Q&A: Karl Sluis
Karl Sluis is an artist, designer, and entrepreneur working and living in Brooklyn.
I’ve known Karl for many years, both David and I have worked with him on projects big and small, though that has been in the digital space. Karl’s work with what is known as a “plotter” and putting computer programs to paper has always been deeply fascinating to me, and we’ve previously commissioned prints from his portfolio for our home.
So when it came time to find the right artwork for the Blue House Goods launch collection, Karl was a natural choice for collaborator. I’ve asked him to share a bit more about his process and inspiration for the Primitives Triptych series.
In a few sentences, who is Karl Sluis?
Only a few sentences? I’m a maker, a designer, a programmer, an artist. When it comes to my practice, I’m largely self-taught; after studying automotive and industrial design, I became curious about programming and learned how to use Processing in my spare time. Processing is a visual-output-focused programming language. I loved using my math skills to create beautiful art and using a plotter to bring those drawings into the real world was a natural next step.
What exactly is a “plotter”?
A plotter is a robot that takes instructions from a computer and translates them into two-dimensional movement in the real world. Architects have used them for more than fifty years to generate large-scale blueprints. Unlike a home printer, which uses a rolling drum to transfer ink onto paper, a plotter moves back and forth over a piece of paper (or whatever you’re plotting on). I can use whatever I can fit onto the plotter’s arm to make marks: pens, pencils, paintbrushes, even clay carving tools or knives.
I use an AxiDraw A3-size plotter from Evil Mad Scientist in San Francisco. There’s a small community on Twitter (#plottertwitter) and Instagram of artists around the world that make art with their AxiDraw plotters: there are even Plotter Meetups in a few cities. So a plotter is a tool, but there’s also a community built in as well.
How do you program it? What is the result?
I like to make a vector image (an SVG for all you nerds out there) with either Processing or Adobe Illustrator and then use another program called Inkscape to use that image as instructions for the plotter. Using code directly opens up some exciting creative opportunities but you lose the visual preview of what your plot will look like. Myself, I need to experiment with different variables and different techniques and I need to see those results well before I fire up the plotter.
What inspired the Primitives Triptych?
At the time, I was exploring India ink, brushstrokes, and the beautiful contrast between the digital precision of the plotter and the analog, aleatory effects of imprecise media. Pure geometric forms like circles, squares, and equilateral triangles add more contrast between the instructions and the plotted results. These geometric forms are also prevalent in Scandinavian art and design and their wholeness, symmetry, and stability, to me, speaks of the values of the home that Blue House celebrates.
Can you describe the series?
The circle, square, and equilateral triangle are the primitive shapes. Round, stable, and sharp, in that order, yet all stable, complete, and symmetric. The shapes are recognizable and precise so any variation from the ink and the brush stands out even more: again, that contrast between precision and imprecision, that’s what the Primitives Triptych is all about, for me.
Circles, squares, and triangles by themselves might be a little too static, however, so I introduced some movement and energy into the work to keep the eye moving and, again, in contrast, make the wholeness of the primitive shapes stand out even more. Each shape is repeated, shifted and skewed by the same amount each time. I took a lot of experimentation to find the right number of shapes and the right amount of movement and transformation that would look great for all three shapes—an approach that might look good for circles might not work well for triangles, for example. I also added some random horizontal movement to the squares to keep things interesting. It’s this shared movement that makes all three prints work together even better as a triptych.
What type of materials did you use?
While I’m experimenting I love to use good old-fashioned India ink. India ink can fade over time, especially in sunlight, so I used colorfast, museum-quality pigmented acrylic for the Primitives Triptych prints. I also upgraded from the typical 98-lb paper that I use at home: the Primitives are plotted on acid-free archival-quality heavy-weight Bristol paper. It’s important to me that my work is durable and will last for years and years.
What is next for you in this space?
Given that we’re all staying at home for the next several weeks, I’m excited to have more time to explore! Lately, I’ve explored exposing some of my process, so to speak, on the plot itself, by labeling the value of the variables I’m using and then demonstrating the effect of those different variables on the shapes and forms I’m plotting. It’s exciting to show how the math drives the art and how two variables can interact to create something unexpected and beautiful. I’m hoping to incorporate inks and brushwork to this approach.