Adam Herst is a Toronto-based artist and arts manager, Linux system administrator, and technical writer. He is interested in the tension between ideas, their ownership, and their reproduction, and in exploring the proposition that ideas which are designed for dissemination will be disseminated. When Adam isn't creating art, he helps arts organizations and other non-profits make the most of their investments in technology.

(All works created by Adam Herst are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.)

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Composition in p5.js

Composition in p5.js is an ongoing project in which I respond to the exercises in Arthur Wesley Dow's Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers.

Current Compositions

Compositions after Calder

Click on the image to run the sketch.


Generated images based on the exercises in the chapter Compositions in Representation


In place of the materials recommended by Dow, I create my sketches by writing software programs in p5.js, a JavaScript library with the goal "... to make coding accessible for artists, designers, educators, and beginners ... for today's web".

Sketches run in a web browser. Each image created by each sketch is unique within a set of predetermined parameters.

Click on the images to run the sketches. Once the sketch is running, you can click on the image to change it.


I.— Line, Notan, Colour

In the space arts there are three structural elements with which harmonies may be built up:
  1. line
  2. notan
  3. colour
These three structural elements are intimately related...

The best plan is to take up exercises in each element in turn; then go back to them separately and make more detailed studies; then combine them, proceeding toward advanced compositions.


Expressive line is not made by mere momentum, but by force of will controlling the hand.

II.— Brush practice

Begin with straight lines, remembering that straightness of direction is the essential thing, not mere geometric straightness.
After some practice with straight lines, try curves.
Then irregular lines.


Little can be expressed until lines are arranged in a Space...

III.— Ways of creating harmony

Ways of arranging and spacing I shall call Principles of Composition. In my experience, these five have been sufficient:

  1. Opposition
  2. Transition
  3. Subordination
  4. Repetition
  5. Symmetry
Two lines meeting form a simple and severe harmony.
If a third [curved] line is added...the opposition is softened and an effect of unity and completeness produced.

To form a complete group the parts are attached or related to a single dominating element which determines the character as a whole.

Whenever unity is to be evolved from complexity, confusion reduced to order, power felt ... then will be applied the creative principle called here Subordination.

The production of beauty by repeating the same lines in rhythmical order. The intervals may be equal, as in a pattern...
The most common and obvious way of satisfying the desire to order is to place two equal lines or shapes in exact balance.


Practice in line arrangment is a preparation for all kinds of art work...

IV.— Composition in Squares and Circles

For these elementary exercises in composition the square and the circle are best because their boundaries are unchangeable, and attention must be fixed upon interior lines.

Composition in rectangles - variation

The square and the circle allow choice only as to interior divisions, but the rectangle is capable of infinite variation in its boundary lines.

Composition in pottery forms

One good way to stimulate invention in composing pottery shapes is to evolve them from rectangles. Curved profiles are only variations of rectangular forms ... . Change the height and a series of new shapes will result.

Landscape Composition

Returning now to the thought that the picture and the abstract design are much alike in structure, let us see how some of the simple spacings may be illustrated by landscape.

Composition in Representation

The powerful drawing of the masters is largely derived from other masters, not from copying nature ... Representation has but a small place in the art of the world ... Mere accuracy has no art-value whatever.


As there is no word in English to express the idea contained in the phrase "dark-and-light", I have adopted the Japanese word "notan".

VIII.— Harmony-Building with Dark-and-Light

As long as the lines of a design are kept of uniform width, the beauty is limited to proportion of areas and quality of touch, but widen some of the lines, and at once appears a new grace, Dark-and-Light.

IX.— Two Values, Variations — Design

Line melts into Tone through the clustering of many lines.

Flower compositions

... the setting of floral lines into a space in a fine way — forming a line-scheme on which may be played many notan-variations.

Textile patterns and rugs

Choose a textile of the best period ... copy or trace the line and play upon this several notan-schemes of two values.

X.— Two Values, Landscapes and Pictures

Its irregular spacings contrast well with the symmetries of pattern, and when tones are played over them the effects are new and strange ...

Spotting, Notan of Pictures

Choose a number of masterpieces, ancient and modern, and blot in the darks in broad flat tones.

Sketches from Nature

Sketching from nature with brush and ink is a means of interpreting subjects in a very broad way, obliging one to select and reject, to keep only the essentials.

XI.— Two Values, Gothic Sculptures, Japanese Design books, Applications of two Values

Sculpture, a line-art, when designed to enrich architectural spaces, may have the aid of notan in the form of relief and shadow.

Japanese Design Books

... they thought of painting as the art of two dimensions, the art of rhythm and harmony, ...

Applications of Notan of Two Values

Applications of two values are numberless ... Printing ... Textiles ... Ceramics ... Metal ... Wood

XII.— Three Values

Clear black against clear white is a strong contrast ... A tone of gray, midway between these two extremes, changes their relations ...

Landscape and pictures

... learn however to feel outlines without drawing them ...

Applications, three values

The usual illustrated page is an arrangement in three tones &emdash; white paper, gray type, dark picture.

XIII.— More than three values

... scale-work is only an exercise ... Harmony of dark-and-light does not depend on fixed intervals ...


Paint very freely, without too much thought of scales and intervals.


... clustering of lines inevitably produces tone and suggests massing ...

Pen Drawing

... every texture should have its own handling; cross hatching or any uniform system of shading with pen is deadly.

Pencil Sketching

... the tones, whether gray or dark, are made by laying lines side by side, not by cross-hatching or going over twice.

Ink Painting

Impressionism is by no means a modern art ... The painter expected the beholder to create with him ...


Color, with its infinity of relationships, is baffling...

XIV.— Color Theory

Color, however complicated, may be reduced to three simple elements:
  1. Hue
  2. Notan of Color
  3. Intensity
...the fundemental color impressions are... Red, Green, Violet/Blue...Yellow and Purple... mixing adjoining hues...this gives five more notes — yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, red-purple.
Notan of Color
... intensity diminishes toward light and dark.
... a brilliant bit of color, set in grayer tones of the same or neighboring hues, will illuminate the whole group ...

XV.— Color derived from Notan

By clustering lines tone is produced; by tingeing neutral grays Color is produced.

XVI.— Color schemes from Japanese prints and from textiles

In the best of these the color has a peculiar bloom ...

Application to design

... distribution and proportion of color affect harmonic relations.

Copying color from textiles

As to models, work from originals in museums ... one may find scraps of the woven and printed stuffs of the best periods.


Practice in simple harmonies gives control of the more complex relations, and enables one to create with freedom in any field of art.


Tokonoma was inspired by the designs for the "... built-in recessed space in a Japanese style reception room, in which items for artistic appreciation are displayed." An initial space is created within the constraints of a traditional tokonoma on a random basis. Found and algorithmically generated images are displayed in randomly determined sizes and colours within predetermined ranges and palletes.


A sketch to explore colour harmonies. (You will be asked to allow the sketch to access your webcam. When you do, the sketch may take a few seconds to start running.)

Hares and Squares

Hares and Squares was inspired by the watercolor Young Hare by Albrecht Duhrer and the plotter drawing 100 Carres by Vera Molnar. The initial image is a photograph of Young Hare. The image is replicated with each replication converted into three values determined on a random basis. Each value in each image is then randomly coloured from a predetermined pallete. The images are then arranged on a grid with a randomly determined displacement in a fashion pioneered by Molnar.