After drawing generative patterns using fairly arbitrary combinations of dots & dashes (read about those here, or watch me drawing here), learning to draw in Morse code seemed like a natural progression… And although I resisted the urge to follow that progression for quite a while, I have now fallen down that encoding-drawing-rabbit-hole. I taught myself the rules of Morse code, and developed a way to draw in it. These generative drawings are not intended to be translated; I’m drawing them as aesthetic pieces, which may or may not be linked to information/data accessible online. But I want it to be *possible* for anyone to translate the code in these images (in the unlikely event anyone wants to), because I’m a dork. So… here we are.
[This post is adapted from a 2017 essay that is no longer online, so if it looks familiar, that’s why!]
Morse code is a way to encode information as a series of dots and dashes, and I was already aware of a couple of characters via the International Morse code distress signal SOS (…- - -…). It’s been around for over 160 years, & Morse code is still used by radio enthusiasts (often referred to as CW (for ‘continuous wave’.) Speed of transmission is limited, and thus abbreviations like PLS, ENUF, etc have been used in Morse code since long before SMS. However, if I’m drawing someone else’s words, I only use abbreviations where they do. I’ve included a list of Morse code characters I use as an image at the very end of this post, and you can listen to/read the characters here/here.
Finding a drawing method
In Morse code, one unit is defined as the length of a dot, and dashes are 3 units long. There is one unit between each dot/dash in a character, 3 units between characters in a word, and 7 units between words. I represent the spaces between characters and words visually, as well as the coding dots and dashes. I’m not fussy about dashes being exactly 3 dots long. I use a light and a dark tone of the same colour; one for characters, another for spacing marks. This hopefully makes it easier for anyone without full colour vision to distinguish coding & non coding markings. It’s easy to work out which colour is coding characters because spacing colours only occur as a series of 3 or 7 dots.
Using mid blue for characters and light blue for spaces, ‘My name is Immy’ looks like this;
I’m appending punctuation that comes after a word e.g. full stops to the end of the preceding word, and punctuation before words e.g. opening parentheses to the start. So the words ‘Hi, I’m Immy.’ including the punctuation marks look like this;
And that’s it. A simple set of rules. Now I’m trying to make my Morse code drawings more interesting…
Drawing in layers
The six rule-drawings I make are made from dots and dashes in layers around black shapes, like the one below. They don’t encode words, and follow small sets of rules that use randomly generated numbers to decide where to draw shapes or dot-dash layers. I like the way these images often having irregular shapes, and I want to replicate those shapes in my Morse code drawings. (You can watch a video of the drawing below being made here.)
My method is to draw spiralling outwards around a central shape, with further shapes added at the end of a sentence or paragraph. I work from a starting point around the shape where the Morse code can be read from. Below are five starting points followed by the encoded word ‘hi’; this illustrates the variety of starts I’ve used so far. I’m not sure which I like best tbh.
Here’s an early ink drawing that encodes the poem ‘To know the dark’ by Wendell Berry, and uses starting point #4 from the examples above;
I am exploring what patterns and visual effects I can achieve using this method. Remember my aim isn’t to make art that should have words/data read from it; I’m trying to turn words/data themselves into visual art, and to sometimes hopefully lead people to the information behind the picture.
Testing the method
I’ve initially used poetry to test my method, and words I love from people I follow on social media (with their permission), as in the first piece below. It’s an ink drawing of a Twitter thread by Guilaine Kinouani (check out her recent TEDx talk on epistemic homelessness here.) However, translating a text longer than ~2000 characters (with spaces) into a single pattern creates very large drawings. This lead me to experiment with making each segment or sentence of a text into an individual small drawing and collating the smaller works into a grid. I’ve also started using digital drawing, which allows me to make bigger pieces that can be easily stored. The second image below is the first 9 tweets from this thread by @coffeespoonie, translated & drawn digitally.
The look of markings in my digital drawings prompted me to combine my brushpen drawing technique with Morse code. I love the feel of the drawings I’ve made in brushpen, like the one below. However, they’re extremely time-consuming; so I expect to use a mixture of digital and ink in future Morse code drawngs. I’m also experimenting with combining Morse code drawing with other generative drawing techniques such as overlapping circle rules, and with pencil and ink drawing. Some examples are below.
A final word; why it matters to me to draw this way
I resisted making drawings that encoded words for a while. But today it’s more important than ever for artists to find a voice through their work, and frankly I need an outlet… Ever catch someone complaining about “all those people having all those children they can’t afford”? Hi. I was one of those children. Part of why I need an outlet is having all that “those people” shit chatted at me (again.) I recently talked to school students about becoming a scientist & artist. I grew up in a single parent low income family, and I talked about what it was like when my physics teacher told me I’d never be a scientist, because “girls like you from families like yours never do anything useful.” That is demonstrably crap, and always has been, but children like the one I was still get smacked in the face by it, and I still hear it.
Here in the UK, it’s not hard to find blame being shifted from the people who’ve trashed our economy, education, & NHS for their own profit to “those people”. Who is being othered and described as “those people” varies, but can include refugees, migrants, Muslims, millennials, anyone on state benefits, anyone poor, and disabled people (which includes me.) I’m so very tired of this nonsense, but it is for all of us to look individually at what we are angry about, and what we can do address it. And I’m an artist, so I’m going to make art. Angry art. I’m not quite sure where this will take my Morse code drawings yet… But if I go to paint a house and the house is on fire, don’t be surprised when I paint the flames. I know some people don’t think art should be political, & all I’ll say to that is; art history called and it wants some words with you… ‘:| Anyway, that is my content warning; not all my drawings might link to poetry, happy threads, & rainbow unicorns.
Thanks for reading.