So I Bought A Plotter

I bought a plotter a few weeks ago!  Aka a pen plotter, aka a machine that moves a pen around over paper to make computer-driven drawings.  

Specifically, I got myself an Axidraw V3/A3 plotter from Evil Mad Scientist.  It's a wonderful machine: easy to use, produces really great drawings at a reasonable speed, and has (with my A3 model) a maximum draw area of 17x11 inches which allows for some satisfyingly large compositions.

I documented my unboxing and initial setup in this twitter thread, if you're curious about the plotter itself and some of the basics of making it work.

But why a plotter?  After all, all it does is mechanically produce an image, and the way it does so (by drawing discrete lines with pens) is incredibly limited compared to the image reproduction abilities of contemporary printers.  

Plotters are odd beasts, very grounded in the paradigm of mid-20th century technology, useful in technical disciplines where precision reproduction was necessary and cheap, high-quality laser printing wasn't remotely a thing.  As a way to generate engineering drawings, blueprints, etc. a plotter could through some clever mechanical design make a pen and paper and rollers and motors do things the human arm couldn't, faster and more consistently and without tiring.  Why make a human draft a computer-designed technical drawing when you can have the plotter do it instead?

But in 2021 the answer to moving from computer screen to printed paper -- if something ever needs to *be* printed on paper in the first place -- has long been general-purpose printing machines that can rapidly, cleanly raster out high-resolution, full-color copies.  A plotter is next to useless for practical purposes.


Which is honestly part of the "why" for me.  I have always *liked* plotters, as machines, as a casual observer.  I saw them in action a couple times as a kid, visiting my dad when he was taking an engineering course of some sort, and they just seemed amazing.  And they are!  They are amazing.  Not hard to understand once you grasp the concept, but it's a great concept, using two axes of motion and impossibly perfect computations to make a machine draw a picture.  It's the LOGO turtle but tangible, physical.

I took a drafting class in high school and the class itself was...dull but fine? A lot of, well, drafting things by hand with ruler and straight edge, making 3-panel and isometric renderings of simple objects, etc. I'm glad I took it and I think that little bit of hand-drafting discipline has come back around to serve me pretty well in the last few years of art work I've been doing.  

But that drafting lab also had a copy of AutoCAD.  It was running on a miserably underpowered 386 with no math coprocessor, so rendering drawings of 3D objects like regular polyhedra took forever.  Just, start it when class starts and hope it's done before the bell rings.  And that lab also had a big old pen plotter.  And I think once, that entire semester, I got permission from the teacher to fire it up and draw one of my polyhedron renderings.  And it was glorious to watch.

So, yes.  Plotters are cool.  They're clever.  To some extent I am Marge Simpson with a potato: I just think they're neat.


But the other thing is: a plotter is a tool for making art.  That's not presumably why they were invented, but it's one of the things they're used for, and have been since the beginning; and in an age when plotters as commercial workflow tools are decades into practical obsolescence, their usefulness as machines for art-making is a primary justification for their existence.  

The development in the last several years of new, affordable, accessible plotting equipment like the AxiDraw, is a reflection of this: with no commercial need for new, small plotters, this is development in artistic and hobbyist wants and needs.  

And there's a reasonable question a lot of people might ask, here: how is a machine that has no expressive qualities a good art tool?  A plotter just...draws lines that you tell a computer to tell it to draw.  Why not cut out the middle man and use your hand to hold a pen?

But there's loads of assumptions hiding in that straighforward question. I won't dig in on "what is the nature of art" stuff here, but there are a couple key things I want to talk about:

1. Plotters have expressive qualities! Every tool does. Those qualities differ from one tool to the next, and part of the joy of learning a tool is recognizing and learning to exploit those qualities.  

A pen held loose in the hand captures movements of the fingers, the wrist, the arm, and the constraints of the human skeleton define some of the details of how the pen starts, stops, accelerates, wobbles.  It moves as it is told by the particular human holding it, mediated by the details of their particular mind and of their particular body. 

A pen held by a plotter is far more controlled, yes: it is held perfectly steady when not in motion, and is moved by fine stepper motors with great precision.  But it will move only within its own skeletal constraints, and the quality of the line it creates will be affected, limited, changed by its own patterns of acceleration, it's tendency to vibrate under friction, the interaction of it's pen up and pen down movements with the paper surface and the mass of the pen.  These inherent expressive qualities are mechanical, but they are expressive of the nature of the machine; different plotters, different pens, different subtleties.

I have done a lot of art in the last few years using straightedges, rulers, compasses, tape lines, stencils, paper cutting, laser cutting; all of these are mechanical tools, some more sophisticated in their operation than others, but all of them a departure from the idea of a fleshy human hand freely moving a pen or brush.  They are all art tools; they all have unique expressive qualities.  A plotter is another tool.

2. Plotters make different compositions possible.

I had one major worry when I finally ordered and received my plotter recently: that I would use it to draw things I had already made before in other ways, and then realize I had no ideas for how to do something *new* with it.

Which, there's nothing wrong with buying a plotter just to enjoy letting it draw things.  It's a genuine pleasure to watch (and listen to!), a kind of robotic fish tank.  But I knew I was hoping to incorporate this into my art-making, and the fear that it'd instead be a fancy toy/paperweight was there.

Happily, what I've found over the last couple weeks is that I am bursting with ideas for this thing.  I spent a day or two kicking the tires and having it draw familiar fractal lines and feeling a little out of my depth, but then I got to work figuring out ways to combine colors and geometry in multiple passes to create interesting compositions.  

I pushed myself past the intimidating roadblock of getting up to speed on Python and some drawing libraries so that I could start writing code to generate plotter works instead of just drawing them by hand in an illustration program.

And what has become clearer to me than it was before I bought it is how much having this machine is allowing me to rush enthusiastically down paths of geometry and composition that I had previously marked off as too impractical to navigate.  Drawing a semi-random line with a pen is practical; painting a thousand different squares on canvas is even doable, if a weekend-spanning project.  But to let some code and a machine explore ten thousand pen strokes, or generate a thousand different iterations of an idea in moments, is liberating in the way it makes possible what I'd previously had to set aside.

I am in early days with this machine, and with this way of thinking about composition.  Nearly every day I am going down some new rabbit hole and creating sketches and even finished work that I'm proud to put up for sale, and it's a joyful and somewhat manic unbottling of ideas I didn't realize had been backing up under such high pressure in the absence of this new outlet.

I am excited both to develop more deeply some of the individual ideas I've been exploring so far, and to incorporate plotter output and the underlying generative art coding work more broadly into my other media -- linocut designs, paintings, watercolor, with the right pen/brush setup maybe even stained glass decoration.  I hope you'll enjoy following along with what comes of it.

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