Paul Graham – “Hackers and Painters”

by | Mar 30, 2015

It always surprises me to discover that many successful entrepreneurs have a much deeper relationship with the art world than we think. In previous posts have I mentioned (Yahoo CEO) Marissa Mayer’s experience with art and its influence on her professional life, as well as Roger Mavity – photographer, entrepreneur, and manager (Read it here).

Another such example is Paul Graham’s. The co-founder of Y Combinator, probably the most famous startup incubator in the world, Graham is not only an entrepreneur, programmer, and founder but also a painter!

Besides studying philosophy and computer science he studied painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and at the Rhode Island School of Design. While Graham is known for his knowledge and skills on how to start and grow startup companies (the most famous ones are Airbnb and Dropbox), I’m not sure how many are familiar with his painting experience and his artistic philosophy.

In 2003 he was a guest speaker at Harvard University, where he gave a lecture that later was written as the essay “Hackers and Painters,” which discusses the similarities between hacking and painting (read the full essay).

In this very interesting essay, Graham analyzes and brings eye-opening examples about the similarities between hackers and painters. These similarities, in his opinion, are derived from the fact that both hackers and painters are both makers. I encourage you to read his essay but here are a few of his examples:

  • Painters use canvas and colors as the medium of expression, says Graham. Hackers try to create beautiful things they care about or are interested in using the computer as the medium.
  • Both the hacker and the painter should know the theory of their medium. Hackers should know and understand the theory of computers exactly as painters should know paint chemistry.
  • Inspiration and ideas are coming from the “world of makers” – architecture, writing, painting, etc. “Painting has been a much richer source of ideas than the theory of computation,” Graham says.
  • What I found attention-grabbing was Graham’s reference to the concept of the day job. Like many artists who have their day jobs in order to earn money, hackers as well have their day jobs to make a living – but real hackers, he says, will work in their free time on projects they are interested in and will try to create what they desire. That, he says, is the whole point of open source.
  • In order to be a painter you need to do – sketch, paint, test different colors – this is how you learn. Hackers do the same – they learn by programming and debugging again and again and not only by taking programming courses.
  • Another aspect of learning is by looking and imitating. A painter can copy the old masters’ painting and learn techniques, methods, and ways of doing things. Hackers can look at a good program’s code to learn its way of operation.
  • A painter starts a painting and can work on it for years – each time adding something else. Similarly a hacker, Graham claims, should start with a basic idea and each time should make small changes.
  • “Great software, like painting, requires a fanatical devotion to beauty,” says Graham.
  • Painting (and art in general) is the work of a few. It is true that only one name appears as the creator but large numbers of artists had and still have their assistants – painting (and making art) in that sense is working together. Hackers as well work (and should learn how to) together to create a better code, a better program.

I found Graham’s perspective refreshing. It didn’t occur to me that hackers and painters are similar in that way. I can assume that these are some of the motives for creating digital art. You can see one example in a digital art exhibition that was launched by Google and named DevArt. And if you really want to see how digital art will come to life on your computer, I encourage you to check these beautiful digital works on HacktheArtWorld – an interesting alternative to the DevArt project.

What do you think? Are hackers and painters sharing the same motives? Are they the new artists? Let us know!

Source: Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr

Source: Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr


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