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Willow, mountain, water

by Helena Wee


An animated, projection mapped artwork based on ancient Chinese "Shan Shui" landscape paintings, rendered computationally. Willow, mountain and water impressions were created and projected on a cube-based structure producing a 3D landscape which references ancient painting styles, nature, modern graphic design and gaming.

Background Research

Chinese “Shan Shui”1 or “Mountain, Water” brush and ink paintings depict nature referencing Taoist concepts such as the way, simplicity and nature. Often they depict motifs such as paths, willow trees, rivers, waterfalls and mountains. Their compositional patterns include a threshold, meandering paths reflecting nature, and a focal point or heart.

The “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” is an ancient Chinese divination text. It describes sixty-four hexagrams made from eight trigrams with either long lines or broken lines in each row. Through the throwing of yarrow stalks random numbers are produced in a cleromancy-based form of divination. It is the earliest example of a binary system, akin to that used in modern computation. The I Ching has been referenced by many artists including John Cage’s piece “Music of Changes”2. Here music is created through random numbers taking the artist out of the composition process.

In early gaming history the production of landscapes and game elements was done using random numbers and in a pixilated, tessellated or blocky style. One example of this in modern gaming can be seen in the game Minecraft. Here players use virtual building blocks to build landscapes in a 3D procedurally generated world. Each of these blocks are made of specific materials such as stone, tree trunks, water among others.

Process and technical features

When choosing the shape and creating the composition I decided to go with cubes which mimicked the blocky nature of gaming landscapes. I was influenced not only by gaming but also Chinese “Shan Shui” painting and wanted to create something that reflected both worlds.

I used the ofPath class to create steadily growing rectangular shapes which became the branches of the willow pattern. I also created leaves using vertices, and rotated shapes accordingly to fit alongside the branch shapes. I also created flower shapes which I put on the canvas at specific times in random positions, rotating them as they appeared.

For the mountain ranges I used Perlin noise creating a series of subtly changing vertices along the width of the composition. Using this helped to create a steadily changing set of random numbers which created the mountain-like shapes.

For background gradients several horizontal lines changing gradually from one colour to another were drawn. This technique was used to merge the mountains with the foreground, and as backgrounds for some of the water scenes.

The water ripples are a hexagram-like set of curved fractals drawn in a random, recursive manner, similar to the Cantor set3. The random configurations of long curved shapes or two shorter curved shapes to a row, is what creates the rippling effect. To emphasise this ripple effect I also combined this with a sine wave variation in y position of the fractals on certain scenes.

To complete the water scene I decided to create abstract fish-like shapes which would move in a slight sine wave fashion within the boundaries of one block. I wanted to create small shoals of fish. I initially tried creating multi-dimensional arrays, but then decided that this would overcomplicate a task which could be much more efficiently created through object-oriented programming.

Having created object classes in Processing, I researched how this would be done in openFrameworks and proceeded to use this methodology to create shoals of fish-like moving particles with specific locations and velocities4.


Projection mapped practice cubes showing mountain and willow patterns.

When putting the composition together I tested the projection mapping process on practice cubes. Then in the rendered view of ofxPimapper I brought together several slightly varying scene source files to produce compositions for willow, mountain and water which would span the cubes creating a cohesive multi-cube 3D landscape.

Conclusion and future developments

By creating a 3 scene projection mapped composition inspired by “Shan Shui” painting and gaming I was investigating alternative ways of using generative computational animation to reflect ancient artistic traditions. Re-rendering Chinese paintings in a modern context highlights how the notion of landscape has changed. Virtual methods of finding stillness in hectic lives are reflected through alternative uses of gaming and other computational technologies, concepts in harmony with Taoist philosophies.

For the water scene the motion produced was sometimes a little slower than when source files were played individually. This was probably due to the use of fractals which can slow down playback due to the multiple calculations needed to render them on screen. I would decrease the use of fractals in such scenes in subsequent projection mapped versions of the work to improve playback speed.

In the future I would like to experiment with using shapes related to “Shan Shui” painting motifs to produce more abstract patterns and vistas. I would also like to experiment with the repeated drawing of different forms to see how this affects the landscapes produced. Another thing I would like to introduce to my compositions are shapes which move across faces of the 3D scene to produce movement across the installation.