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Everything You Need to Know About the Artistic World of Creative Coding

As a creative coder, you can build interactive art installations or design real-world brand experiences. The sky is the limit.

If you have had the opportunity to read any of Walter Isaacson's biographies on the greatest people in history, you are probably very familiar with Isaacson's views on art and science and the unique relationships these two areas share. His argument?

When art and science properly come together, they create something transformatively new. "Innovation resides where art and science connect is not new," says Isaacson. "Leonardo da Vinci was the exemplar of the creativity that flourishes when the humanities and sciences interact. When Einstein was stymied while working out General Relativity, he would pull out his violin and play Mozart until he could reconnect to what he called the harmony of the spheres."

The playful interplay of art and science has become the cornerstone of the most exciting new fields of creative expression and technology. This includes the realms of creative coding.

Now, creative coding is nothing new. However, the recent hype around programming has given rise to a wide array of individuals from different fields looking to bridge the gap between art and programming. But, we get it. The term creative coder can be a bit misleading. If you have spent your career as a programmer, one of the first things you were taught was to think creatively about your coding solutions.

However, when we are talking about "creative coders," we are talking about people using one or more programming languages to create works of art and or some form of creative expression. A creative coder might put together an interactive art installation, create generative art, design product prototypes, conduct a live visual arts performance, build an interactive website, or create sound art. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Today we are going to look at creative coding, examine what specific steps you can take to become a creative coder, and delve into some of the most interesting real-world uses of this exciting field of expression. 

Ok, what is creative coding? 

Everything You Need to Know About the Artistic World of Creative Coding
Source: Benjamin Cooley

Can you imagine using programming to create art? On the surface, creative coding is the act of using computer programming software to create works of art, design, architecture, and even fashion. It is simply the art of creating visualizations or expression. Traditionally, coding centers around creating something functional. Here, the aesthetics of the project is the primary driving force of the project. You might also hear people throw in the term generative art when discussing creative coding. These 2D, 3D, or interactive visualizations are generated by applying algorithms using a programming language.

You might see someone's creative coding designs on an interactive website at a gallery or museum, in a research center at a university, at the entrance of a building, during a concert, or at your local mall. Creative coding is unique as it allows people from various fields not traditionally associated with the area of programming to tap into the power of code to explore ideas or simply express themselves. Creative coders tend to be polymaths; individuals straddling multiple disciplines like design, biology, math, art, and even music.

As writer and technologist Jun Wu so eloquently put, "Creative Coders search for meaning in both the creative universe and the logical universe. They delve deep into the subjects that they work with. They end up becoming great programmers. A lot of their projects are software projects."

However, it is not as intimidating as you may think. Creative coding is for everyone, at any age or any stage of their career. If you have been flirting with the idea of getting into coding, start here. It is the perfect stepping stone for programming, especially if you are unsure if it is the right thing for you.

If you have a background in programming and have been straddling the creative world, this is for you too. In one of the more fascinating aspects of this form of expression, creative coding allows people to "explore logical subjects such as math, biological sciences, architecture, and engineering," says Jun Wu. 

Everything You Need to Know About the Artistic World of Creative Coding
Source: Moment Factory

The awesome Professor Daniel Shiffman of the Processing Foundation expands on this idea in the book, the Nature of Code. As a creative coder, you might try to find ways to capture the unpredictable evolutionary and emergent properties of nature and create a digital poster. Or, you might discover that understanding the mathematical principles behind our physical world will help you create interactive exhibits for thousands of guests at a gallery. Art and science. So, where do you start? 

How can I get into creative coding, if I have never coded before? 

First of all, congrats, you are already on the right path. Every creative coder that you have come across has started where you have. If you have never written a line of code, or are still struggling to grasp what you can do as a creative coder. We recommend that you do a few things.

1. Simply research creative coding. Believe it or not, there is not that much information out there on creative coding, compared to other artistic subjects. Yet, what is currently out there is fantastic. Jun Wu's "Getting Started with Creative Coding," and Sean Zhai's "Creative Coding: Perspectives & Case Studies" are fantastic articles that will build on the insight that you get here. Visit places like Processing.org to learn about the power of coding within the context of the visual arts. There is a plethora of free detailed resources and tutorials on this webpage.

2. Get some inspiration. Simply following the creative coding hashtag on social media will expose you to all the cool ways people are using creative coding. What is even cooler is that some of these individuals share tutorials on how they created their visual masterpieces.

3. Pick a framework. There are many different creative coder frameworks out there, with the most popular ones being based on JavaScript. If you are familiar with web design or programming, you have probably come across JavaScript. A lot of creative coders use frameworks based on these programming languages. It is intuitive, fun, and powerful. We will break down some of our favorite frameworks later in this article.

4. Take a creative coding course. There are a handful of both free and paid creative coding courses out there. One of the best ways to get started in creative coding is to just begin. A lot of the courses available walk you step by step on what to do, why you are doing it, and how your newly learned creative skills can be applied to the world. We will share some resources later in the article. Feel free to complete these steps in no particular order.

The more you learn about creative coding, the frameworks out there, and the crazy things people are doing with creativity, the easier it will be for you to pick a course and get started. 

Choosing the right framework: P5.js is one of the best places to start. 

Everything You Need to Know About the Artistic World of Creative Coding
Source: p5js/lauren-mccarthy

Your framework will be your weapon of choice. Though you can learn multiple different frameworks at once, picking one and getting really good at it should be your priority. If you are going to start anywhere, start with p5.js. For the uninitiated, it is a JavaScript library for creative coding, with a focus on making coding accessible and inclusive for artists, designers, educators, or as they put it, "beginners, and anyone else." With p5.js, you can create engaging interactive and visual pieces while learning to build a strong foundation for software development.

Created by the Processing Foundation, you can easily run p5.js from most web browsers. The p5.js has a fantastic community, a plethora of resources, and free tutorials run by the Bob Ross of coding, Professor Daniel Shiffman. Assuming you already have a computer, there are no real start-up costs when learning p5.js.

All you need is time. After you have mastered p5.js, you can go on to learn other frameworks too. Regardless, you will build a strong foundation in JavaScript if you master this creative coding language. Other great frameworks include sketch.jsD3three.js. These frameworks are also beginner-friendly powerful and are great for building everything from 3D simulations to simple 2D sketches. 

There are a lot of great free resources out there.

Perhaps, the current global predicament has opened up your schedule. Perfect. There are a lot of great creative coding resources on the web. What is even better is that a lot of them are free. That's right, everyone's favorite word, free. Another reason we like p5.js is that there is just so much information and years of courses out there for you to take advantage of on both Processing.org and YouTube.

The Coding Train is another fantastic free resource if you are looking to get into creative coding. If you prefer a little more formal setting, New York University has a course that will begin in January 2021 that is currently on edX. Finally, the Nature of Code course on Kadenze (also led by the Processing Foundation) will help you mirror phenomena found in physics or biology and bring them to life using code. You will become a master of the universe... or at least the universe of creative coding. 

When the art of code turns into something practical, this is where the magic happens. 

Again, so what can you do with creative coding? Well, you can do a lot. Like any form of expression, creative coding can be used to enhance your existing career or to start a new one. Experienced web-developers might learn creative coding to help them create better interactive websites. Others use creative coding as a form of artistic expression.

Agencies and start-ups are using creative coding to build interactive installations for the public and big brands. The sky's the limit in this new world. The important thing is that if you are interested in starting, just do it. 

Interested in how technology changing art

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