Don Bristow: Controlling The Chaos


A swirling spiral galaxy. An explosive supernova. 

Printed on large aluminum sheets, Don Bristow’s artwork seems to glow as if lit from within. Each design looks like something that might have been captured by a powerful telescope peering deep into space. But these images were not taken from the cosmos, they were created in a space where mathematics and art collide. 

Bristow, a fractal artist, uses a powerful computer to explore solutions to mathematical equations that can result in interesting, sometimes surprising
patterns and shapes. He uses his training in photography to assemble these patterns and shapes into one-of-a-kind compositions. 

“I know I’m looking for something beautiful, something unique that no one else has seen. I’m looking for compositional qualities and representation or meaning. Once I find something that might be worthwhile, as viewed in low resolution on my computer screen, I tell the computer to render that image and create a high resolution image file,” Bristow explains, adding that some images can take days to render. “Some can take longer. The technology is still not within my reach to do some of it.”  

Then the image goes into Photoshop for evaluation and correction.  

“Maybe one image in five has the qualities I’m looking for as a standalone piece or as a layer in another composition,” he says.  “And like any other art form, there are issues to deal with.  For example, where unintended motion blur is a killer to a photograph, noise is a killer to a fractal image.”

The technological demands of this type of art have taken Bristow on a journey that started over three decades ago. It began in 1981 after Sinclair Research, a company in Scotland, finally developed a computer that was affordable and widely available. Bristow was able to buy one with its four-inch thermal printer on his G.I. Bill student budget.  He also acquired the book, “The Fractal Geometry of Nature” by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. The book contained illustrations of fractal geometry that captivated him. As Bristow used his new computer to explore what is commonly known as the “Mandelbrot Set,” he began to see inexplicable patterns develop when plotted on the tiny printer. Bristow tells how he would run the ZX81 computer for days and weeks as it printed a dot every 30 seconds or so, eventually producing long strips of paper with intermittent but mysterious patterns. Each day brought Bristow a new discovery and a heightened interest in fractal mathematics.

Intrigued, he kept contemplating the beauty of fractal geometry but also worked to finish his degrees in teaching and mathematics at California State University Sacramento. He taught high school mathematics for two years and then spent 20 years in the software development industry before changing careers again and becoming a professional photographer in 2003. 

“By 2006, I had already had 18 exhibits of my fine art photography work, and the computer and printer technologies in my studio were magnitudes beyond what I had in 1981,” Bristow remembers.  “On my shelf sat my dusty copy of Benoit Mandelbrot’s book, and as soon as I opened it again so also began a perfect storm of mathematics, computer technology and art.”

As he returned to the equations he once explored in black and white, they had both beauty and familiarity. Some resembled living cells viewed under a microscope while others appeared to be a view of the cosmos through a telescope. New technology now allowed Bristow to assign color values to variables such as velocity, acceleration and proximity. The result was breathtaking. 

“I took a couple of samples to a well-respected gallery in California that represented me as a photographer,” Bristow says, “and I asked the owner and curator if she would consider it to be art. She was amazed and intrigued, and she encouraged me to continue to pursue mathematics as an art form.” 

In 2007, Bristow and his wife Sandy moved to Bullard, following a job offer.  “The new job gave me more time to develop my fractal art,”  Bristow claims, “and I named my new series ‘CHAOTICA’ after Chaos Theory, the field of mathematics that contends there is order in chaos.”  

A year later, the very first finished piece of Chaotica arrived in a crate.  “Sandy and I were astonished when I opened the crate and pulled out ‘Vapor Sphere’,” Bristow shares. “It was one thing to see it on a computer screen. It was something entirely different to see it printed 48 inches by 48 inches on aluminum. I was so excited that I immediately called a neighbor to get her opinion. She came over and, when she saw it hanging in the foyer, said she had to have one. So I had my first sale within 10 minutes of uncrating my first piece. She saw something in it that had significance for her.” 

That seems to be how most people view Bristow’s art. He calls it “representational fractal art” because each viewer can associate a different meaning with what they see in the image. Very few realize upon first looking at it that each piece is generated from one or more mathematical equations. 

“Some people don’t realize it’s math unless I tell them it’s math. People interpret it differently depending on how they see things. When some people find out that it is math, they are even more interested,” Bristow says.

Bristow launched his series CHAOTICA to the public on New Year’s Day 2009 at Cafe Tazza in Tyler.  “I really didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if people would love it or hate it. I only knew they would have probably never seen anything like it.”

CHAOTICA was so well received that he was invited to be the featured artist at the 2009 eTX Natural Wellness Expo later that year. He's since had 13 shows in Texas Hill Country, DFW, and as far as West Virginia. While all of his sales have been to private collectors, he believes the best application for his work is commercial interiors, especially the walls of corporate offices where, he believes, his work can stimulate creative thinking. Finished pieces come in a wide range in sizes, from single 24” x 24” panels up to six 4’ x4’ panels spanning 24 feet across.   

While fractal art is still considered an experimental art form, it is not new. In fact, it’s something more and more people are discovering and posting on the Internet. But Bristow is critical of a lot of what he has seen. 

“There is so much bad stuff out there that fractal art has a bad reputation,” Bristow claims, adding that composition more often than not takes a back seat to coolness. 

So if there are so many people out there doing it, wouldn’t everyone start making the same patterns and designs?  Bristow says, "no." “The equations that are being used to create fractal art are infinite, and each one can be manipulated by tweaking variables. Things really start to get interesting when zooming-in, panning and rotating. It’s a big universe. The chances of two fractal artists stumbling on the same image and thinking it’s good... it’s almost mathematically impossible,” he says.  

As he has worked to develop his discipline, Bristow continues to create and innovate. He has recently ventured into having his art printed on acrylic.  “Acrylic as a medium has taken over a year to perfect,” Bristow explains. “I worked with a plastics company and two printing companies before achieving a product I was satisfied with.”  

His first piece on acrylic, entitled “Coral Reef,” is a triptych having three layers, with each layer a rendering of the same equation but with varying zoom values and color assignment. The result is a piece that  seems to have depth, almost imitating the movement of the ocean when the viewer changes angles. The medium he chooses is often dictated by the composition itself. If a piece has white in it, then aluminum is the best choice because of its brightness. But acrylic gives the illusion of depth, so it’s the best for multi-layered compositions. 

Composition also dictates the number of square panels each piece spans. Bristow allows himself up to six panels, but only if a piece meets certain guidelines. Each panel needs to be unique from the others; each panel needs to stand by itself as a piece of art without the other panels; and each panel must work with the others to make the overall work better than the individual panel by itself.

While Bristow is proud of his art, he insists he cannot take full credit for it. 

“I’m dependent on Benoit Mandelbrot and other mathematicians, on technologies including computers, printers, ink and specialized media, on software developers, and on the Internet to connect the dots.  While equations may be discovered or invented, no man can take credit for the beauty that’s there to behold. Mathematical nature exists whether we can see it or not, invent it or not. I didn’t invent it. I’m just a photographer who does ‘photography’ with equations, similar to a nature photographer,” Bristow says.

This attribution of his art to a higher power is also why Bristow feels called to use his art to help those who are less fortunate. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of his art goes to support missions by the International Institute of SPORT (IIOS) and Operation Go Quickly. The IIOS provides opportunities for disabled people to participate in adaptive sports designed for people with missing limbs. IIOS has assisted athletes in the Paralympic Games, Veterans Wheelchair Games and the World Amputee Football Federation. For more information, visit Operation Go Quickly is a Christian ministry that improves the quality of life for disabled and underprivileged people, particularly those in developing countries. For more information about Operation Go Quickly, visit 

Bristow feels a pull to create his art and a similar pull to help others. He’s appreciative of the opportunity to do both. “This is why I create my art. I’ve sold a dozen or so pieces, but that doesn’t even dent the need,” Bristow explained. 

CHAOTICA is on display at Gold Leaf Gallery at 4518 S. Broadway Ave. in Tyler, at Executive Interiors in Irving, Texas, and Faux Artistry and Designs in Naples, Florida. For more information about Don Bristow and CHAOTICA, visit 


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