Sarah Ridgley on Capturing Human Essence in the Machine

Adam and Eve. Harold Cohen, July 1986. Drawing generated by the computer program Aaron. India ink on paper.

The aesthetics of your work navigate between hand-drawn and the computer-drawn. What is it about this tension that interests you?

There is definitely a tension there, and also a debate that comes up often in generative art. Should we prioritize the calculated precision of the computer, or could we allow a more emotional resonance to emerge by incorporating some of our human imperfections into our work? To me, generative art is really about doing both. Mathematical algorithms form the foundation of generative art, but as human artists it’s ok to have this desire to put ourselves into our art.

In my own work, I find it extremely interesting to explore ways of humanizing the machine. But I also set limits to these “human” aspects as a reminder that my work is, in fact, entirely made with code. As an example, in Ateliers I made a deliberate choice to keep the background as a single block of color. This allows the texture and depth of the paint to take center stage, and the solid background underscores the importance of the code that generated it.

How do you relate to the theme of Imperfections?

Ah, I love this theme! When Jamie first mentioned it to me, I was so excited because this is a huge part of how I approach generative art. It’s interesting how easy it is to make a perfect shape using the computer, and how much extra code is required to create more organic forms. Even randomness and noise can start to feel formulaic if you’re not careful, so I usually use multiple layers of noise to push the “imperfect” as much as possible. It’s the exact opposite of painting by hand, which I find fascinating.

Can you elaborate on Ateliers the series that you are contributing to the exhibition? When we first discussed this work, you mentioned that you felt you felt you had tapped into something special. When do you know you have striked it right as a generative artist?

Yes, I remember that conversation! I had just sorted out my new painting algorithm and was ecstatic that it was finally working as I had envisioned. You had a great reaction when I showed it to you! One of the most interesting things to me about generative art is that we can show the work being created in real time, and watch as the computer navigates the instructions and decides what actions to take.

I’ve been searching for a long time to find a way to incorporate the brushstrokes I use in my writing algorithms for painting. The biggest difficulty was finding a way to rearrange the points so that the rendering could follow a more natural path. I finally had one of those “aha!” moments, and when it started working, it really felt magical. I also made a small miscalculation with part of the brush, and the result was this delicious, sandy texture in the paint.

Generative art is the same as any other form of art, as the artist, sometimes you find something special and you just know. This is it, this is what I’ve been searching for. It's a gratifying experience when others also appreciate what you've created.

Process image, Courtesy of the artist

I love how you describe your work ‘a result of highly-ordered chaos’. I see how this makes sense as a generative artist who uses algorithms to create the work and then introduces randomness to create the final work. However part of me wonders if this is beyond this and if it also reflects on a personal philosophy or worldview?

When I first started working with code, I read Matt Pearson's book Generative Art - A Practical Guide Using Processing, which includes a great section on the interplay between order and chaos, and how as generative artists, we “start from order and head towards chaos” in an attempt to create something organic from all these logical functions. The entire book is so good, and this particular section was really helpful in shaping my approach and understanding of generative art.

In my own life, I struggle a lot with analysis paralysis and have trouble making decisions quickly. Using algorithms combined with randomness helps me to let go and embrace the unpredictable. This is probably what attracted me to generative art so strongly in the beginning. It helps me balance that need for structure and control, and be more open to the uncertainty that leads to new and exciting discoveries.

Your work is extremely painterly. When creating your works, do you draw inspiration from any particular artist?

There are so many artists I love, but Henri Matisse is consistently one of my favorites. His contour line work amazes me, and was part of the inspiration for me in working towards my own algorithmic lines.

When I first started working on Ateliers, I was painting the lines first, and then filling in the shapes with color. Then, I read an article describing how Matisse would reverse the normal order and add his contours at the end. I decided to try that, and once I reversed the order suddenly everything popped and looked so much more cohesive.

I get a lot of my color inspiration from artists like Helen Frankentheler, Elaine De Kooning and Alice Neel. I love looking at paintings I admire and using tools like to create color palettes from a combination of similar works.

Henri Matisse, Bather, 1909, Detail

You have shown your work in exhibitions as in the Personal Structures Pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennale. How important is it for you to show your work in a physical space as well as solely online?

I find it incredibly rewarding to show my work in physical exhibitions. Even if I can’t make the exhibition in person, I love the opportunity for people to engage with my work outside the digital realm. While the artwork I create is born on a screen, I’m a strong believer in the unique value of experiencing art in a physical space. Being able to gather as a community, interact with the work, and create personal connections absolutely enriches the entire viewing experience. Also, as a printer myself, I have a particular appreciation for the process of bringing digital work into the analog in a beautiful and tangible way.

Where would you like to take your work next?

I’m excited about the techniques I’ve been working on lately, and I intend to continue developing this painterly style to investigate new subject matter. I’m very inspired by the work of Harold Cohen, and I’m eager to explore figuration with code.

Leyla Fakhr

Leyla Fakhr is Artistic Director at Verse. After working at the Tate for 8 years, she worked as an independent curator and producer across various projects internationally. During her time at Tate she was part of the acquisition team and worked on a number of collection displays including John Akomfrah, ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ and ‘Migrations, Journeys into British Art’. She is the editor...
View profile

Sarah Ridgley

Sarah Ridgley is an American artist currently based in Arkansas. Her work focuses on reflecting the human hand in collaboration with the computer, and she often uses themes from the natural world along with geometric abstraction. A few years after earning her JD in 2006, Ridgley decided to change course and began to pursue her passion for art. She opened a small letterpress printing studio and...
View profile

Subscribe to get the latest on 
artists, exhibitions and more.