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What Can Artists Teach Us About Programming?

Today I witnessed a remarkable feat. We had a guest speaker by the name of Ben Glenn at my daughter's Sunday School class. He gave an amusingly comedic and somewhat inspirational talk about appreciating and developing your gifts, but that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what he did next. He turned on some music, put on a surgical mask, and began drawing with chalk on a large black sheet clamped to a standing wooden frame. He said the sheet was a plain old bed sheet from Wal-Mart, and it looked like it would fit a queen-sized bed.

As he jumped back and forth, spreading colored chalk over that bed sheet and sending clouds of dust into the air, I was mesmerized. Slowly at first, and then progressively faster, a scene appeared before us of a sunset on a shoreline with an island of mountains off in the distance and a lighthouse and palm trees framing the image in the foreground. Within about 20 minutes he had created a beautiful work of art, and we all got to see it come to life.

I hadn't brought a camera, so I can't show exactly what he drew for us, but it looked something like this print from his web store:

Ben Glenn print Castaway

I think the fact that he can create these images so quickly and in front of a live audience is incredible. I know it's not a unique talent, but it sure does take a major amount of dedication, focus, and practice. I appreciate that. And it was awesome to watch. If you ever have the opportunity to watch a great artist at work, take the time to really see what it takes to create a thing of beauty in real time. As I was watching the scene unfold, I couldn't help but think about how what he was doing with chalk and a canvas mirrors what programmers do with a programming language and a computer. Even though his is a physical medium and ours is a virtual one, how we create our masterpieces has many similarities, and we can learn a lot from watching a great artist in the act of creating.

Let's start at the beginning, with an artist's worst enemy: a blank canvas. Now Ben obviously had a pretty good idea of what he was going to draw. He's done this hundreds of times before, and he's probably not going to draw something completely new for the first time on stage in front of an audience. He has a design of a scene in mind and he knows what he wants the scene to communicate with the audience. Let's assume he's taken care of all of those preconditions of design and requirements and we're looking solely at execution.

That blank canvas can be pretty scary. I know I've faced it plenty of times in the form of a blank file and an insistently blinking cursor. How to begin? Ben didn't hesitate. He grabbed a big stick of yellow chalk and immediately began throwing color up on that canvas in great strokes and swirls. Then he dropped the yellow and picked up some orange and did the same thing. Then he used some blue and some purple and some green, building a foundation for the scene he wanted to create. The blank canvas was the enemy, but he quickly beat it by putting up something real that he could work with and build on.

We can do the same in programming by writing something into that blank file as quickly as possible. Define a class and start filling it in. Don't try to think about every requirement and feature that class has to fulfill from the beginning. Trying to keep all of that in your head can paralyze you. Put up a skeleton first, something you can build on. Test Driven Development can help here because you can define the features and requirements as tests so you won't feel like you're forgetting any of them. The tests become part of the foundation of that class, and they give you something to write that should be easy to start with. Once you've filled in the class enough and all of your unit tests are passing, you know you're done.

Once the foundation was done, Ben started defining what would become the background with some additional detail. Here I started noticing that he used a wide variety of strokes. Some where finer and more precise to add definition to an element while others were coarse and strong to get a lot of chalk on the canvas quickly and rough out a new element. He knew intimately well when to use different techniques, and his movements were always definite and confident. That confidence came from practice, probably thousands of hours of practice. He knew exactly how each stroke would add to the visual appearance of the scene and he could produce each one without thinking because the motions were ingrained in his arms and hands from those hours of practice.

It was also obvious that he knew at a deep level how the different colors, strokes, and elements would interact on the canvas to produce a visually rich and stunning image. That knowledge likely came from intense study in addition to practice. We should strive for the same kind of understanding of our tools, languages, and frameworks, and experiment and practice with them until we can use them with the same elegance and ease.

As the scene developed, he would leave some elements unfinished, go to a different space to create another element, and then return to further define the earlier ones. He would move around the canvas, roughing in the sun, the planets, and the mountains at the same time so that he could use them as markers for each other and the other foreground elements yet to be created. They helped define the space and flow of the scene, but at first it was not clear what any of them were. He didn't need them to be completely refined and perfect right away; he only needed them to be there to add structure to the scene. Once everything was arranged and he went back and added detail, those nondescript elements quickly jumped to life.

The same type of process can be quite helpful in programming. First roughing in different classes and methods so that the whole program can hang together, before going back and filling in the details, is a great way to keep a project moving along without getting bogged down in the details too early.

Another effective technique that he used when adding new elements to the scene was throwing stuff away. He would develop an area of the scene and then later come back and draw something else right over the top of it. If you only look at the final picture, you may not even know that originally, the colors of the sunset covered the entire canvas. The mountains and the lighthouse weren't drawn on empty space; they replaced the sunset behind them. The same is true of the palm tree covering the mountains behind it. He wasn't concerned with preserving every ounce of work that was done on any particular element, even though time was limited. Some of that first chalk that was laid down is never seen in the final picture. It was put on the canvas only to be thrown away, but it still served a purpose. It helped define the background, and since it was drawn in first, it helped make the background that can be seen in the final image look continuous and flow behind the foreground elements.

What should we take away from that technique? For one, our code is not sacred and we shouldn't worry so much if some, or even a lot, has to be thrown out, redone, or replaced. Even if some particular code is pitched, it helped define the program at one point, and hopefully the good effects of that code will endure even after the code itself is removed. Inevitably, some of the original code will remain to the end, just as some of those original chalk strokes are still there in Ben's finished picture.

One last lesson we can take from watching an artist at work is how to stop. Ben knew he had our attention for a limited time, so when he had developed the scene enough and all of the elements looked recognizable and evoked the right mood, he set down his chalk and took his applause. He had created a beautiful, moving image in less time than it takes bake a pizza. I'm sure there are parts of it that he thought he could have done better, or things he wanted to change, but he also could have ruined it with endless tweaking while losing our engagement in the process. Instead, he shipped it to his customers, the audience. We could do worse than learning to do the same.

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