Painting with the Theme of Information

EE376A (Winter 2019)

Author: Nate Gruver

Painting Description

Having done a lot of technical projects in the two years, I was drawn to the opportunity to work on something a little more abstract and tangentially related to the course material. Painting is growing hobby of mine, so I chose to craft a visual representative of information theory in the medium of paint. In particular, I strove to come at the theme of information from at least two angles:

  1. Information as communication through symbolic representation
  2. The modern abundance of data and the possibility of mass surveillance that this abundance creates

In the 18th Century, Jeremy Bentham conceived of an ideal prison in which a central tower monitors rooms surrounding it in a cylinder–see pictures below (top is an idealized drawing, bottom is a real panopticon built in Cuba):

Idealized Panopticon Design
Presidio Modelo in Cuba

The panopticon as a geometric form was a nice starting place for my painting for at least two reasons. First, it’s symbolic of centralized power and mass surveillance. Second, any visual depiction of one involves a grid of squares which can then used as containers for symbols. In my painting, I chose the break these squares into four triangles each and color them individually.

I conceived of a painting from the perspective of a cell in a panopticon, where a coloring of the grid encoded a message. I drew up the two initial sketches below:

An Initial Sketch
Another Sketch with Different Grid Breakdown

I ultimately decided on a design similar to the second sketch above and stretched a 66” by 56” inch canvas (about 5 ft by 5 ft). I opted for a large canvas in order to effectively create the visual appearance of looking out from a cell and because working with large canvases can be a fun adventure in its own right.

Painting Process

There are many different kinds of paint and for this purpose I needed something that would dry to a flat, durable surface so I could work on top of finished layers. As it turns out, regular house paint for the hardware store is the best for this purpose, so I mixed generic house paints with heavily pigmented artist-grade paints to create the ones I used on the canvas.

The first step was creating the grid-like pattern of the cells in black:

Creating the horizontal lines
The final horizontal lines
Creating the vertical lines

Once I had completed the grid, I began filling in the resulting quadrilaterals with triangles. Read clockwise around each quadrilateral and left-to-right over the quadrilaterals the colors encode a secret message in base 8 ascii.

Applying the first color of triangles
Removing tape
The third and fourth colors
A version midway through

This process ended up being extremely involved (though rewarding) as there were approximately 1600 triangles to be painted in. In fact at the time of writing this I haven’t fully completely the triangles and thus could not begin the process of painting the central tower. The pictures above, however, give a very good taste of what the final painting will look like though.

Outreach Summary

For my outreach event, I did want to do something somewhat related the my painting, so I created a game roughly based on Pictionary. I also grew up on trick-based card games (ones involving bidding strategies), so I wanted to incorporate a bidding strategy component to my game.

In my version of Pictionary, InfoPictionary, you can wage how many squares of graph paper you need to communicate a clue. The squares of grid paper become bits, as you can either fill a square in totally black or leave it white. If your partner is able to guess the clue from the number of squares you decide on, you get a score bonus. Otherwise, you get a score deduction. There are also more elaborate scoring rules that can be used in the style of Bridge in which you must make hard-to-achieve bids in order to control a round of the game.

For the purposes of the outreach event I converted this event to normal Pictionary for the younger kids, but explained the more elaborate version to older children and parents.


I’m extremely grateful to Tsachy Weissman for the opportunity to work on something a little more out-there for this class. It was really fun to read the textbook and watch lectures then just brainstorm wild painting ideas. It worked both sides of my brain in a truly refreshing way.

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