Art Blocks: A Guide to the Generative Art Platform


It may seem like everyone, from Jack Dorsey to Lindsey Lohan, is creating NFTs these days. Celebrity NFTs may get a lot of buzz, but NFTs’ lasting impact may be more likely found in the art world, where the blockchain technology allows for new paradigms of buying and selling digital art. NFT tokenized digital art pieces are now selling alongside more traditional, “analog” art in premier auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

When diving into the world of NFTs and digital art, the name you’ll probably hear over and over again is Art Blocks. What exactly is Art Blocks? Here’s a primer.

What is Art Blocks?

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Here’s the bird’s eye view—Art Blocks actually doesn’t refer to a piece of art; it’s a digital platform hosted by Ethereum Blockchain that produces, sells and stores on-demand generative art. (Though some people will refer to the art itself as Art Blocks, que sera, sera).

That sounds kind of complicated because there are a lot of new vocab words going on. Let’s break it down further and get into how it all works.


Generative art: this genre of art is created in part by using random factors so that each piece is unique and created somewhat autonomously from the artist. A poet in the park creating a haiku out of words randomly selected from the dictionary, for example, is making generative art.


Produced on-demand: Art Blocks uses an algorithm to create the random element. Basically, you can browse the website exactly as though you were online shopping for a piece of art for your living room. If you find something you like, you can buy it, but instead of being sent a replica of what you chose, an algorithm goes to work making tweaks to the formula, and produces a one-of-a-kind piece in that style just for you. The result is a digital piece of art, which can be anything from an experience, 3-D rendering or cartoon, that can never be copied.


Ethereum Blockchain: Everything online has to be stored somewhere—however, you can’t just put digital artwork in a Uhaul and lug it to your storage warehouse. All artwork on Art Blocks is backed by and stored on Ethereum, one of the premier blockchains. That means you can’t just give an artist money directly for a piece. Instead, you make an Ethereum account and use Ethereum’s cryptocurrency to buy an Ethereum compatible NFT (non fungible token). This NFT is then used as the basis to create your art by a generative script stored on Ethereum’s blockchain.


In a way, it’s similar to buying a product produced by Amazon, sold on the Amazon platform and shipped from an Amazon warehouse. The special thing about blockchain technology is that it’s totally immutable—permanent, unchangeable, unhackable. So, your digital art is an investment that can be passed down through generations until the end of time.

Generative Art History

While generative art seems tailor made for the computer age, it’s actually deeply embedded in art history going back to the 18th century. While modern NFT based pieces use algorithms to generate the random factors that make each piece of generative art unique, the first known piece used dice. In 1757 German composer Johann Philipp Kirnberger created Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game) in which pre-composed phrases were strung together into musical phrases based on the roll of a die.

Fast forward to 1951 and the American painter Ellsworth Kelly kept the tradition alive in his Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance series by creating collages using randomly selecting small slips of paper representing different colors. Kelly’s generative pieces are currently hanging in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art alongside Matisse and O’Keefe’s works. Spanning every medium from architecture to literature and beyond, generative art is no fly-by-night fad.

Today, Art Blocks has sold over $100 million in projects within the first year of launching. World-famous auction house Sotheby’s even got in on the action, selling a lot of Art Blocks for $81,900.

Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance, 1951-1953'
Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance, 1951-1953′ | Source: SFMoma

Art Blocks’ Punk Origin Story

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‍Erik Calderon aka Snowfro founded Art Blocks after being inspired by the recent Crypto Punk craze where collectors became obsessed with algorithmically generated pixel art characters based on the 1970s London punk scene. Calderon laid out his hopes for the platform in a rare interview with Loop News:

“As I was selfishly claiming a bunch of CryptoPunk Zombies in 2017 I came to the realization that the blockchain provides all of the tools to allow folks to generate outputs without knowing the end result making for more fair distribution…I hope [Art Blocks] will actually provide a gateway into Generative Art for the general public that has not existed before. As a result, I hope that generative content in general, not just generative art, will reach a new level of recognition and appreciation that might not have been as streamlined before.”

‍Inherent in any discussions of blockchain is a narrative about levelling the playing field. On Art Blocks, anyone can log on, compare prices in the marketplace to determine what something is worth, and press “buy.” That’s pretty punk!

Recent Art Blocks News

On Oct. 1 2021, Christie’s auction house sold a group of 30 individual NFT-based crypto art pieces for 393 ETH, the equivalent to ~$1.3m USD at time of writing. The auction made history as the first ever live auction with bidding conducted entirely in ETH, Ethereum’s cryptocurrency. The lot featured the first-ever NFT based art project Curio Cards as well as a selection from Art Blocks Curated. The Art Blocks artists involved are: Snowfro, Tyler Hobbs, Bryan Brinkman, Dmitri Cherniak, Kjetil Golid and luxpris.‍

On Oct. 6 2021, Art Blocks announced to the public via Twitter that they had raised $6 million in a second round of venture capital from True Ventures. CEO Eric Calderon (Snowfro) explained the need for additional funding, “Cognizant of the bold career moves people were making to come work with us, promising at least two years runway, even if we didn’t sell a SINGLE NFT, was critical. There was no way we were going to let people jump onto this bus without seatbelts. We’ve been in crypto too long. So even hiring a few more folks meant that Art Blocks needed to raise again.”

How Art Blocks Works

During the initial mint process, Art Blocks will release a new collection. On the platform, a buyer will “mint” new pieces by purchasing an NFT. The NFT contains a hash — a one-way cryptographic algorithm that maps input of any size to a unique output. That hash will determine what the new, unique piece of art you receive looks like, according to the artist’s algorithm. So you won’t know what the piece you’re minting looks like before you buy it.

In order to purchase an NFT, a user must first create a MetaMink wallet and purchase Ether (ETH), Ethereum’s cryptocurrency. You’ll set a GWEI (gas price) that is how much you’re willing to pay per unit of gas. This isn’t slang. It takes a lot of power for third party miners to confirm NFT transactions, which is why some claim they’re bad for the environment. The higher your gas price, the more likely miners will prioritize your transaction. The first transaction to be verified is the buyer who gets the piece. If your transaction fails and someone else gets the art, you will still have to pay the miners your gas price. Keep this in mind when setting it!

After a collection is closed on Art Blocks, and the maximum number the artist has set to be minted are all gone, pieces are bought and resold on the Open Sea NFT marketplace.

‍For more in-depth info, Druid’s guide on Medium is a great resource for walking you through the process step by step.

Types of Art Blocks Projects

There are three categories of art on the Art Blocks platform:


Curated

These works are chosen by the Art Blocks team as an exemplification of the high level of creativity and execution possible in crypto art. Because these pieces are vetted by the platform and get special placement on the website, chosen artists often gain popularity and their work can become very valuable. The Curated section is the Art Blocks equivalent of visiting The Louvre or The MoMa. Projects are released quarterly.


Playground

After an artist has been chosen for a curated collection, you can find their new work in the Playground feature of the platform. The playful name reflects that this is a space for experimentation and for artists to explore what’s next for their projects. Individual projects are not vetted by Art Blocks but the artists have been, so you know they’re high quality.


Factory

This can be more of an anything-goes space. Any artist can submit their pieces to be part of the Factory, and Art Blocks will check to make sure it’s functional and not blatantly copying another piece before publishing. But that’s really it. The Factory is kind of like going to local galleries, checking out what’s new, spotting diamonds in the rough and eating free cheese.

Notable Art Block Projects & Artists


Chromie Squiggles, Snowfro

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Chromie Squiggles was the first-ever collection to be published and minted on Art Blocks. The OG project is designed by platform founder Snowfro himself. He considers them to “embody the soul of the Art Blocks platform,” and says they’re each his “personal signature as an artist, developer, and tinkerer.” Minting of the iconic rainbow-colored trails has been permanently paused, so no more will be made. Recently, a pair of pieces from this collection resold for ~$4 million. Individual pieces are receiving offers on OpenSea.


Fidenza, Tyler Hobbs

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Tyler Hobbs’ colorful project Fidenza is impressive for its ability to generate individual pieces that look incredibly different from one another in color, texture, shape and more. In Hobbs’ own words: “Fidenza is by far my most versatile algorithm to date.” Work from this project has sold for an astounding 3 million+ dollars


Bryan Brinkman, Nimbuds

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Nimbuds is a standout project for its ability to create not just images, but unique characters with personalities. The cloud and wire based buddies resemble a child’s arts and crafts project, and each new mint has a different emotion and facial hair. Currently, individual pieces from Nimbuds have offers worth $4,500+ and climbing on Open Sea.


Dmitri Cherniak, Ringers

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Ringers features art based on the concept of wrapping a string around a set of pegs. The project uses few colors: black, white and yellow primarily. Cherniak describes the inspiration for his work as, “There are an almost infinite number of ways to wrap a string around a set of pegs. On the surface it may seem like a simple concept but prepare to be surprised and delighted at the variety of combinations the algorithm can produce.” Some of Cherniak’s work is getting offers of $1.3 million and more on Open Sea.


Kjetil Golid, Archetype

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Golid’s project from the most recent Art Blocks Curated set explores how to create chaos from structure, and how to make randomness seem intentional. In his own words, “Archetype explores the use of repetition as a counterweight to unruly, random structures. As each single component look chaotic alone, the repetition brings along a sense of intentionality, ultimately resulting in a complex, yet satisfying expression.” Golid’s work is currently gaining offers on the low end on Open Sea, under a thousand dollars worth of ETH, but Archetype was featured in the historic Christie’s auction, setting its place in Art Blocks history.


luxpris, Elevated Deconstructions

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Elevated Deconstructions uses pastel blocks with an image of a large circle, with differing contents within. With simple black lines in rake-like patterns, the art gives the impression of a traditional zen garden. Luxpris’s work is also currently valued on the low end on the Open Sea market, but was featured in the Christie’s auction lot.


Singularity, Hideki Tsukamoto

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Singularity, named after the hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, is a current Curated project on Art Blocks. It balances themes of Symmetry, Chaos, Mass, Force and Turbulence. The pieces resemble black holes or eclipsed suns. Artist Hideki Tsukamoto explains how the new project works within their body of work: “It’s the final chapter in a series that works backwards towards Genesis. There are 4 ‘chapters’ in total, but Singularity focuses on endings: large, impactful, often vibrant crescendos of colour and light. Expect less chaotic, grand and colourful images within Singularity too but all the images should have their own aesthetic merit.” His previous work from Cells Interlinked is also available on OpenSea. Pieces from Singularity have recently sold for around $16,000.


Skulptuur, Piter Pasma

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This debut collection of work by artist Piter Pasma is an excellent example of 3-D possibilities within the platform. Skulptuur generates radically different 3-D contemporary sculptures along with color and lighting settings, as though each is being revealed in a different gallery. The artist set a limit of 1,000 projects and all have been minted. From Pasma’s artist statement: “This exclusive set of sculptures has been carved from a sea of infinite possibilities, much like a sculptor creates a singular reality from the potential in a block of stone.” Pieces from Skulptur are currently getting offers of $5,000+ on OpenSea. There are a small number of 3-D based projects in Art Blocks’ current Curated selection, a hard-to-pull-off trend.


Trossets, Anna Carrera

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Trossets is a celebration of diversity using colorful multiscale Truchet tiles. Carreras is a prolific artist, with much of her work based in experiences like Barcelona’s Magic Fountain of Montjuïc to Mediate, a multisensorial interactive environment for children with autism. This collection is a good example of the trend towards donating original sales to charity. 10% of the profits from the first sale were donated to the Marilles Foundation, an NGO for marine conservation, and 15% to OpenArms, an NGO that helps refugees that try to cross the Mediterranean. On OpenSea, there are currently offers out on pieces from this collection for about $5,000.

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