Creatives in Profile – Interview with Nicholas Rougeux

Nicholas Rougeux

Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can help us look at the world differently; making the ordinary extraordinary and encouraging us to see beauty and elegance in the unexpected.

In an era of big and open data, perhaps one of the most interesting artistic movement to emerge in recent years is that of data visualisation, which can describe, depict, and represent facts and truths about ourselves and our surroundings. The artistic representation and visualisation of data in this way thereby allows us to picture not only what we can readily see, but also the things that aren’t visible. In this way, it can be seen as a natural extension of artistic ‘Realism’ – or the representation of reality as it is; an act of mimesis.

Nicholas Rougeux is a creative at the forefront of this artistic medium. A Chicago-based self-taught web developer and artist, Nicholas has mapped the punctuation in books – stripping out the words of literary classics in the process – as well as charting mesmerising maps of the world’s highway interchanges; creating constellations from the opening lines of famous novels; and exploring the hidden art of subway tracks.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ROUGEUX

I’m a web designer in Chicago and lead a fairly ordinary lifestyle. I was born in Ohio and transferred to Chicago when I was younger and this has been my home ever since. I’ve always been interested in the web from its early days and have had a website for my projects as long as I can remember. The early years of the web weren’t too pretty and neither were my sites but maintaining an online presence for nearly 20 years has taught me many things about art, technology, and everything in between.

INTERVIEWER

Is digital art your first love, or do you have another passion?

ROUGEUX

I’ve always been fascinated with digital art and have been in front of a screen for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of using DOS programs on those giant 5.25” floppies to color pictures or draw random designs. I also got hooked on creating pixel art by immersing myself in Mario Paint for the SNES. Eventually I “graduated” to MS Paint when Windows came around and progressed from there. Any free time I’ve had has been spent in front of a screen playing in some kind of graphics program.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ROUGEUX

Any artist or really anyone who’s passionate about their work. Seeing someone create something they love and really getting into it is always inspirational—whether it’s someone creating digital art or making something physical like a car, leather bag, or a sculpture. Everyone immersed in their creative process is who inspires me.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ROUGEUX

I’m mostly self-taught. I don’t say this to sound pompous. When I was growing up, there weren’t many resources beyond fumbling around with design tools or scouring the web for interesting art. Being an only child, I had a lot of time to myself when I was growing up so I spent that time exploring the tools I could get my hand on.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges you face as a web developer and designer? Do you see the two as being distinct from one another or innately entwined?

ROUGEUX

I think of myself more as a web designer than a developer—though I like to tell people I know just enough about code to be dangerous and I’m great a breaking things. Designing and developing can easily go hand-in-hand. Knowing something about both can be very beneficial. I do mostly design and front-end development (HTML/CSS) so knowing how a page will be structured is very helpful when designing a layout. Similarly, having knowledge about design helps me plan how markup and styles can be structured to accommodate for design changes that may get made in the future.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe the relationship you see between art and data?

ROUGEUX

I’ve always seen data as more tools in a toolbox—just a very versatile set of tools. Data can easily be seen as something boring and simply informative but as with most things, there’s hidden beauty if you know where to look. The challenge is finding where that is and knowing what to do with it when you find it. Everything has data just as everything has color, shape, etc. They’re other attributes to use.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as an artist?

ROUGEUX

To be honest, I don’t think about it much but I do strive to be truthful in what I create. Using data makes that possible and even easy. By creating something based on data, I’m forced to stay within the confines of what those data have to offer.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you begin working on new projects?

ROUGEUX

I don’t like to limit myself to any one audience other than those that find curious things interesting. I’ve discovered quite a few interesting audiences with each project I create.

For example, one of my earlier projects was a simple poster showing outlines of all the US National Parks. This was little more than a weekend project and I didn’t give it much thought after posting. I was surprised when I learned that there was a group of people with the goal of vsiting all the national parks and several of them found this type of poster intriguing. I knew that national parks were interesting but had no idea that there was a community so passionate about them. Similarly, when I created my Interchange Choreography project, I learned that quite a few people love reviewing, exploring, and even creating fantasy interchanges in programs in Sim City-like games. I had no idea such a group existed.

I’ve learned that if I found something even remotely interesting, there’s a good chance that there are others out there that find it even more interesting so it’s worth exploring. The possibilities are limitless.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career?

ROUGEUX

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been putting my work online for almost 20 years so the web has always been second nature to me. In high school and college, I was always in creative classes like art, architecture, computers, etc. When it came time to start a degree, I chose web development and design and was fortunate enough to get a job while still in college at a small web firm in Chicago. I’ve been with them ever since.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway?

ROUGEUX

Stick with what you love doing. It sounds cliché but it’s true. There isn’t one guaranteed way to get what you want but if you keep doing what you enjoy, things tend to happen naturally and that seems like the best course of action—at least it has for me.

INTERVIEWER

Your project, ‘Literary Constellations’ provides a fascinating and unique visualised insight into both literature, and writing in general. What do you think using and presenting data in this way can tell us about the craft of writing?

ROUGEUX

Honestly, I don’t think it can tell us much about the craft of writing other than there’s no pattern or consistency to how to write a great story. Trying to read too much into it likely won’t result in any deep revelations—though if there are any, I’d be very pleasantly surprised! This project was something of an accident that I stumbled on when exploring different types of data. I’m just pleased that it came together so nicely and that people enjoy the images.

INTERVIEWER

Keeping with the literary theme for a moment, if you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

ROUGEUX

This is a tough one to answer because I haven’t read the books that most people would probably include in their list. While I enjoy reading, it hasn’t been something I live to do as much as others. Rather than recommending any one set of books, I’d recommend that people read anything that piques their interest—whether it be the classics, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. Quite often, the “best” books are those that no one recommends and you happen to find one day while perusing a bookstore.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the relationship between digital art and – for want of a better term – ‘traditional’ art?

ROUGEUX

Art’s art. Digital art is just the latest iteration of the ever-evolving term. Form of art—digital, traditional, and everything in between—informs the rest. I don’t put much weight on the different forms of art because it’s all fascinating.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the digital art industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ROUGEUX

If I could predict the future, I’d be very rich. Since can’t, I’m not! I don’t consider myself anywhere near knowledgeable enough to try to predict could be a trend or future-defining. However, I’m fairly certain that the constant of “content is king” will continue to be true. How something looks can often be irrelevant if the underlying content isn’t interesting, useful, or informative. This is why the first thing I do for any project is to look for interesting information. Once that’s found, it’s just a matter of finding an interesting way to represent it—though I know that’s no small feat!

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ROUGEUX

First I have to think of them! I’m ways looking for interesting data from anywhere about anything. I have a few things in the back of my mind that am mulling over but they haven’t blossomed into anything concrete yet. Until the next big thing comes along, I continue to update existing projects like adding new songs to my Off the Staff project in partnership with the OpenScore project from MuseScore, which visualizes the notes in famous classical scores like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; adding new covers to my color analysis of The New Yorker covers; or adding posters as people request them for others.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ROUGEUX

I’m a terrible writer. How’s this?

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring artists?

ROUGEUX

  • Explore unfamiliar topics. You’d be surprised what you learn.
  • Experiment with any tool you can get your hands on. You never know when it may come in handy for its intended use or something else entirely.
  • Share early ideas. It’s hard but getting feedback early is very revealing.
  • Be grateful. The world is a big place so be happy when someone takes the time—even if it’s a few seconds—to check out your work.
  • Stay grounded. The world’s not going to take notice of everything you do so keep plugging along and build your body of work.
  • Keep the old stuff and the “bad” stuff. The first version’s usually the worst so iterate often but keep the old stuff. You can draw inpriration even from your own old discarded ideas that you once thought were ugly.
  • Be patient. Sometimes ideas come out of no where like a bolt of lighting and sometimes they take forever. Give them time to germinate and give yourself time to refine them.

 

To see more of Nicholas Rougeux’s work, visit his website.

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