Travess Smalley Profiles Mark Wilson

Digital generative art titan Mark Wilson sat down with artist, educator and pixel rug creator Travess Smalley, long-inspired by Wilson. Smalley stewards a lively discussion covering Wilson's artistic journey while reflecting on the impact of technology on art.
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Mark Wilson, e67109, 2012 archival ink jet print. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley Profiles Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson stands as one of digital art's foremost practitioners. Yet as a trained artist, his work is nearly entirely material, demonstrating the delicacy and patience of the painterly, while probing a mechanized, abstract geometric aesthetic. Wilson’s artistic journey began with drawing as a child, evolving through photography and Abstract Expressionist painting in college. By the mid-1970s, he had established his distinctive style, anticipating AI graphics by fancifully blending the painterly with computer and electronic imagery. In the 1980s, he fully merged his practice with technology, experimenting with early personal computers like the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A and pen plotters. Acquiring a plotter enabled precise, high-resolution output, and a continued investigation into complex geometric forms. With advancements in inkjet printing in the early 2000s, Wilson entered his current phase of work with archival prints, exemplifying his never-ending commitment to creative expression. This interview's references to Wilson’s coded-material art—singular in its scale, detail and audacity—only tell part of the story. His journey also underscores the integration of technology into contemporary artistic practices. For more on Wilson's practice, read part two of our profile, where the artist describes his career in his own words. In part one below, a discussion is led by Travess Smalley, an artist and educator working with computation to make generative image systems, who has long drawn inspiration from the pioneering work of Mark Wilson.
-Peter Bauman

Travess Smalley: I saw that when you were at Yale, you studied under Al Held. Were there other artists that had an impact on you at the time?

Mark Wilson:
We went to see Larry Poons's studio and talked to him. Larry Poons was making these very algorithmic paintings; they were very optical, relying on color effects, like Albers, but they had a very rigorous geometric pattern. He had a large grid that he would rotate around to create these elliptical features. These paintings really struck me. He later abandoned that rigorous geometric style but I was always impressed with it. He was a little bit like Sol LeWitt in terms of an algorithmic approach to drawing.

Travess Smalley: Sol LeWitt is synonymous with scripted art. LeWitt writes the script that art assistants and art installers execute. In your recent
presentation for The Cornwall Library, you talked about Jackson Pollock as executing a different type of script that was algorithmic. Pollock used gravity and chance when making his drip paintings, similarly to how one might use random numbers for lines. When I introduce scripting in my courses, I talk about Yoko Ono’s instructional poems. We read “Grapefruit,” “Painting for the Wind” and all her prompts. Her instructions function as a script that can be executed by the reader or played out in your mind. We talk about Pauline Oliveros’s music scores too. It’s interesting to hear that you also saw the painter Larry Poons through this scripted way of working. As a graduate student in New York in the late 1960s, you had sewn these threads of artistic processes together. You saw the different types of scripts present in other artists' processes.

Mark Wilson:
A lot of people who don't know much about computers are always astounded at the idea of using a computer to make artwork. And you tell them about algorithms and these recipes that you use to create a picture.

I like to point out to them that this notion of artists using a recipe or a script is actually not at all uncommon and that there are many predecessors to this idea of making art.

I always thought it was amusing to use the example of Pollock because everyone thinks that he's just this total wild man, crazy, drunken artist, bohemian. Actually, the drip paintings are very controlled in some ways and very, I like to say, algorithmic. You could write a program to reproduce a Jackson Pollock drip painting fairly easily. After I graduated, I produced a series of pictures, drawings, and paintings that were very precise and highly geometric. They had a real technological quality to them. I was influenced by engineering drawings and architectural renderings. I loved their complexity and made a series of large drawings using ruling pens and drafting machines.

Mark Wilson, Untitled (Blue Gray Painting), 1975. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley: Could you describe the drafting machine and ruling pens? You mentioned using the drafting machine specifically in your 1975 Blue Gray Painting. Which elements of the painting were created with these tools?

Mark Wilson:
Architects and engineers used drafting machines to make their drawings in the ‘70s. They're basically an XY two-dimensional machine with a rotating protractor head with 290-degree rulers on it, one going vertically, the other going horizontally. I used that as a tool to steady the pen or pencil drawing on the paper. You could rotate the protractor head to any angle you wanted. Typically, these things could draw an area of maybe three by four feet. I ordered a custom machine that was huge and could draw 8 feet vertical and 10 feet horizontal. That's how I made these big paintings from the mid-70s. I used ruling pens, which are just two flat metal blades held together with a thumb screw so that you can increase or decrease the distance between them. I would typically use India ink with the two blades within half a millimeter of each other. Then you would draw with the ruling pen. And the ruling pen had the ends sharpened so that when you drew them along the paper, they actually made a very slight crease in the paper. And that kept the ink within that channel so you could control the width of the line very carefully. Obviously, it was important for these engineering drawings that the lines be a very consistent width.

First, I started using ruling pens with ink and watercolor. And then eventually, on these large-scale canvas paintings, I used thinned acrylic paint. And actually, it worked quite well. You could get a line that was about a millimeter and I would make these large paintings using ruling pens and also conventional brush.

Travess Smalley: These untitled watercolors from the early 70’s and Untitled (Grey Painting, 1974) as well as Untitled (Blue Gray Painting, 1975) referenced circuits but they were fictional technical systems. They might have looked like integrated circuits but they were completely unreal. There’s an interesting history of painters who’ve used technology as a visual vocabulary to explore form. I’m thinking of artists from the mid-70s like Conrad Klapheck, Eduardo Paolozzi and Ulla Wiggen.

Mark Wilson:
For those paintings, I would appropriate imagery but as you point out, they were not functional objects. They were fantasies, total constructions. I was picking and choosing stuff. They did not mimic any real machines or real circuit boards. I love Eduardo Palozzi's stuff. In some ways, I liken my use of this technical, computer engineering subject to Pop art’s appropriation of imagery that was untraditional and unrelated to fine art imagery. And of course, using machines as a subject matter was fairly established in the twentieth century. You have people like [Francis] Picabia who made wonderful drawings of spectacular machines. Then you have people like Charles Sheeler, who, although he was a realist, made a lot of paintings of machines. But it goes back as far as the Impressionists. They painted these radical pictures of factories and railroads and were harshly criticized because this was not traditional subject matter for the fine artist.

Mark Wilson, Untitled (Gray Painting) detail, 1974. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley: In the early 1980s, you switched from drafting things by hand to using a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A home computer and the Tektronix 4663 flatbed pen plotter. As your tools transitioned, did you experiment with painting on top of your plotted prints? Were there any hybrid artworks made that combined your physical hand-rendered processes with your newer tools?

Mark Wilson:
I had been making these technological paintings and drawings for at least ten years before working with a computer. Then I bought this computer and I vaguely had an idea that I could use it to make art.

I knew that other people had used computers to make art—Frieder Nake, Vera Molnár and Manfred Mohr. But frankly, I didn't have a clue as to how I was going to go about doing this.

So I started playing around with it but was not interested in paint programs. Most of the early computers had some kind of simple paint program and they were a lot of fun to play with. But to me, it didn't seem like the direction I wanted to go. At the same time, I knew that there were these machines called pen plotters, which fit very naturally into my previous aesthetic of large drawings made from ruling pens to construct this linear skein across the surface. So I bought a small pen plotter. It was quite small. It would only draw to a letter-size sheet.

I really had to confront the idea of—how do I use this machine to make art?

It was daunting because I was not only learning how to program, which was a chore in itself, but also trying to figure out how to write a program where I was doing something interesting art-wise. For my first drawings, Hatchplot, I would overlay hatched lines one on top of the other. Because of the precision of these machines, it was quite easy to get more patterns out of them.

It was all very easy to do with the computer and pen plotter. In contrast, the previous drawings I made by hand were very tedious and you had to be very precise to get a moiré effect. Using the software and the pen plotter, you could just get these things automatically. It was very simple and the machine did it all for you. But I didn't really pursue that too much. Instead, I pursued a path of greater complexity, eventually hitting on the system I call pixel mapping, a technique where a small section of the colored screen image would be mapped to the plotter paper. This was interesting because I could achieve a more painterly effect and move away from the linear qualities of my early drawings. Of course, this is always a problem with pen plotters because they only draw lines and they're not painterly machines.

Mark Wilson and IBM pen plotter

Travess Smalley: What computers and plotters were you using at that point?

Mark Wilson:
When I first started, I was using this Texas Instrument TI-99/4A and it had a basic built-in language interpreter. I used it for about a year and then the IBM PC came out. So I bought and started using an IBM PC and basically, I have continued to the present day using Windows operating systems and PCs, all MS DOS machines. Right now I'm using Windows Eleven on a Dell laptop with a twelfth-generation Intel processor, which is several orders of magnitude more powerful than the TI-99/4A.

The first pen plotter I used was a very small Houston Instruments plotter. I think it cost about $1,000, which was a fair amount of money. It was about the same price as a computer in the early 80s, so it was affordable. Then, in 1982, I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I got $5,000 and this money was burning a hole in my pocket. I found an ad for a surplus Tektronix 4663 I could buy with the funds, despite a new machine costing around $15,000.

It was a great plotter that I could only afford because of the grant. Then, in the mid-80s, Cynthia Goodman organized the show Computers and Art in collaboration with IBM. It was a big show at the IBM Gallery of Art and Science in New York City. Right on Madison Avenue in 57th. I was asked to demonstrate how to use a pen plotter to make art and IBM very kindly lent me an HP 7580, which was probably the supreme pen plotter of all time. It was phenomenally fast and incredibly precise.

Travess Smalley: Did you have to use specific pen models for these machines? Were you able to modify the carriage or add your own drawing tools to the machine?

Mark Wilson:
At that time, you did have to use a special pen but there were quite a few pen plotters on the market. So the pen companies made standardized pens that were fairly reliable. There are all kinds of problems you could have with these pens, though. They would run out of ink, or they would get clogged, and they wouldn't draw, or the line would get fat when it clogged or lint got on the paper. There were all kinds of problems. But it was a fantastic plotter.

And IBM, after the show, let me keep it so I still have it out in my barn.

I don't know if it works or not because I haven't turned it on for about twenty years. But I have several old pen plotters out in my barn.

Travess Smalley: It’s a pen-plotter museum.

Mark Wilson, 1E90, 1990 plotter drawing. Courtesy of the artist

Mark Wilson:
I love these pen plotters and I had a great time using them. But by about 2000, Epson had come out with a series of inkjet printers that had very high-quality permanent archival inks. Their first printer was a relatively small one but then they came out with the 9500, which would take paper up to 44 inches wide and was a six-color inkjet printer. I bought one of those.

And about that time, I completely abandoned pen plotters and went over to inkjet printers and I've used those ever since.

Travess Smalley: I understand you also taught from time to time. What did you teach?

Mark Wilson:
Art and computer art. I taught SVA for a while. And one time I came to RISD for a demo in the 80s with a little pen plotter. I did stuff like that back in the 80s. People were really intrigued with computers and with the idea of using computers to make art. There was a lot of interest in it. The art world, unfortunately, was not too interested. But a lot of ordinary folks were intrigued by the idea of using machines to make imagery. So I went off on a lot of gigs like that, doing demos. I called it the dog and plotter show, where I would go and take a pen plotter and a computer and show them how I could draw stuff with it. And it was fun. I had all sorts of adventures. I remember practically getting into a fight with some guy who said a computer could not make art. I said, “Well, a computer is not really making art. I'm giving it a bunch of directions to make art.” And he said, “No, it cannot. It's absolutely impossible.” And he was quite adamant.

I can remember this guy to this day telling me that I was basically full of crap with the idea that you could use a computer to make art. But that kind of attitude started in the nineteenth century with photography and continued into the twentieth century.

I think it continues today with a lot of people. A lot of people are worried about AI. AI is going to make art and there aren't going to be artists anymore, which is just an utterly absurd and preposterous idea. But people have this long tradition: the luddites in England, the anti-machine, anti-technology folks who claim that “these machines cannot make art. They cannot do any of these things. And they're going to take over and people aren't going to be able to do anything anymore because the machines are going to do it!” The more you learn about this, the more you realize how a lot of these machines and programs are pretty silly and stupid—just like a lot of these AI image-making things.

Travess Smalley: I think you bring up a really good point. The history of art is also the history of art-making technologies. I think of Albrecht Durer’s projection grid from the 1500s and Johannes Vermeer using a camera lucida in the 1600s.

Mark Wilson: Things have changed a lot since the early 80s, when I first started in all this. The art world was very skeptical of using computers to make stuff.

I remember I applied to the Pollock-Krasner Foundation for a grant, and I said, “Well, I make my pictures using computers.” And they wrote this very nasty letter back to me saying, “We do not fund anything that's made with computers,” as if the work was tainted by the idea of using a computer. And of course, I have to laugh because now you can't send them a slide when you apply. You have to send them a JPEG. Everything has come full circle.

Mark Wilson, STL K1, 1987 plotter painting. 32 x 100 inches (81 x 254 cm.), acrylic on linen. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley: Did you talk to other artists who were working with similar technology at the time?

Mark Wilson:
Well, I did back in those days. I used to go to SIGGRAPH and it had an art show and still does.

SIGGRAPH was one place you could go where there were actually other people who did the same crazy thing that you were doing. So it was quite wonderful.

I went to a number of these SIGGRAPH events and I met a bunch of other artists. I got to know some of the people that were involved in this field and I included quite a few of them in my book, Drawing with Computers.

Travess Smalley: Which, correct me if I'm wrong, is the first creative coding book for artists? 

Mark Wilson:
Well, I'm not certain about that but I wrote that in ‘84 and it was published in ‘85.

Travess Smalley: I look at how generous Drawing with Computers is in terms of giving scripts, giving examples and giving the tools you need. Someone could buy it, go home with it and start making drawings. They could start making drawings on the computer in the mid-80s. Who was that book for? Why did you make it? And how was it received then?

Mark Wilson:
In one sense, it was a chronicle of my own personal experience of learning how to program. My feeling was that people tended to obscure the idea of making art with computers or with programming. They would make programming this thing that was really hard and really difficult. And I thought that, in fact, it really wasn't that hard. It did require a lot of attention and the procedures involved in programming are unlike what we experience in everyday life. I mean, the computer and the software have their own kind of rigor and you have to learn to adapt to that and learn how to adjust what your goal is to the way in which a computer achieves that goal. So you just had to shift gears and learn how to deal with the computer. And as we were talking before, I realized that a lot of this was very similar to this kind of procedural methods that artists use and there really wasn't that much difference between them. And so I was very enthusiastic and optimistic that people would perhaps find this helpful and useful in terms of making pictures. I'm not sure how many people actually went out and bought a pen plotter and started making drawings and of course, pen plotters’ lifespan ended shortly.

In the book, I also wrote about generative art, in the sense that I was hoping to show people the way other people used computers and some of the other approaches you could use to make images with the computer. I talked to Manfred Mohr about this. I talked to Harold Cohen and several other people who were doing this back then. Sometimes other artists would say, “Well, you ought to go and talk to so and so because they’re doing interesting things.”

Travess Smalley: Was there ever a moment after you started working with computation where you considered making your scripts by hand again? Taking one of your programs and interpreting it in a non-computational form?

Mark Wilson:
I’ve been asked many times before whether I wanted to start making stuff by hand again. And the answer that I give is:

I've always felt that the complexity and possibilities inherent in writing software and using these programs, to me, seem so great and limitless that there's no reason for me to go back to making stuff by hand.

And of course, by now I've been doing this for over 40 years, so it's habit and totally familiar. I don't even think about it. I don't even think about what's going on in the program. It's a very natural and intuitive way to make pictures.

Mark Wilson, e11000, 2010 archival ink jet print. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley: I've been thinking about sticking to one script. What does repeating one thing do for us—performing a script repeatedly, finding nuance and changes? Your relationship to the script evolves, highlighting new aspects while downplaying others. What's your take on this repetition, staying in one space to see its iterations?

Mark Wilson:
I tend to work in this kind of batch style, where I get the program to a point where I think that it's producing something interesting. Then I'll make a whole bunch of images and typically I go back to look at these images with a postscript interpreter on my screen. I may make 100 different images and each one is different. Typically, the composition is similar, but the colors are all chosen randomly so the color becomes very important. So the colors will change radically from one image to the other. And it's just a sort of winnowing process where you go through and you say, “This one's no good; that's a dud; I'm throwing that out. But wait, I like this one! That one's good, so I'll save that one.” I'll go back and maybe save five or ten. Typically, I let those sit for a couple of weeks and then maybe I'll go back and look at them again and see which ones I like and maybe print some of those on paper with the inkjet printer. The work tends to be pretty incremental from one batch to the next. But after a while, a certain fatigue sets in and you get bored with some series of pictures. And I say, “This is crap. I'm sick of doing these things. I want to do something completely different.” From one year to the next, there are usually not a lot of radical changes.

Travess Smalley: I have a question related to this that I wrote down before we talked. I think this came from the Geoforms article, where you talked about the process of modifying your code. You said, “For me, the process has an almost expressionistic quality. I may decide that an image needs more circles. A random number in the program may determine the frequency of circles. So it is a simple matter to alter the numeric value. These aesthetic decisions are based on my visual sensibilities, not on some external data set.” I feel the same way so I have a question for you related to this. Would you be willing to share anything about your visual sensibilities? What kinds of images, ideas, forms, colors or subjects are you drawn to?

Mark Wilson:
Well, I think even today I'm drawn to this technological subject matter. It's sort of an inspiration to me. But visually, the work doesn't really employ any concrete elements.

The wonderful and exciting thing about using a computer is that sometimes, just by changing some numeric value slightly, you get something totally different.

And I knew early on that I had written this program and was using it, and it was sort of neat. And then I happened to put in a negative number in some loop or something, and all of a sudden I got something totally different. And I thought, “This is really cool. This is amazing. This is wonderful.” It’s really exciting for an artist to have something totally unexpected come out of the blue. And I think this is one of the qualities that intrigued me about using this technology from the very beginning: unexpected things happen. And I think that's always stimulating for artists—to get out of their ruts and have something wild happen that they didn't expect.

Mark Wilson, csq1029, 2006 archival ink jet print. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley: I love that your visual sensibility is rooted in the surprise of the output, not in seeking specific color relationships. You're excited by the script's results, thinking, "I need to explore this further."

Mark Wilson:
I think all artists have some kind of ultimate vision of where they want to go. You do something and it may be good and you think that it's nice and everything but you're always on a journey to a goal and these are all just steps on the path. And you finish something up and you make a bunch of images and you say, “Well, these are really great but I want to make something a little different. I want to make those things smaller, or I want to make them bigger.” And so it's this journey. It's never-ending.

Travess Smalley: Is there an ideal way to view your artwork, considering its various forms such as code, on-screen, in print and as print reproductions?

Mark Wilson:
When I first started doing all this, it’s always been an issue for artists using computers—how do you actually make an object that you can see? And no matter what, it's always mediated by some kind of technology, whether it's a screen, a pen plotter, an inkjet printer or a laser cutter.

How do you get it off the screen? It's an ongoing problem and there's not a single good solution to it. Of course, over the years, technologies have evolved and created new possibilities. Fifty years from now, there will be all sorts of new and amazing display technologies that offer alternatives.

But early on in my practice, back in the early 80s, I started using pen plotters because for one thing, they are aesthetically similar to my previous work. There was a natural aesthetic continuity.

And it was also very practical way back then. Display technologies were really pretty crude and coarse compared to what a modern laptop has in terms of the resolution of the display and the number of colors. So I decided that I would go for the sort of hard copy approach. And it has a lot of virtues—you make it and it's made, and 100 years from now, hopefully it's going to be pretty much the same as it is. Whereas if you make JPEGs, there's always the issue of how you’re going to display this fifty years from now.

Travess Smalley: When viewing your recent work on your
website or through the downloadable PDFs you provide, the artwork is presented in its original digital form; I noticed there aren't photographs of the resulting prints you make and exhibit. Do you prioritize these formats over physical prints?

Mark Wilson:
To achieve that, I use this wonderful utility called Ghostscript that allows you to display your PostScript file on the screen. Probably 90% of all my files are PostScript. And PostScript is a very generic, straightforward and intuitive language. It was actually derived from pen plotter languages. It's like you tell it, “Okay, the line width is going to be ten points, and I'm going to make it some certain color.” You move to a coordinate pair, and then you tell it to draw a line to the next coordinate pair. So I figure in like 100 years, if somebody stumbles on all these PostScript files, they can say, “Well, we could get our new machines to probably print out PostScript files.”

Mark Wilson, Skew R34, 1983. Courtesy of the artist

Travess Smalley: Have we lost or gained by getting closer to pixel-perfect outputs?

Mark Wilson:
I think this is all just part of the natural evolution of technology; when I started, the Internet didn't really exist. So my work has never been oriented towards the Internet. But as it evolved, the Internet became so terrifically important that artists adapted to it and started using it as a medium in itself. But unfortunately, I'm sort of old-fashioned and a traditionalist.

Travess Smalley: Would you ever show your work on high-resolution screens?

Mark Wilson:
I don't have any bias against that.

As I've worked over the years, it's all been oriented towards making a print on paper or canvas.

As screen technology improves and colors become even more wonderful, there's still the whole dichotomy between transmitted light and reflected light. And that becomes very obvious in terms of prints. The print just can never match the intensity of the screen image. And I think maybe you'll get some kind of display technology. It's sort of like a colored image and a kindle, where it's kind of a hybrid of both transmitted and reflected technologies. When I started out, they only had CRTs and flat screens didn't really exist. And today, who has a CRT? Everybody has a flat screen.

Travess Smalley: Right! CRT’s are increasingly hard to find and prohibitively expensive. There are multiple generations of artworks designed specifically for CRT screens that are hard to simulate even with the latest high DPI, high refresh rate, high-nit tvs and scalers.

Mark Wilson:
Again, this goes back to when I originally started making pen plotter drawings—I was always concerned about this evolution in technology. The flat-screen OLED is going to be supplanted by something else. And that's one of the reasons I'm stuck with this very conservative, traditional technology of just flat stuff that sits on paper or canvas, because you don't have to worry about that.

Travess Smalley: My final question touches on a common theme among artists: the goal to continue creating. Do you have advice on sustaining artistic production throughout life? How have you balanced family life and studio practice and how have you navigated the financial aspects of being an artist?

Mark Wilson:
Well, it's tough. I've had various teaching gigs and various odd jobs but my wife was a teacher and always brought in a steady income. So I was very fortunate to have her support and she was very important. I know that it's hard financially to continue but it's also hard aesthetically. If nobody's interested in your work, nobody buys it. If nobody will show it, it's hard to keep going. And I consider myself very lucky that, as an octogenarian, people like you have taken an interest in stuff that I did forty years ago.

Travess Smalley: And the work you’re doing today! I love all your work.

Mark Wilson:
Well, good. A lot of the people I went to art school with—almost all of them—are very talented and clever people. But most of them dropped by the wayside over the years because it's tough. It's tough to make a living and it's tough to maintain the interest in making art.


Mark Wilson is an artist whose work integrates hardware and software, exploring geometric forms and digital manipulation techniques within the realm of abstract art.

Travess Smalley is an artist working with computation to make generative image systems. Creating painting software, computer graphics, digital images, books, drawings, and Pixel Rugs. Teaching Print Media in the College of Arts and Sciences at the The University of Rhode Island.

Edited by Peter Bauman (Monk Antony), Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.