Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Pencil Rules

Most of the artists, illustrators, designers and cartoonists I know start the same way I do: pencil and paper. Sure, there are some fancy pencils out there now, but the technique of choice is still dragging that graphite over the paper. These initial sketches are often scanned, and then cleaned up, revised, worked over and otherwise turned into finished art in Photoshop or some other tool.

It's been 45 years since Ivan Sutherland wrote the Sketchpad program for his Ph.D. thesis, and we still haven't found a computer drawing tool better than pencil and paper for those initial sketches. I'd like to know why not. Why are artists not inclined to do their initial drawings on the computer? It's certainly easier to make corrections and revisions, and it would allow you to preview a more finished looking drawing while you're still sketching it. So what's the appeal of pencil and paper?

One possibility is cheapness. I don't mean the cost of materials. Once you have a computer and software, the cost of making additional drawings is essentially zero. I mean cheapness in the sense that pencil drawings feel like they can be tossed out. On the computer, it's so easy to make things look perfect that I think there's a tendency to be perfectionist even in the early sketch stage. It's just too intimidating.

Another possible factor is comfort. You can sit in any position you like, with any reasonably flat surface in front of you, and draw on a piece of paper. At the computer, even with Wacom tablets and other accessories, you're forced to sit up in a more deliberate position. You can, of course, plop a Wacom tablet on your lap, but you still have to see the screen. Future technologies may make the physical activity of drawing on the computer more like drawing on paper.

One of the big comfort factors is being able to move and turn the paper around to draw at a comfortable angle. If you're right handed, for example, it's probably easier to make the 'C' shape than the 'D' shape. Some tools (e.g., Painter) can do this, and I expect to see it in Photoshop at some point.

For me, one of the things I love about drawing in pencil is accidents ... those little blips, dots, unintential curves and jags and other marks that find their way into the drawing. The lack of full control is part of the charm. (Of course, I may just be less coordinated than other artists!) But that's the part that I find hard to replace ... the haphazard flukes of drawing by hand. When I try to draw an oval, for example, it looks something like this:

Then I redraw it a few times, picking the lines I like and ignoring those I don't. (Actually, the above is too perfect ... I did it in Photoshop since I don't have a scanner handy.) I unconsciously make lines lighter or darker depending on how tentative I feel about them. As I go over the pencil drawing, with more confidence, I automatically darken the lines I like.

Certainly this can be done with digital tools. But it won't be unless there's an economic justification for it. Will Adobe sell more copies of Photoshop if they make it more pencil-and-paper-like?

What are your reasons for choosing pencil and paper or some other tool?

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Value of Hand Crafts

An article in yesterday's Boston Globe, titled Handcrafted Data, examines why many reference works, such as anatomy books, birding guides, etc., still rely on hand-painted illustrations rather than photographs. The writer, Dushko Petrovich, largely considering the work of John James Audobon, basically concludes that this is because hand-painted illustration is created through a careful editing and selection process. An Audobon painting of bullfinch is an illustration of the archetypal bullfinch. A photograph, on the other hand, is just one particular bird in one particular setting.

Now, of course, with tools like Photoshop, you can combine photos, cull the best features, and come up with an archetypal photo of a bullfinch. But then the photo becomes an illustration! That process of selecting, adjusting and arranging is the difference between recording and creating.

To make matters more confusing, recording is still an art of selection. The photographer makes decisions about when and how to capture the subject before the shutter is snapped. That, in itself, puts the artist's stamp on the photo.

This is central to the topic of art and technology. There's a widespread misconception that artists working in digital media aren't really doing much. The computer does it for them.

Certainly the computer does relieve the artist of some mundane chores, in the same way that animators have assistant animators and in-betweeners to fill in all the drawings it takes to create hand animation. That doesn't make their task any less creative or artistic. The artistry is in the concept and in the judgement ... the choice of what images to use, how to combine them, how to present them, etc. All this, and many other conscious and unconscious decisions, determine what effect the work will ultimately have on the audience.

So the difference between the hand-painted bullfinch and a photo of a bullfinch is one of degree ... of how much and how directly the artist was involved with every detail of the image.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Logitech NuLooq

As I'm working on cleaning up a pencil drawing in Photoshop, I'm reminded of what a great device the Logitech NuLooq is. I wrote about this a while ago on another blog, but I've been using it more lately, and really loving it.

Basically, it let's me monkey with all the important settings in Photoshop with my left hand, while my right hand is holding the stylus for my Wacom tablet. This feels a lot more like working with real art tools, and not having to type keyboard commands. With my left hand, I can make the brush larger or smaller, zoom in and out, and scroll anywhere in the image, even while zoomed. I could add a few more functions, but I haven't figured out what I want yet. I can almost put away the keyboard while using Photoshop (except that I'm on a MacBook Pro!)

There are some other interesting specialty input devices, such as the ShuttleXpress and Logitech's own Space Navigator 3D Mouse, but these don't seem as well suited for graphic arts.

Unfortunately, I don't seem to be able to access any NuLooq pages on the Logitech site today, but it's still available through and elsewhere.

Friday, August 22, 2008


I've been on vacation this week. Back next week.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Drawing Arcs

In Adobe Illustrator, drawing an arc involves either filling in a dialog box called Arc Segment Tool Options, or clicking and dragging around on the screen to try to get something like what you want. If you want anything other than a quarter circle (90°), you have to draw it first, and then edit the endpoints.

I think there's a better way. You can try my approach out here:

The basic idea is that you first set the two endpoints, and then move the mouse around to balloon the arc to the right size.

So which method to you like?

Monster Laptop

John Nack of Adobe has posted about a new, massive laptop from Lenovo (the company that bought out IBM's PC products.) This sucker has a quad-core processor, up to 3 internal disks and up to 8Gb of RAM, a 17" monitor with NVidia video, and ... are you ready? ... a built-in Wacom tablet!

Yes, mainstream computing has finally recognized the importance of tablets. This machine is being targetted mainly at photographers using Photoshop, I think, but it certainly benefits all of us by raising the bar for what creative tools can be expected to be available on a laptop.

By the way, the title of this blog post, "I can has monster laptop," is a play on the "I can has cheezburger" caption that went with a cat photo posted on That photo and caption spawned an entire multi-million-dollar mini-industry of posting cat pictures, using them on t-shirts, etc. So there's another intersection of technology and art: viral marketing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Personal Technology

On another blog, The Tech Curmudgeon, I write about technology and what it does to society and, usually, what annoys me about that. Today I posted there about personal technology, and how it reflects our movement toward more intimate, private experiences and away from group activities.

But what's relevant here is that the nature of the experience is different in a private setting than a public one. Think about watching a movie in a movie theater, versus watching at home on a big screen TV, or a personal computer, or an iPod. If you're alone watching a comedy, do you laugh out loud? That's why canned laughter was invented. (Why they don't have canned "sniffing" for tear jerker shows?) As John Tierney writes in The New York Times, studies are showing that laughter is a social behavior, and that it's affected by the apparent rank or social level of the audience, etc.

So the experience of the movie or TV show is fundamentally different depending on whether you watch in a theater or privately. It seems reasonable to assume that this may also apply to listening to music, or looking at art, or any other kind of artistic experience. It also seems reasonable that it might apply to other aspects of our emotional state than just laughter. Certainly going to a rock concert is very different from listening to an MP3, though they're both electronically amplified. Does looking at a painting in a museum affect you differently from looking at the same painting in a small gallery or private collection? (I'd like to apply for an NEA grant to study this.)

The direction of technology seems to be pushing us more and more towards private or intimate experiences, and away from anything public. What does that mean for the type of art being created?

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Graphics Pipeline

Those of us who've hung around computer graphics for a while have heard the term graphics pipeline quite it bit. It's not used so much anymore because the concept doesn't apply to current ways of doing graphics, but I think it's still useful to understand and then forget.

Basically, the graphics pipeline is the set of steps that would carry a given work of computer graphics from the idea to the actual dots on paper or pixels on a screen. Generally, the low end of the pipeline, making actual dots or lighting pixels, would be pretty common to a variety of graphics software, while the high end would depend on what level of graphics you start with. One way to think of the pipeline might be:
  1. 3D computer models of characters and scenes
  2. 2D geometry (maybe from flattening the 3D model)
  3. 2D bitmap of pixels
  4. physical dots on paper or pixels on screen
This is a simplification, but the idea is that you start with some conceptual model of what your graphic is going to represent, and then it passes through all the stages of the pipeline to be ultimately printed or displayed. You could imagine, for example, a step 0 before the above sequence which consists of a script and some character designs. That script and character designs get turned into computer representations of scenes and actions, and those get further processed into colored pixels that get recorded on DVD, and voila! You have WALL-E or any of the dozens of other animated features now available. Simple, right?

It used to be that a 3D computer model would get turned into a bunch of 2D shapes, each with a color that simulates the shading of the 3D object with the desired lighting. Then these 2D shapes would get turned into actual areas of pixels, and these would get displayed or printed. It turns out, though, that it's more successful to go directly from 3D scene to pixels, without flattening the scene into 2D shapes first. The techniques are based on an approach called ray-tracing, where software computes the color of each pixel by imagining beams of light from each light source reflecting off the objects in the scene and reaching each pixel to determine its color.

If you're creating a graphic in Illustrator, for example, you're starting in the middle of the pipeline, around step 2, with 2D shapes. You arrange the shapes within the Illustrator composition, and they still get turned into pixels for display and printing. Even while you're editing in Illustrator, the software is continuously turning your picture into pixels to display it on your screen.

On the other hand, if you're manipulating digital photos in Photoshop, you're starting at the pixel level. The work of turning 3D scenes into pixels is already done by the digital camera. You can't easily edit the text on a sign in the picture, for example, though there are techniques for making it look that way.

So another way to think of the above pipeline is:
  1. Maya, 3D Studio Max, etc.
  2. Illustrator, etc.
  3. Photoshop, etc.
  4. physical pixels or printed dots
The graphics pipeline is really a way to think about various techniques of representing computer graphics, and how they relate to each other.

Friday, August 8, 2008

More on Drawing Circles and Ellipses

Ok, following my post yesterday on drawing circles and ellipses, I thought some more about the problem. The ellipse drawing part was an improvement over what most drawing programs do in that the mouse is always on the shape, so it's easier to anticipate what will happen when you click.

However, when you hold the Shift key down to force the shape to be a circle, the mouse pointer is suddenly cut loose, and can appear inside the circle. This is, I think, even more surprising than having the mouse be outside the circle.

So I came up with another idea. Basically, the mouse drags an invisible line from the starting click point, and whether the Shift key is down or not, that line should always bisect the shape you're drawing, so the mouse is always on the shape.

You can try this out here:

Again, I'd love to get your reactions, preferably as comments to this blog. (Just click on the "comments" link at the bottom of this post.)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Drawing Circles and Ellipses

All of the drawing programs I'm familiar with let you draw a circle or ellipse (oval) by clicking the mouse and dragging to set the two corners of a box containing the shape. This model has been around at least since the early 1980's, and has become more or less the standard. However, this is a pretty clumsy way to do things.

The problem with this is that the starting point, and the mouse pointer, are never actually on the shape you're drawing. If you draw a line, the mouse pointer defines the end points. If you draw a rectangle, the mouse defines the opposite corners. But with a circle or ellipse, the shape is somewhere inside an invisible rectangle that you stretch with the mouse, but the mouse never touches the shape.

I've always thought that a better way to do this is to put the circle or ellipse outside the invisible rectangle, so the mouse pointer is actually on the shape at all times. The proportions of the ellipse are still determined by this inner rectangle, but now you have more control over where the shape actually gets drawn.

To compare these two approaches, just try out

Note: You'll need to have Java enabled in your browser for this to work.

It may be hard to tell which is easier just from these isolated examples, without actually trying it in a drawing program. I may try to elaborate these examples later, but I hope these give the idea, and show the difference between the two methods.

Which do you prefer?