Efficient methods for searching the chemical space of molecular compounds are needed to automate and accelerate the design of new functional molecules such as pharmaceuticals. Given the high cost in both resources and time for experimental efforts, computational approaches play a key role in guiding the selection of promising molecules for further investigation. Here, we construct a workflow to accelerate design by combining approximate quantum chemical methods [i.e. density-functional tight-binding (DFTB)], a graph convolutional neural network (GCNN) surrogate model for chemical property prediction, and a masked language model (MLM) for molecule generation. Property data from the DFTB calculations are used to train the surrogate model; the surrogate model is used to score candidates generated by the MLM. The surrogate reduces computation time by orders of magnitude compared to the DFTB calculations, enabling an increased search of chemical space. Furthermore, the MLM generates a diverse set of chemical modifications based on pre-training from a large compound library. We utilize the workflow to search for near-infrared photoactive molecules by minimizing the predicted HOMO-LUMO gap as the target property. Our results show that the workflow can generate optimized molecules outside of the original training set, which suggests that iterations of the workflow could be useful for searching vast chemical spaces in a wide range of design problems.