On The Pleasure Of Creating Your Own Art-Making Tools

I never thought I had a visual side — until digital tools unlocked a sense of graphic play for me

Clive Thompson
5 min readDec 18, 2021


I’m a writer and a musician, so the creative work I’ve done has mostly been word-based: Journalism, stories, songs.

I love visual art, though. I’m a Canadian kid of the 70s and 80s who grew up on the fauvist landscapes of the Group of Seven, and I collect work from local artists here in Brooklyn where I live. But while I always enjoyed expressing myself in words/music, I shied away from visual art or even graphic design.

Partly, I was frozen by the blank-page problem. I wasn’t drawn to any visual medium strongly enough to amass the sheer 10,000-hour quantum of skills. All the visual artists I know have spent years and even decades honing their skills in their chosen medium — oil, mixed media, you name it. My friend John T. Unger, who makes gorgeous metal sculptures, has spent so many years welding and cutting thick propane-tank metal that he can practically visualize its molecular structure, Matrix-style. (Last year I wrote a post with photos of my visit to his studio here, well worth checking out.)

But there is one thing that has recently tipped me over into doing a bit of messing around with visual and graphic art:

Building art-making machines.

That sounds more impressive than it probably is, lol. What I mean is that I’ve been using the visual-programming language P5 to build very simple tools for generate geometric block-prints.

In this example below, wherever you click on the screen it places a square — with a random size, a random level of transparency, and a random color …

(If you want to try it out, BTW, it might be better to go to Open Processing, where that thing is hosted; P5 programs sometimes don’t respond well when they’re embedded on Medium.)



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net