Posted by: Staff | 03.11.2010

Combining Math and Art


Any student, alumnus, or teacher who has ever talked to Mr. MacDonald knows he is smart and unique. While he is the math department head and shares his fervency for numbers with hundreds of students, I have gotten the chance to see a whole new passion of his. This trimester I am taking Algorithmic Art, a class which combines math and art. In this class, we have spent time on Photoshop, making visual art and FL Studio creating music.

Photoshop takes time to get used to and requires good program-navigation skills, but once you have a basic understanding, the possibilities are much broader than those of typical 2 dimensional art forms. For example, Photoshop allows you to edit images, combine pictures, and can even draw and paint on your digital canvas like in a typical art class. Every photoshop project has unique requirements which makes all assignments very different.

FL Studio is much more complicated; it has thousands of different sounds which you can minipulate to create music. This sounds easy, and I thought I was going to be the next John Lennon within a couple days, creating great sounding music with ease. however, I now have a great respect for all musicians because making music has been one of the greatest challenges I have faced this year. To start combining single beats and melodies is a challenge because it is hard to cordinate them so they work well together. The note frequency and pitch are two other choices that make the different sounds very hard to mesh into music. This is because there are so many choices it is hard to find exact notes that integrate well. In all the amount of variables FL Studio has made available is its greatest asset as well as the most prominent hindrance in the program.

However, my favorite part of this course is the freedom to do any type of art project imaginable. This is because the last six weeks of the trimester only require that you work on art every class period. This has prompted me to work with the art teachers I have had classes with in the past, combining the new ideas I have discovered with mediums from past years.

Willy Tucker ’10, a fellow classmate, reflected on his experience in the class.

“Algorithmic Art is a quintessentially “Beaver” class, and I mean that in the best possible way. It is a juxtaposition of mathematical thinking, graphic design, music composition, and little sprinkles of magic and joy. Through roughly the first third of the term we worked with Photoshop. I hadn’t had much previous experience, but the work starts off nice and easy, so it wasn’t a problem. Then we worked with FL Studio, a music-production program. This was an awesome experience, because I’ve always been interested in music composition but had never had a chance [to do it] before. It gave me the opportunity to experiment beyond the boundaries of what I would be able to play on an actual instrument. The last part of the class is left open for us students to create our own projects. I decided to take some of the digital art I had made earlier in the year and make it into real sculptures. I loved this, because it gave me a chance to branch out and actually work with my hands. All in all, Algorithmic Art was a fantastic class that really does offer a little something for everyone. Especially the sprinkles of magic and joy.”

Recently I interviewed Mr. MacDonald about the class and his interest in art.

Why did you start this class?
I developed the curriculum about four or five years ago, I think. When I was an undergrad at Wesleyan, I had the opportunity to do some work on the ways in which math relates to art and music, and I really enjoyed that work. I decided that it would be great to give high school students an opportunity to study some of the same material.

Have you taken any classes like this one?
At Wesleyan, I had two courses in experimental music which were heavy on math, and then a professor asked me if I’d be interested in doing an independent study on math, art and music. In that independent study, I created a drawing/music program for kids, and I did another project in which I got all of the computers on Wesleyan’s network to perform a piece of music.

Who is your favorite artist, and why?
I couldn’t possibly pick one favorite, but Paul Klee was probably the first visual artist whose work really got my attention. In terms of artists who are out there right now, Gregory Euclide, Michael Johansson and Jennifer Maestre are some favorites. Two bands that are doing some really interesting stuff right now are The Books and Menomena.

As of now, what is your favorite piece of art or collection?
It’s too tough to choose, but when I find art that I really like, I often email the artists and ask them if I can include their work in the online journal that I run, Sixth Finch. All of the art in Sixth Finch is stuff that I really love.

What is Algorithmic Art?
Any creative work that is interested in patterns, rules and/or variations could be considered algorithmic, I’d say. Often, algorithmic art is about setting up a process and letting it play out. Often, it’s about experimenting after generating some thoughtful constraints. Of course, any time you try to define something artistic, you’re asking for trouble.

What do you enjoy about the class? What could be better?
I like the fact that students have a lot of freedom to play with their ideas. I like the fact that students who don’t consider themselves to be great artists or musicians can still create some impressive work. I’d like to bring in more artists to talk about their work. This term, when Jon Olivares came in, I thought it was incredibly helpful to hear about his ideas and experiences as a designer.

What do you hope your students get out of your class?
I hope that the class gives students a clearer sense of the creative side of math. I hope that they’re proud of the work that they generate in the class.

Do you create a lot of art?
I write a lot of poetry, and I hope that counts. I’m also working on a project with my little brother to create unique portraits of people based on their DNA. While I’m teaching Algorithmic Art, I try to do many of the projects that I assign to students, but I’m often too busy giving help to get results that I really love.

What is more fun to teach: art or math and why?
I feel very lucky to be at a school that allows me to teach such an interesting range of courses. It’s fun for me to switch gears and give all of the different parts of my brain a workout, so being able to teach Contemporary Poetry, Algorithmic Art, and Advanced Calculus all in the same year is great. I’d be sad if I had to give up any of my courses.



  1. […] wrote about a class called Algorithmic Art taught by Rob MacDonald that explains everything. The article is posted here in its […]

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