Field of Science

Art from Turing Patterns

Turing patterns are the more common name for "reaction-diffusion patterns" which are found in abundance throughout the natural world. They are formed by a simple system of cell-cell communication; cells secrete signals that mean nearby cells will become the same as them, whereas far away cells will differentiate. In terms of colour this leads to dots and stripes patterns, which are found in almost all patterning systems in nature:

Simple Turing patterns, from Wikipedia Commons

These patterns can be generated electronically as well, by using computer models. By treating each pixel as a cell and taking an average of the surrounding cell colours to determine the shade each 'cell' becomes, Turing patterns can be generated. The generative pattern artist Jonathan McCabe has taken this a step further to produce complex Turing patterns, for example by overlaying two separate scales on the image. The larger scale produces bigger patterns, while smaller scales produce more detail within that:

The next stage is to create a range of different scales, to create fractal-type Turing patterns where each cell recognizes both the shade and the scale of the surrounding cells. This creates some very involved and quite spooky-looking pictures, in which you can see the overall logic of the Turing patterns (large stripes can be seen at the larger scales) but still get the involved detail of the smaller scales:

As the overall look is still quite square Jonathan added an imposed cyclic symmetry to the program, in the search for a more 'biological' look. This leads to some of my favorite images (all of which can be found here) and, best of all, a video of the process occurring. You can see how the image starts from a completely random grey background and very quickly shapes into a wonderful over-changing pattern:

diatomaceous6 from Jonathan McCabe on Vimeo.

I think one of the things I love about this work it that as well as producing hauntingly beautiful pictures (and very mesmerizing movies) you can see how the project builds up, and how the simple Turing patterns can create such involved and complex shapes. What I especially like about the video is that the multi-level Turing patterns don't have an actual stable end point, every time you think the picture has stopped changing it shifts again in a constantly evolving kaleidoscope.

And of course to finish it all off, a psychedelic whirl of Turing Technicolor:

More of Jonathan McCabe's work can be found on his Flikr and Vimeo accounts (and there's a wonderful close-up of one of the coloured versions here). All his work is held under the Creative Commons Licence 2.0.

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