer science majors.

Unfortunately, the book that worked so well for me is no longer available, nor relevant, since it was the booklet that came with the Timex Sinclair computer (that booklet was remarkably well written!).

Until recently, I had a hard time identifying such a book for my students, but I was recently given a copy of Processing: Creative Coding and Computer Art by Ira Greenberg, and I’m pretty sure this is the book those students are looking for. It’s a book I would have been proud to have written myself.

When painter-turned-pixel-wizard Greenberg describes his experiences, they very much mirror my own, and he spends a lot of time talking about the whys of “code art” as he calls this thing we do, before diving into the hows.

Those of us who delight in making beautiful things with code are in a strange place, and can find it hard to find good reference material and classes. The art colleges consider what we do too technical, and the technical colleges consider what we do too arty. Many of us have fallen into this pursuit of making beautiful algorithms quite accidentally.

For people such as us, the Processing language, covered in this book, is an excellent first choice. It is free, it has a very simple all-in-one programming and execution environment, and it saves all your projects in a kind of sketchbook. The best way to learn this stuff is to make a series of little sketches, one after another, rather than working on a giant magnum opus. Greenberg talks about noodling around with code, while sitting in front of the TV and eating snacks, making pretty pictures, one after another. I heartily approve of this method.

Greenberg is painfully aware that his audience is likely to be quite math phobic, due to the horrible way that math is taught in schools, but having been math phobic himself (as I was), he delights in the wonders and miracles that are in store for those readers who slowly introduce themselves to graphics programming.

The book includes a nice history of computing and code art, which mentions a few of my heros, including Charles Babbage, Grace Hopper and John and James Whitney. It doesn’t assume the reader already knows how to count in hexadecimal, or (as so many books do) already knows another programming language.

There’s a good section up front on the bizarre nomenclature used by programmerrs, and an appendix in the back which covers some key math concepts that the reader may eventually find peace with.

If the book has a fault, it’s that Greenberg is a little to anxious to share some advanced scripts very early in the game, before doing some more basic tutorials. For example, Greenberg’s love of tree images causes him to share a script that uses recursion really early on, before covering much simpler stuff like drawing a few lines. The reader will be well advised to skip over this stuff at first, and take Greenberg’s advice to read the book non-linearly.

I would also recommend it supplementing it with another book on the same subject, such as the Reas and Fry Processing book, so you can obtain alternate descriptions of the same things. When you are first learning this stuff, one book is never enough.

One Response to “Want to make code art? Here’s your book.”

  1. links for 2008-03-30 Says:

    […] KrazyDad » Blog Archive » Want to make code art? Here’s your book. When painter-turned-pixel-wizard Greenberg describes his experiences … he spends a lot of time talking about the whys of “code art” …, before diving into the hows. (tags: software programming art books book) […]