Central Park series: data-driven artwork

In this small series, I worked with the axidraw pen plotter and Processing to imagine the new growth happening in early spring in Central Park.

From the warmth of my room, I researched March weather data in Central Park as well as geotagged posts of spring flowers, outsourcing my reference-gathering to the data of others.

I made some simple plots of the weather data using Processing, comparing humidity and temperature by date and plotting the points as small circles.

Cloud cover was additionally represented by adding rings around the circles (the rule was to add one extra ring if cloud cover was between 30% and 60%, two if it was anything over 60%).

With the axidraw, I could then draw the plots accurately and precisely using waterproof artist’s pen directly onto watercolor paper.

I drew lines to create dimensional relationships between the data points, and then “grew” the flowers I’d been researching from home out of the spaces between the data points.

The data formed a “garden” to situate the flowers, and their pattern was dependent on its form, as with the growth anticipated in the season.

The data forms them and gives a structure to their layout, just like the forces represented by that data enable the form of our gardens year over year.

Sketch notes: Margaret Livingstone at NYU

Margaret Livingstone spoke at NYU on the subject of “What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain” on Tuesday, and I filled this page before she even got to the Q&A. I’d been curious to see her speak because of my interest in perception and how she relates it to art, and the talk was very spirited. She explained different aspects of perception with a series of optical illusions, including her insights on the Mona Lisa’s smile which I’d seen and found fascinating.

A couple of the biggest takeaways from this were:

  • our visual processing “normalizes” the visual information we get, and artists know + play with this, which explains why a painting of a scene will regularly be different from a photograph of a similar scene.
  • many visual processing quirks stem from the fact that there are two processing streams when parsing an image, and one is colorblind (the older system). This explains the “shimmery” effect we get from colors that have color contrast but no luminance contrast, for example.
  • From the overflow to these notes: on the impact of diorama-type work, she said “Maybe by making something the wrong size, artists get you to process it with a different part of your brain”, referencing things like how we don’t really process an image of a face if it’s upside down. This is food for thought for me as I continue to work with, and be interested, in representations of space at small scales.

Aleataxonomy series

“Aleataxonomy”, my shorthand from “aleatoric” (created from random action) and “taxonomy” (referring to the classification of the elements I use in drawings), is a recent series based specifically on limiting drawings to randomly-generated numbers of elements in sequence. The project takes on the problem of end condition, or “when is the drawing done”, that I’ve been dealing with since working on series like Schema (one of the first that departed from my historic end condition of “whenever the pattern goes to the edge”). My hypothesis was that even with an artificial end condition, these drawings wouldn’t end up looking unfinished because of the conscious and subconscious aesthetic evaluation I unavoidably engage in as I draw.

Procedurally, I would first figure out what types of patterns would work for this process, break down their individual procedures into steps and ranges, and then write up a script in Processing that would render out random values (within the range) each time it ran.

For some of these processes I made intermediate sketches to determine how I should balance out the ranges of values before I could write the randomizing script.

Once I had a solid idea of the steps and ranges of values, I wrote scripts that would choose a random number from a range for each step and, critically, read the choices back to me in clear step-by-step instructions. Much of “aleatoric” art has to do with physical randomization tools like dice, but since I had access to coding text output and random value generation in Processing, that made it possible to write custom ranges in absolutely whatever value I might want.

Once I had the readout, my task was to follow the instructions to the letter (often using tally marks on scratch paper to record how many of each mark I’d completed).

– Example of a first step. The result of the Processing “dice roll” is at the bottom of the black rectangle below the code. (For those following along at home, the code that requests that printout is println())

– Process for a full drawing

There are many ways I can take this kind of process. One of the options I wanted to pursue was to try using the same exact values to make multiple drawings. Would they be the same, indistinguishable, or somewhere in the middle?

One of the unexpected upshots of this project was learning just how many houses or lines I might be able to draw in a small space without realizing. Even when I was dealing with scales like 6”x8” and large numbers like 150-250, it turns out that’s barely enough “house” marks to look inhabited.

In general, I’m glad I indulged this impetus to take programmatic drawing to a bit of an extreme. It’s another tool I can use to determine when a piece is “finished”; it allowed me to explore aesthetic balances that I might not have chosen to work with before; and in a way it gives me more confidence in the persistence of my artistic style.

Sketches from Paris

I was recently in Paris for two weeks and made a lot of time to draw.
Some of my favorites:

Along the Canal St Martin

Out the window of a bistro in Montmartre

The historic yet unassuming Lapin Agile in Montmartre

Steps near Sacre Coeur. There are tons of steps to get up and down from Montmartre.

Sketches and painting of a window. The architecture is lovely and picturesque but surprisingly complicated to draw. Mostly I needed preparation to deal with the perspective due to looking from the ground, and a variety of grey-yellows to model the details with any depth.

Aperol spritz! With record high temperatures, these were a big feature during the trip.

Tiny sketch from a picnic when I learned to combine Schweppes Agrum’ soda (mixed citrus) with red wine for a sort of super-simple sangria

Canal boat navigating the locks on Canal St Martin

Window in the Latin Quarter

Doughnut peaches for breakfast

Rooftops drawn while taking a break from the heat

Antique chair

The cluttered interior of a lovely cafe where I had a little longer to draw


Scotland map commission

Last fall I was contacted by David Collins Studio to work on artwork for the lobby of the Gleneagles Hotel near Auchterarder, Scotland.

The image they liked was a more abstract imaginary map with lots of brushstrokes, along the lines of my Schema series, and the source image was a map of the region that the hotel had in its collection.

From the outset the project was going to be a challenge to design because of the scale. The brief was to make 15 panels, each around 23” x 17”, hung as “tiles” that fit together into a map.

My usual process involves drawing a few thumbnails based on the area and focus of interest, developing a chosen thumbnail into an intermediate-sized sketch, and then expanding that to draw the full-scale drawing.

With this project I was still designing it as a single image (up until it got to a larger scale), but I knew there would have to be more steps between thumbnail and full-size than usual. As it turned out, to finalize the design we actually went in between scales a bit as well.

Choosing colors was also a preliminary concern because the work was going to be hung as an original artwork, not as a print, and the colors needed to match the hotel lobby’s decor.

Because of the style chosen, the image ended up being designed first by the streets and waterways, and the color distribution was determined later with a smaller-scale sketch overlay. I did several color sketches on an overlay over the roads, composited them together, and the studio chose an arrangement.

Two of the overlay options for the map design

Four options combining overlays with the map design

The chosen design, mocked up into panels to draw from

Once I got to the point of expanding the design to the individual panels and working on them, scale came into play again. The first steps (tracing the roads, inking the design, and filling in the water areas with watercolor pencil) were relatively easy, but I had to start thinking at different scales once it came to painting in the color.

I had my directions for the overall distribution of colors, but within each panel there was a lot of space! Detail that I would have glossed over at the small scale of the color sketch was much more stark at a larger scale. Additionally, when the roads were scaled up they became less apparent. I worked on subtly highlighting them using the watercolor strokes, and at the end of the project the lines of the roads got retraced as well.

First and last steps on one panel

(Everything comes back around—I’m finding myself using a similar style (i.e. adding watercolor with alternating indifference and attention to road boundaries) with recent projects now!)

The project soon took up a whole room:

Panels in various stages of completion

I was thrilled to see the first photos from the work installed. I wasn’t able to ever see all the panels together in person (I used a digital composite of photos of each panel that I kept updated with their current progress as a tool to adjust color over the whole image and make sure individual panels matched up), and I loved seeing it in the space.

Photo credit Simon Rawlings, via Instagram

Photo credit Simon Rawlings, via Instagram

Workshops at Cambridge Friends

I was recently invited by an art instructor at Cambridge Friends school for pre-K through 8th grade in Cambridge, MA to teach a short program as part of their Makers in Residence program.

We discussed the subjects relevant to the different grades and settled on exploring the connection between biological imagery and maps with 3rd and 4th graders, and a more materials-focused approach for 7th graders.

My first class of the day was the 7th grade. They were just starting watercolor, and my pattern-based approach would be their introduction.


I gave a short explanation of what I do and what my inspirations are, and then set out the activity. Students would be sketching out drawing “rules”—something iterative (i.e. building on itself, like a doodle or a mandala) that they could use to fill a page. I asked them to first sketch out four patterns on scrap paper and then choose one to expand on and fill a page of watercolor paper. We used waterproof micron pens so that when we subsequently interacted with the design using watercolor, the pen wouldn’t bleed.


For the 3rd + 4th grades, who were in the midst of learning about maps, I chose to do a shorter thumbnailing exercise on maps and then a materials-based approach to expanding the chosen sketch where we gradually introduced waterproof pen and water-soluble pencils.

I introduced the aesthetic connection between maps and biological imagery, although most students were less abstract and chose to do a map based on an existing place.

I always find I learn a lot from the way students interpret my lessons. Some of the solutions they came up with this time were particularly interesting.

I loved this 3/4th grade project where the student decided to sketch the same map twice—with different (and thoroughly labeled) zoom levels.

It surprised me when the 7th graders complained that they didn’t know how to fill the page before the time was up, even when I provided intermittent time checks. But when I suggested making their patterns larger as they finished up to fill the available space, that seemed to solve the problem—and didn’t ruin the design, as I suspect they feared.

Overall, I appreciated the opportunity to hone some of my workshop materials, especially when it came to using thumbnails and describing iteration as a “rule” instead of the mathematics-tinged words I tend to use like “algorithm” and “fractal”. I hope it helps start the students thinking about alternative ways to use watercolor and new tools to facilitate their own creativity.

“What I Make” Conference presentation

From Miranda’s Hearth, a recap of my presentation at the What I Make conference in April 2016!


“I describe my process as growing the drawing,” Emily says. Similarly to organisms and trees, her drawings grow through emergence, not top down but bottom up. Cities also grow this way, organically, over time, and under a specific set of rules, and Emily’s maps reflect this. “I decide on some simple rules and I work with those rules. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but I know the rules.”


Read more background on my process at the link: http://mirandashearth.com/whatimake-imaginary-maps/
The full talk is also online here: https://youtu.be/x6yIast7AFo


Some of the animations I showed in my presentation, illustrating the steps of my process:


“Imaginary Mapmaking” at Peabody Essex Museum

Last weekend I took the train up from Boston to Salem to teach a workshop at the Peabody Essex Museum on connections between maps and biology as part of their participation in the Big Draw festival. The blurb for the workshop was:

Maps and geography surround us in our daily lives, but did you know that the growth of cities had anything in common with the growth of trees, or the cells in your body? In this workshop, we’ll use maps and geography as a starting point to explore the variety of fractal, biological imagery in our world through drawing. Emily Garfield is a professional artist who uses geographic imagery in her work but is just as inspired by the maplike imagery that exists in nature. She’ll present some of how she develops her new drawing projects, and we’ll use these techniques to explore how maps as a graphic format relate to other natural patterns like cells and trees.

Some of the slides from my presentation:

Some of my more biological map artworks

And some of the biological imagery that inspires them

Participants took the materials in different ways! It was a more drop-in event so some people came for a moment to draw something they liked, and others stayed for the whole 2-3 hours and really dug into the material and the maps they found in their minds.

Fathom presentation

I connected with Fathom Information Design during the Eyeo festival and they invited me to give a presentation during their Friday social hour in mid-July about my work and its connection to infovis and computational artmaking. I drew up a slideshow about my recent forays into Processing and how they relate to the “Organic Algorithm” series I’ve been developing.
Handwritten “algorithm” for generating a hand-drawn map


Organic Algorithm Animation
Procedurally-created hand-drawn map process


Map of a local pub


Visual notes from Eyeo during a presentation by Ben Fry, co-creator of Processing and head of Fathom


The best part of the presentation was that while I was presenting on my visual notes, I was getting visualized myself! Attending employee Rachel Harris drew an amazing map of what I’d talked about; see more of her work on her Instagram here.
Rachel Harris

Macrame stone-wrapping

I’ve always wanted to find a good way to secure and exhibit an object for jewelry. Wire-wrapping was interesting but often clunky and attention-taking. But after a tip from an exhibitor I met at a show in Cambridge, I started exploring macrame techniques. Most of those were too clunky as well, but when I figured out the general concept I was able to develop a more delicate technique that worked for my projects.


The stones are from my collection; I’ve picked them up on beaches here in New England as well as Long Island and North Carolina.


On the last trip to North Carolina I also started playing with agglomerating stones together. The process is time-consuming but I’m enjoying how it’s coming out.


One idea I’ve been playing with is to put them together in a larger necklace form, but there’s also other directions this could go as well.