Recently I’ve been reading several books by Michio Kaku on the future of science and technology. Its thought provoking stuff, not only as regards future technology but also the importance of education. As I have been reading I’ve also been considering the impact of science and technology on art, and in particular my own field of digital art which would not exist without technology. I decided that I wanted to write some on the importance of both science and education to any field of art, but particularly to the various forms of digital art.
When I was still in school I took two years of Algebra, one year of Geometry and another year of advanced math in high school. I did this because everyone said it was important, it was what I should do. But as I sat through four years of mathematics I often found myself wondering why, what was it all for, how would I use it. Unfortunately my teachers at that time couldn’t answer that question very well. Often I only got a general answer of “well its important to computers and computers are the future”, but nothing more specific. Sadly, my teachers simply didn’t know how math or science would become very important to my life and to art. I realize that although that was more than 30 years ago, it is still a question educators and students alike may wrestle with. Why is math so important? What does science have to do with art? And why are all three likely to be important to anyone’s future? With the benefit of hindsight and a lot of personal experience what I want to do here is answer those questions to some degree.
I want to start by discussing briefly how digital art impacts the lives of many people and how this will likely increase in the future. Digital art covers a wide range of forms, from the entertaining 3D animations of companies like Pixar to retouching and refining photos used in magazines to creating illustrations for book and comics to computer game development to web site graphics to art for its own sake. We live in an increasingly visual digital world and there is a growing demand for people who can illustrate that world. If you’re pondering a career and you like art, digital art is worth considering. Its also a field that robotics and automation can enhance, but not replicate. No robot can create original art, imagination is something uniquely human.
Imagination is also increasingly becoming an essential career skill in almost any field, not just art. Science would make little progress without imagination. Even in business management imagination is necessary to come up with solutions to various business problems. Art promotes and encourages the development of imagination so teaching art to students helps prepare them for almost any future career by helping to cultivate what is and will increasingly be a necessary ability.
Art in turn is impacted heavily by both science and mathematics. If you actually want to pursue a career in any field of art, and particularly in digital art, you’re going to need a good education in mathematics and a general education in the sciences. That might surprise some of you, why do you need to study chemistry to be good at digital art? Or why is algebra important and what will you use it for?
Why are Science and Mathematics essential to Art?
Its a fair question, and one that students need answered in order to help them find the motivation to be engaged in learning. There are four areas I want to cover specifically and give examples of why they are important to the digital artist. They are Biology, Chemistry, Physics and of course Mathematics. If you want to be a digital artist in the future (whether that be in the fields of game design or 3D animations or movie special effects or even just web site graphics) you’ll find all four of those sciences useful and mathematics in particular a necessity.
You might guess why biology is important to artist. Most art students today take at minimum a class called “anatomy for artists”. In the past these courses taught art students the basics of bone and muscle structure in humans and animals to help them understand how they affected surface topology. That is, why does an arm look the way it does, what muscles affect the shape of an arm and how does that shape change when those muscles are used. In the past surface topology was the main consideration an artist might have. But that is no longer the case. Now as digital artist work to create virtual realities that include increasingly realistic simulations of people, animals and even insects (as well as fantastic creatures and monsters), we need to know not just why the surface topology looks the way it does, we need to know how they move and why. That means understanding the bone structure in order to simulate joint placement and movement in 3D characters. We need to understand how muscles and tendons not just cause movement, but also the limits of that movement. So a good basic knowledge of biology has become increasingly important to digital artists because increasingly we are expected to produce very realistic results. You can’t do that if you don’t understand what it is you are trying to recreate.
This is another science that affects digital artists, and it might be a surprise that it does. While we no longer have to mix paints from mineral compounds as 19th century artists once did, we do still have to understand why things look the way they do. That means understanding color and what causes color; chemistry helps us understand this. Why, for example, is some clay grey and other clay is red? Chemistry answers that question. Knowing those answers helps us as digital artist to make better simulations of reality. We know why things are the color they are, and when they should be a different color. Chemistry also begins teaching us the basics of physics, and physics is something you will really need if you go into any kind of game design or virtual simulations.
Of the three sciences, Physics is perhaps the most important to digital artists.
Physics is about understanding reality and since much of digital art deals in some way with depicting or simulating reality an understanding of physics can be very helpful and even necessary to achieving good results. This perhaps most evident in game design and movie animations where you are literally simulating reality, everything from a character being able to walk, run and jump to simulating fire, fog and smoke to various lighting effects (being able to realistically simulate light is critical in digital art). Physics plays a direct roll in determining the behavior of rigid and soft body simulations (so that a rock acts like a rock, a foot is soft as it should be and when a virtual foot steps on a virtual rock everything looks and behaves the way the viewer expects), cloth and fluid dynamics (so that clothes hang correctly from the body of blow realistically in the wind; and flowing streams or drops of rain behave the way they should), as well as more exciting things like explosions, guns and space ships. Game designers and even animators have to consider physics when doing any of these things.
But physics helps the digital artist in other ways as well. While chemistry helps us understand why things are the color they are, physics helps us understand how light affects color. This is especially true for translucent objects like skin (and both biology and chemistry help us understand just how many things are actually translucent). To make skin seem more realistic we need to simulate the way light penetrates into skin before being reflected back. This is done in digital virtual art using a technique called Subsurface scattering. Ironically the same math used to calculate this in 3D rendering software is very similar to the math used by particle physicists to predict the behavior of sub atomic particle. But that’s because light is made up of photons, and to get a realistic appearance you are literally simulating sub atomic particles. Particle physics is also used to simulate things like fire, smoke and fog in 3D animations and virtual reality. There’s a lot of physics behind the latest computer games we play and if you want to create games like them you’ll need to understand physics.
Even more important than Physics to digital art is Mathematics. If you aren’t doing game design or virtual reality simulations physics might not be quite as important to you, but there’s no escaping the importance of math. Digital art is math, literally. You might use software to paint a picture, but the software itself is using some complex math to make it happen. What is more important to the digital artist is how math can be directly utilized to create amazing results. Perhaps the best example of this are what are known as procedural textures. When you create digital art, whether it be a virtual avatar or just a 2D web graphic you’ll be using various images called “textures” to paint with, and these are made up of repeating patterns. It might be a cloth texture applied to a virtual pair of blue jeans, or it might be a Victorian wallpaper print in an art piece, or it might be a subtle skin texture applied to a virtual avatar. In some cases rather than using a source image it is easier and faster to use a procedural texture, and procedural textures are made using math. By using various math formula you can create remarkably complex patterns of color and shapes. One good example is software called Filter Forge, which is an application specifically for creating procedural textures. Using math and software like Filter Forge you can create patterns of brick and cobblestone, or fish scales, or chain mail, or walls of thorny vines and many other shapes. These are not made from pictures, but rather they are pictures made with math that can be amazingly realistic. Digital artist use them to quickly “skin” or “texture” a virtual brick building with bricks an mortar and a variety of other uses. The formula’s to create these textures are mostly algebra.
If you want to create 3D models you will also use math in doing so. Geometry in particular will end up being very important because that’s exactly what a 3D mesh is, geometry. Educators should be aware that future digital artists will need more than just the math of geometry, they’ll need to know how to apply it. For example, can you use geometry to help you figure out how to subdivide a sphere into nothing but four sided quads? This is currently an important skill for any 3D modeller to have when creating polygon meshes. You’ll also need the logic you learn from things like Algebra which will help you figure out how to solve problems like connecting a 16 sided polygon to the inside of a four sided polygon using nothing but quadrilateral polygons (here’s a hint, diamonds and trapezoids are both quadrilateral shapes and you’ll need both to do it).
So as you can see, math and science are important to digital art. But digital art is also becoming important to math and science. Researchers in molecular biology and particle physics both deal with things that we cannot see directly (and in the case of sub atomic particles, not at all); but a digital artist using math and physics can produce accurate visual representations that we can all see. The old saying is true, a picture is worth a thousand words and digital artists are helping both biologist and physicist share their discoveries with the world through virtual images and animations. But all of this requires a good eduction in science and math, and it also requires lots of imagination. This will only become more true in the future as digital art continues to become a part of our games, music, TV and movies, as well as even helping our scientists and researchers do their jobs. If we want to be ready for that future, education in math and science is critical.
I hope this article is helpful to both students and teachers in understanding the relationship between art and science. Its an old relationship well personified by Leonardo da Vinci who was both artist, scientist and inventor. Perhaps the age of digital art, in blending the sciences with art, will help produce more like da Vinci.