This App Turns Your Life into a Color Wheel

Arthur Buxton's new app turns users' image data into colorful, chronological visualizations.

Jun 23 2014, 9:30am
Images: Arthur Buxton

As an artist and printmaker, Arthur Buxton is interested in color's capacity to tell stories, especially through data visualizations. In 2011, he scoured Vogue magazine for color trends, and visualized them with color extraction software. Buxton then found his current artistic preoccupation after hitting on the idea to distill stories in circular, chronological format with color charts. Buxton calls these digital creations "colourstories," and he wants to open up the process to everyone.  

With his new Colourstory app, Buxton is giving users the power to create, share, and play "abstract representations" of their lives. As Buxton told me, Colourstory accesses any set of images, automatically extracts the main colors from each one, and then presents them proportionally.

"Colourstory will re-assemble the resulting colour charts in chronological order," he said. "Your resulting colourstory is ready to share or order as a fine art print." 

Colourstory created out from Columbia vs. Greece World Cup game image data. Image: Arthur Buxton

After hatching the Colourstory app, Buxton refined the platform at the WebStart Bristol incubator and the Pervasive Media Studio community at the Watershed. These two residencies gave him access to a number of programmers, engineers, artists, producers, and academics, who offered input and worked alongside Buxton on the project. 

To accelerate the app's design and release process, Buxton launched the Colourstory Kickstarter campaign on June 13. He and his team, which includes Seth Jackson and Charlotte Smith, are hoping to raise £6,000 ($10,207), money that will be used in designing and programming an easy-to-use, powerful, and free web platform. 

Buxton said that he was inspired to create Colourstory after finishing artwork for a guessing game he created in 2011. 

"I made 28 Van Gogh paintings into pie charts and invited people to identify them," he said. "This got picked up by BoingBoing, and I began selling them as limited edition artworks."

Arthur Buxton holding artwork that inspired the Colourstory app. Image: Arthur Buxton

"Through my Colourstory work, I aim to provide a novel approach to representing experiences and events," Buxton said. "When you treat colour as a form of data, patterns emerge. Just as Van Gogh's palettes are completely different to Gauguin's, your holiday in Yosemite told as a Colourstory would look totally different to my trip to India." 

Buxton emphasized that the human capacity for pattern recognition is integral to his work. The same holds true with the Colourstory app, which Buxton used to tell World Cup colourstories (as seen in the above and below images).

"The ability to spot patterns is innate," he said. "So, I've always been interested in simplifying images to their constituent parts."

"This urge might have come from growing up around my dad's paintings, which are very much influenced by his tutor at Goldsmith's at the time, Michael Craig-Martin, whose works often use bold shapes and flat colour," he added.

Colourstory prototype. Image: Arthur Buxton

Elsewhere, Buxton has explored colourstories with Snowman, Wild Things, and Caterpillar, works that found him paying tribute to three classic children's books: The Snowman, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 

"Using custom software, I've reduced each page in all three books to its main five colours proportionally according to size, then arranged each resulting chart in sequence," Buxton wrote on his blog in January, announcing a release of 50 limited edition prints. "As well as the dramatic difference in each illustrator's palette, narrative information such as day and night times are revealed. If you look closely you can even tell what kind of fruits the Caterpillar ate for breakfast."

Buxton also elaborated on his Colourstory idea last week for the Space's "Hack the Space" experiment at Tate Modern. He called the experience, which had him camping out in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with about 100 other artists, one of the most surreal things he'd ever done. 

Colourstory made from England vs. Italy World Cup game image data. Image: Arthur Buxton

"For 'Hack the Space,' I teamed up with David Haylock, a technologist here at the Pervasive Media Studio, who'd been experimenting with NeoPixels, which are LEDs which can display any RGB colour," he said. "We took Tate's huge online archive of paintings and using some code that David wrote, we created a light sculpture that displayed the main colours in each painting."

"The piece we made was a chronological representation of the archive, which takes about an hour to cycle through the collection of 4,500 images," he added, emphasizing the fun in bringing the Colourstory idea out of two dimensions and into 3D space. 

While Buxton noted the importance of flat color in his work, overfunding Colourstory's Kickstarter campaign would, like his Hack the Space experiment, allow him to explore colorful narratives via 3D items such as jewelry or textiles. For now, Buxton is content making the app process as quick and easy as possible. The idea, he joked, is to be able to quickly make a colourstory and share it on Twitter while your boss isn't looking.