Why I stopped making path traced art, and what's next.

16 hours remaining

'16 hours remaining' said the Houdini Redshift window as I turn off my screen and head to bed. Hopefully this render doesn't crash, in which case I can continue from the last successful frame, but that could be frame 2 of 600. The other risk is that the final image looks different in some way to the render preview window, which did sometimes happen - those extra light bounces can have quite dramatic effects on the final image - in which case I will have to put my computer aside for another 16 hours to render again.

The setup I've been using for my art in recent years is SideFX Houdini, rendered out with Maxons Redshift. I have a Razer blade laptop from 2015, equipped with an RTX 2070-MaxQ -  MaxQ means low power draw in exchange for lower performance but allows it to run in a laptop on the laptop battery. Waiting for 16h for a render isn't that bad compared to some other projects I have done, whilst working at Variable the 8k video output for GSK took literal weeks of rendering. This machine was never really designed for that project but we made it work. 16h was still too long though. I was getting tired of it and it felt like such a waste of time, such an inefficient workflow.

During that time people had been resonating with my work, NFT culture had been growing, and I had made some money on hicetnunc. This money game the resources to think about upgrading my system to fix this problem. I could literally knock 10 hours off this rendering time with a computer that was built for the task. A good rendering computer costs several thousands of GBP with Houdini, Redshift and other licenses on top being another thousand GBP. I was willing to pay it but I am careful with money and because of that I wanted to think hard about it. So I did.

Before going forward I want to make it clear that I don't shame anyone for their decisions, especially where their own experience and art is concerned. This is just where I am currently and how I feel.

The Cost

My current Razer laptop is powerful and excellent at what it was designed for. It has a slim form factor yet has handled any videogame, visualization, or real-time experience thrown at it including the VR games I have played via the oculus link.

It seemed absurd to me that this wasn't enough, not only because the laptop was expensive but because of the sheer power this thing was capable of. Yet here I am about to spend a HUGE amount of money for something even more ludicrously powerful just to knock some time off making some of my art. It seemed so wasteful.

Wasteful of money - this one is obvious, a computer for my art that costs the same as 6 months rent. Worth more than my car. Worth more than all the other electronics and appliances I own added together.

Wasteful of graphics cards - there is a graphics card shortage at the moment and buying two or more of the already scarce pool would remove those cards for someone else who might need them. I know this is a particularly contrived hypothetical but what if a medical researcher needed some more power for their neural network that could one day be used to identify disease and save lives - but they couldn't find one to use because I'm using it for my hobby art. A more realistic but more sentimental example is that there are kids (like I was) going through hard times who use videogames as an escape from reality. I needed this and I'm certain other kids do too. Mass buying in the shortage would only worsen the problem.

Wasteful of precious metals - These cards are made from nonrenewable precious metal resources that one day we could run out of. A lot will have gone into making the laptop I was currently using and I wanted even more for myself for a new system. There are ethical considerations on the sourcing of some of these materials and it's always good to remember this when buying hardware.

Wasteful of power - The current graphics card in my machine ran at 100W while at full load (which it was while rendering).
This is a figure I could sleep with at night. The kinds of machines I was looking at would have several power-hungry cards in, likely 2 (or more) Nvidia RTX 3080's each of which uses 320 watts. This was looking like it would be using 6x the amount of energy to run, and although the renders would be quicker this was still very daunting to face. Again, it seemed so wasteful.

This was a time of reflection for me, I retreated from social media and started thinking about whether I thought it was worth it. While so many of the artists I love were using path-tracing renderers so many also weren't. I would still be moved or entranced by real-time graphics, physical and digital paintings, pixel art, sketches, illustrations, projection maps, installations, etc. I saw other artists producing.

I decided to not make any decisions, keep using my setup, and let the thoughts stew for a while.
I found from this point any time I opened up Houdini and started rendering the brute force path tracing just felt so vulgar, I tweak sliders and the software used pure GPU firepower to simulate light and resolve a still image. So many resources, still not enough, it really should be. How could people less fortunate than myself stand a chance here, perhaps they just couldn't. Where was the artistry in stamping my foot on the throttle and letting the software do the rest? Was this necessary? Was it worth it?

I had lost connection to the process.

I even found myself questioning the usage of the software itself, if I create a simulation using Houdini is it even my art - I didn't write the simulation. I moved on from this mindset on reflection and I think this quote sums up my reasoning

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe” - Carl Sagan

but questioning the fundamentals of what I was doing shows the extent to which this had me rocked.

What's strange is that I know there is a lot of artistry required to make a good render, I had gone through the painful process of crossing the taste gap. It just felt less significant to me now, several times I opened Houdini and closed it again after an hour of nothing, feeling completely uninspired.

The Final Nail

This is the tweet that really sealed it for me

Somehow I had never heard of Solarpunk outside of the art and it sent me down a rabbit hole. I want to write about it in detail separately but in essence (the part that is relevant here), it's a view of the future where we live as part of nature using modern technology and renewable resources to help us live a life of environmental sustainability. As someone who grew up in the countryside and part of a rural community, this resonated hard with me and led me down a path of learning about people working towards (or living) this future. The most influential to me were:

  • 100rabbits is a creative couple living on a boat 'Pino' and sailing the world together. All of their power comes from the solar panels on their boat so have to find ways to make it work, including making their own low power software
  • low tech magazine writes about sustainable technology, the link provided there is even provided by a server running on solar power.

In the light of this new inspiring view of what the future could be, I just couldn't bring myself to continue down this path. I wanted to work to a future of more power efficiency, not buy a system that used 6x the power of my already hungry setup. Even what I was currently doing felt so so wasteful.

'This is all very dramatic'

I know. I am fortunate enough that my art is a hobby though, and it had become a part of my identity to lose myself in the process. I couldn't anymore. It may be overly sensitive but it was actually emotionally tough to lose this part of myself, and I still feel the gap of that lack of self-expression now. As it doesn't keep a roof over my head and food on the table I have the luxury to put this skill down and reconsider. I'm sure there are others who feel like me but don't have a choice because it's how they support their family.

What now

I don't think I can go back. I don't really want to go back.
I do still want to make art, I'm just trying to find out what and how.
My taste is still the same, so if you like what I made before then I think you'll like what I make next, whatever form that takes.

Finding what that will be might take some time, a preexisting injury makes some avenues not really possible. I spent the last few months trying digital illustration and painting but found no way to do it without causing myself serious lasting pain.

I've not given up though, I will find another medium that I can lose myself in - I'm just having to be patient while I find it. I'm writing this first draft on the first day of 2022, and I'm excited about the directions I could go in my next explorations - more in line with who I am now.

2022 is going to be fun.

If you made it this far thank you for reading, you can DM me on Twitter @simonharrisco if you want a chat.