Noodling in an Ever-Shifting Procedural Landscape

Here's a couple of recent instagrams I posted. These are details of much larger renders which I'm not quite ready to reveal (until my show in October, at the Red Head Gallery in Toronto).

I plan to print some of them roughly 8 feet x 4 feet, at a crisp 300 dots per inch. This requires coaxing out renders 28,800 pixels wide. I'm constantly bumping into hardware and software limitations. Thankfully I can farm out these huge renders, as my machine alone would take well over a week to get through one.

The process of making these involves a great variety of stages and components, which range from drawing and virtual sculpture to something more akin to programming. I start with a set of elements numbering roughly 300 at last count, which include things like rocks, trees, buildings, abstract forms, etc.. These are then randomly scattered in vast numbers across a given terrain (itself possibly randomly generated).

Each set of randomized elements must follow a set of rules of my choosing. For example, I might say "rocks, you are only allowed to exist at altitudes between 15 and 23.7 meters", or "trees you may only grow on slopes of between 30 and 45 degrees", and so on. The system remains live, and I can change a single parameter and the random arrangement will shuffle itself into a new configuration based on the tweaked rules. I can view previews of the state of the system at any time. For every proper render I do, I flit past several variations that will never be seen again. After enough noodling I'll get to something I like, save the settings and do a medium-sized render (as in maybe 9000 pixels wide) which my computer can render overnight. Based on those renders I will opt to refine some of them further into much larger images. Along the way, the scenes acquire ever more computer-straining bulk, which makes the going quite slow.

On its own, any given procedural system based on a simple set of rules will tend to look obviously artificial. When combined with several others you start to get a rough approximation of something natural. If you look closely you will notice that the whole image consists of the same objects repeated in different configurations.

Working with randomness in this way leads to compositions that I would likely never contrive when drawing. Its more like photographing a landscape - an ever-shifting landscape that exists as a collaboration between myself and randomly emergent patterns - a landscape where I have full control of lighting, atmosphere, and other conditions.

The software I am primarily using to do all this is The Foundry's Modo.

Instagram Collection

I posted a collection of my recent instagrams on the Modo forums. These images are actually just cropped down details of larger renderings, which form the basis of some new work I'm doing.

Marsh Villages

This is a spin-off elaboration of the top-left corner of my "Future Toronto?" illustration.

A detail from same:

My work featured in Drawing magazine

I've been featured in the spring 2014 issue of Drawing magazine (available online here).

The following text accompanies my drawing "Hiding Places":

"There is a long tradition in art of capriccio, or architectural fantasy. But wheras most imaginary architecture rises up, the architectural imaginings of Canadian artist Mathew Borrett often go down, extending underground in fascinatingly detailed cutaway views of interlocking rooms, tunnels, stairways, and halls.

Borrett created many of the drawings in his "Room Series" with size-005 Pigma Micron pens on Stonehenge printmaking paper. His tones are built up with multidirectional hatching, creating rich darks and smoothing the appearance of texture. Those tones are contrasted with key areas of open white, which often represents the earth into which the artist's imagined spaces are carved. Simultaneously playful and spooky, his divided spaces always seem to lead back into unseen depths, leaving the viewer's imagination to define the scale of the structures. There is an Escher-like quality in the suggestion of mazes and secret places in which to get lost.

Borrett studied illustration at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University), in Toronto, and works as a visual FX artist for the film and television industries. When he can, however, he takes to ink and paper and carves into the strata of his imagination, leaving intricate pathways to to a hidden world."


More experimenting

Recently I've been doing a lot of digital doodling with various 3D techniques and posting snippets of these on Instagram. I haven't done anything that I consider finished, though I need something for a group show with Red Head Gallery in June, which I'm taking as an opportunity to try something different.

Here are some recent snippets:

Erosion Pattern #2

Reflections on a Future Toronto

Since the Future Toronto illustration went viral last week there's been a lot of curiosity about what I meant to portray. Here are some of my thoughts on it:

On the origin of "Future Toronto?"

Years ago during a conversation with Matt Blackett of Spacing Magazine, we thought it would be fun to make an image of a drowned Toronto with condo towers poking out of the water and boats tied to them. So when Spacing offered me a double-page spread for its 10th anniversary issue, and gave me carte blanche to propose whatever I wanted - I seized a rare opportunity! I'd been doodling and sketching along the theme of Toronto ruins for years. I wanted to recontextualize the familiar in a startling way. I thought Spacing might reject my early sketches as being too dark for the magazine, but they were excited about it. I had previously done a fallen CN tower illustration for the disaster issue of Spacing and we thought it would be neat to work that into this image too.

Is there a message behind it?

The message was not something that was all that clearly defined in my head as I was doing it. If anything I deliberately wanted it to be kind of ambiguous and perhaps a touch surreal. I wanted it to be complex and not pin it down with a tidy story.

When a friend saw the work in progress he joked that maybe I was channeling the collective anxiety of the city. Maybe so. I was not trying to make a serious statement about the future of the city or where I think its headed.

Some of my inspiration for this future Toronto came from Toronto past. It's hard to imagine that Ashbridges Bay was once a vast marsh and was some of the richest bird habitat on Lake Ontario. Since the founding of "Muddy York", the marsh was gradually defiled by industry and the city's shoreline extended up to a kilometer in some places. Maybe I was imagining some comeuppance for these transgressions on the birds and fish.

How did this future Toronto come into being?

I thought of it as set roughly 150 to 200 years from now. I didn't decide on any one catastrophe having happened, but perhaps just a long period of general instability and decay followed by the beginnings of a renewal. Obviously some kind of climate change has occurred, though not of a nature expected by science. A lot of people have understandably thought the illustration is about global warming and rising ocean levels. However Lake Ontario rising 30ft is not considered a plausible climate change scenario. Honestly, it's just a fictional conceit that looks cool and opened up some fun possibilities for me to play with.

Who lives there?

There's clearly some kind of advanced civilization around, with the power to convert the Skydome into a giant greenhouse and build glassy domes into crumbling condo buildings. One reason I added these sci-fi elements was that early on in the process I'd rendered the Skydome fully in ruins, and since it was so central to the composition, destroying it made the overall image feel much more grim than I wanted. I was very conscious of balancing the apocalyptic with some kind of hopeful renewing force at work.

It was fun to sculpt concrete condo towers into unlikely shapes - so I imagined that these future people had a novel aesthetic sensibility and treated the ruins of today as a giant living sculpture garden. They used special techniques to cultivate fruit trees in unlikely places and coated old concrete structures with smart materials to preserve them from further decay. It's science fiction after all. One can come up with as many conceits as one sees fit!

How is the image being received?

That the image has struck a chord with many people I suspect goes beyond the fact that it's a vivid depiction of the familiar made unfamiliar. Especially interesting to me is that a great number of people feel my future Toronto looks somehow preferable to the one Torontonians presently inhabit. Some wrote things like "I'd move back to Toronto if it looked like that!" I think such responses could have to do with a dissatisfaction with what is often a bland urban environment that rarely engages us as human beings, whereas in my future vision the hard edges are worn down and softened by time and vegetation, and it looks like living there would be full of the kind of adventure and risk that's been sterilized from our present-day urban environment.

India Trip

I recently returned from a memorable three weeks in India, starting in Delhi and Orchha in the north, then central Kerala in the south, followed by a few days in Mumbai. Lots of visual inspiration to be found there and I'll be a while mentally processing everything. I've posted 300+ photos on Flickr here.

Boabab tree, Orchha, Madhya Pradesh

Tea plantations near Munnar, Kerala

Building in Chor Bazaar, Mumbai

Small Hindu Shrine near Munnar, Kerala

New Drawing

This one has no title as yet. Its about 13"x19", drawn on a Wacom Cintiq tablet. Basically it started as a 3D model doodle, and then next thing I knew I'd spent about 20 hours at it.

Its part of a show of my work called "Sleeping with the Window Open", up currently at Line Gallery in North Bay, Ontario.