Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 4 (April 2000)


by Barbara Robertson

One of the most intriguing questions about "computer art" centers on whether artists using computers work in a new medium or whether they simply mimic traditional techniques using digital tools. Indeed, most painting software programs make it difficult for artists to go beyond traditional techniques by offering them little more than the digital equivalents of traditional tools such as brushes, pencils, watercolors, charcoal, airbrushes, and so forth. Not that artists have objected. Quite the opposite: Artists have so readily adopted digital painting tools that the market for painting software is changing in two important ways. First, image editing, compositing, and effects programs now incorporate painting tools, and this obviates the need for standalone painting software for many artists. Second, the decreasing need for "traditional" painting software is causing some companies to cease further development of standalone programs while creating an opportunity for others to develop non-traditional painting tools.
· For example, Avid is no longer enhancing its venerable Matador painting software. MetaCreations wants to sell Painter 6, formerly Fractal Paint, so the company can focus exclusively on e-commerce. Discreet is announcing a new desktop program this month that blends paint, compositing, and effects into one resolution-independent program. Although Interactive Effects continues to upgrade its Amazon Paint, it has also integrated the painting software into its Irix-based Piranha compositing program. And Silicon Grail has opted to fold the open-source GIMP painting program into its Chalice software.
·"In the Macintosh market, there are enough graphic artists to sustain a small number of painting software products, but on the PC and Unix side, there isn't much of a standalone market. There, painting functionality is being integrated into core programs for compositing and animation," says Wanda Meloni, founder of M2 Research in Oakland, California.

But just as painting technology is being subsumed into other applications, an equal and opposite phenomenon is taking place: Innovative applications are being subsumed into painting software. In the new generation of painting programs, applying color is the simplest capability a digital paintbrush offers. It is with this new breed of packages-such as Alias|Wavefront's Maya Paint Ef fects, Pixologic's ZBrush, Right Hemi sphere's Deep Paint, and Syn thetik Soft ware's Studio Artist-that we begin to see the computer coming into its own as a new medium for artists. In these programs, raster and vector 2D and 3D graphics mingle in a "paint pot" that could never exist in the real world.
With Studio Artist, preset and custom styles can affect the look of several frames of video automatically.

Take, for example, Alias|Wavefront's Maya Paint Effects, with which an artist can swipe a paintbrush across a virtual canvas to create a three-dimensional forest. "I've been creating computer animations for 15 years, and I don't usually get excited about new software any more, but I'm in total shock that in five minutes I can create a scene with trees, ferns, and flowers, and it's an interactive environment," says Tom Casey, creative director of Home Run Pro d uctions (Pitts burgh, PA), a video production house. For Casey, this meant he could put a 3D T-Rex into the environment he quickly painted, and as the dinosaur stomped through the landscape, it could flatten the Paint Effects plants. "This blows me away," he says.

Casey's excitement is fueled by both the program's novelty and its effect on production. Casey first used a beta version of Paint Effects to generate content for a museum project that entailed creating 3D environments for animated 3D dinosaurs. The scenes would be projected onto five screens to fill a 210-degree "dome" that is 13 feet high. "Without Paint Effects, the project would have been very modeling intensive," he says. Using Paint Effects' preset sliders, he created brushes for painting Paleo lithic 3D trees, leaves, plants, and ferns. Once he brushed in these patterns, he animated the plants using wind forces. "It's a little like modeling," he says. "You put a flat plane on the ground. But then you pick a brush and ferns sprout up, and you have a 3D model of sorts. You see a representation on screen, and when you render it, you have a 3D model."

Created by Duncan Brinsmead, principal scientist at Alias|Wavefront, Paint Effects is, simply put, a particle-based system. Its particle-based brushes can be used to paint real-time rendered strokes onto or between 3D objects or onto a 2D canvas. Jill Jacob, product manager for brush-based technology at Alias|Wavefront, uses an analogy to describe how Paint Effects works: "I think of the paint stroke as being a furrow which you plow, and the brush as the seeds that you plant along the furrow. Depending on the definition of your brush, the seeds will grow into different forms."
To create a Paleolithic forest for this dinosaur to walk through, artist Tom Casey of Home Run Pictures painted the 3D trees, ferns, and flowers using Maya Paint Effects.

The software comes with nearly 400 preset brushes, such as plant life, hair, feathers, sea life, fire, rain, clouds, and so forth, as well as more familiar natural media brushes such as pastels, crayons, oil paints, and airbrushes. These preset brushes have as many as 270 attributes, which can be edited. For instance, the presets from various brushes can be blended together to create new presets, texture maps can be added to brushes, all of the brushes can be used in either 2D or 3D, and the resulting forms can be animated with key frame animation or dynamics.

"Paint Effects has totally revised the way I determine how I'm going to accomplish a shot," says Chris Spry, lead animator at Omnicon, a post-production house in Sydney, Australia. "It can be used in just about any scene, whether to add dust and gunk in the corner between the floor and wall to make an image look more photorealistic, or to add complex detail, which would have been painstaking to model. I'm really looking forward to seeing it grow as a product."

Currently, Paint Effects is included with Maya and works only with Maya, although another way of looking at it might be to think that Maya works with Paint Effects. "Our vision is to make more and more of Maya accessible through the brush interface in Paint Effects and Maya Artisan," says Jacob. (Maya Artisan turns a paintbrush into a tool for sculpting surfaces and allows artists to paint attributes onto surfaces.) "We want to be perceived as doing even complex things such as assigning soft body goal weights with the brush," she adds.
One of the reasons this image has such a three-dimensional look is because it was painted with Deep Paint, in which artists work with materials as well as colors.

Also introduced in 1999, Pixologic's Win dows-based ZBrush blends 2D and 3D tools into a new form by adding bits of information to de scribe such things as materials, orientation, and depth as well as color for each pixel. To draw a distinction between the pixels in a paint program and in ZBrush, the company has renamed its pixels "pixols," to signify that the pixels have depth. "Things in an image know when they are in front of or behind other things, but [the image] is not geometry, it's paint. You can do many 3D-like things, but you can't turn the image around or move a camera to look at it from another direction," says Gary Nelson, manager of special projects at Pixologic. Having said that, Nelson is quick to point out that artists can create 3D objects, one at a time, in ZBrush's modeling environment, and these objects can be placed into ZBrush paintings or exported with uv coordinates and textures. Or, artists can just paint. The result is an interesting new type of canvas.

Freelance artist Chris Senn of San Mateo, California, who has spent most of his life working on video games, describes one difference: "Imagine you have an orange character standing on a blue floor. In Photoshop, you'd have to separate the character or mask the blue from the orange to paint him a different color. In ZBrush, you can paint on the character without touching the background because of the depth information." The paint doesn't flow off the edge of the character. Right now, Senn is using ZBrush to create illustrations for a children's book, and to design icons for Web pages. "I can do 3D with a painterly style," he says. "It's so simple. 2D artists can create 3D looks without techno mumbo jumbo."

When people from Adobe Systems saw Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint 3D program, which allows artists to paint on 3D models, they liked the look of the paint but wanted to know if the company could get rid of the 3D geometry, remembers Mark Thomas, managing director of Right Hemisphere. The result is a Windows-based Photoshop plug-in or standalone product called Deep Paint. With Deep Paint, artists aren't simply brushing with colors; they're painting with 3D material definitions. "Essentially, it's the same product as Deep Paint 3D," says Thomas. The difference is that with the 3D version, an artist loads a 3D mesh and paints on that model. The 2D version instead comes with a 3D, flat plane that's invisible to the artist so that it looks like a typical painting program.

Because the paint in Deep Paint is actually a material in a 3D world, though, oil paints blend together and watery paint runs. Textures can be made of bumps, not just color patterns, and lights and shadows affect the materials. If an artist spray-paints graffiti onto bricks created with a bumpy texture, the underlying texture affects the way the paint hits the bricks. "Depending on how you set the lights, it might look shiny on the bricks, but not on the grout between. The lighting in Deep Paint is about direction and shininess, not about changing color," Thomas says. Deep Paint brushes and textures have numerous, adjustable parameters, and when the software is used as a Photoshop plug in, other plug-ins can change colors and modify paint thickness and shininess in Deep Paint. Thomas thinks that one of the best uses of the program is to turn photographs into illustrations in different styles. The program's "cloning tool" samples color under a brush tip so that an artist can "paint" a photograph using brushes of various sizes, paint of various thickness, and adjustable lighting effects.
3D objects in ZBrush can be merged into a painting yet retain depth information because ZBrush pixels have depth and color.

Synthetik Software's Macintosh-based Studio Artist painting software is not a blend of 3D and 2D; instead, it blends rasters (bit maps) and vectors within a totally 2D system. But that's the least of its innovations. The brainchild of John Dalton, whose background includes software for digital audio multi-tracking, Studio Artist is a kind of graphics synthesizer. It comes with more than 800 editable presets to provide such media as pencils, watercolors, various brushes, and materials. In addition, 230 controls allow artists to adjust the look and feel of the paint, and three procedural color generators can be modulated. "A brush could have three texture generators working simultaneously," says Dalton. "One could be an image; another a fractal. With many painting programs, natural media such as chalk and watercolor are hard coded. In Studio Artist, you can morph between two presets. Also, the 230 controls can be modulated, and the output of one can modulate something else," says Dalton.

All this modulation can happen automatically-the program can draw an image using a preset style and a source photograph. Or an artist can maintain precise control using a stylus...or do anything in between. "Even if an artist has drawing skills, it's nice to automate the tedious stuff like cross-hatching," Dalton says. "You can use Studio Artist like other programs, but the power is in automation. If you spend time learning how the image synthesizer works, you have extreme control. For example, you can draw with patterns, using frames from a QuickTime movie." The program looks at the content of each frame and tries to relate it to the underlying source photograph as it uses any number of presets to "paint" with the QuickTime movie. The result is a collage of images with each image's position determined by information in the underlying photograph.

Studio Paint is a hybrid between raster and vector: Under the paint strokes are Bezier curves that can be edited using control points. It also includes animation and time-based effects that will be particularly interesting to artists working with video.
A kind of "graphics synthesizer," Studio Artist gives painters hundreds of controls for modulating digital images.

While perhaps not truly unique like these hybrid painting programs, painting software targeted specifically at post production studios is becoming increasingly interesting as it melds with compositing, effects, editing, and 3D animation software.

Interactive Effects' 16-bit Amazon Paint for Irix machines is getting a workflow upgrade and a new scripting engine. But what gets developer Tom Benoit excited is the integration of Paint within the company's Piranha compositing software. For example: "We can paint on rotated and scaled images," he says, "or touch a brush to a picture and do spin art, or puff an image out in Z and make it breathe. We can draw on a com posite while it's com positing, or tie an in put sound to brush den sity and paint with it."

Discreet's new desk top paint and effects software, slated for introduction in April, offers vector-based 2D painting, 3D composites, an interface with the company's 3D Studio Max, and capabilities such as a motion tracker, stabilizer, color corrector, and keyer borrowed from the company's higher-end effects and compositing programs. The integration with Max means that an artist can paint in 3D space on layers and create animated texture maps and backgrounds.
To create the light streaks in this 3D station ID designed by The Attik, Chris Spry of Omnicon attached a Paint Effects brush to a Maya softbody curve.

NewTek's Aura is a standalone paint program; however, it's tuned specifically for video, and it's designed to work with the company's Video Toaster. "Everything inside Aura is designed to work with moving images over time," says Gary Porter, product manager. "We've stayed with bit maps rather than vectors because [the image] ends up as a bit map in the end, so we think it's faster. Because Aura has unlimited layers, though, we can undo everything so it seems non-destructive like vector paint." With Aura 2.0, scheduled for mid-March, NewTek added a 16-bit paint engine and audio sync.

Whether geared toward video production or opening new vistas in three dimensions, painting software is definitely changing. Is it changing enough to result in a new art form? That answer lies entirely in the hands of the artists who control these interesting new tools. It will be interesting to watch.

Barbara Robertson is Senior Editor, West Coast, for Computer Graphics World.

Painting software



Interactive Effects
Los Angeles

San Antonio, TX

Los Angeles

Right Hemisphere
Aukland, New Zealand

Silicon Grail
Hollywood, CA

San Francisco