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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dear Wacom, Where is My Hoverboard?

Digital Painting is one of the most amazing technologies to hit the art world in centuries. It has affected the very way that people perceive and interact with information on a daily basis.
Most of the interest (and money) from the average person for art in this era is largely spent on films and video games. In 2010 $25 billion was spent on video games, and an unthinkable amount for movies. 
And currently the ones that are the most successful are extremely reliant on digital art for their visuals. 

Consider this from 2010: 

Perhaps because of this, most of the progress in recent years has been largely in the 3d field. Video games and rendering in movies have progressed at a frightening pace. Games look real. Animated films look really real. 

Yet, 2d digital painting tools themselves have remained largely unchanged since their introduction. Even though 2d is where all of it begins, in the conceptual and pre-vis artwork stages. 

The Pen and Tablet

For the input devices themselves, apart from pressure sensitivity, (which Wacom doubled from 1024 to 2048 in 2009) we have been stuck on the same technology for about 11 years now, with little or no meaningful progress in the area of actual painting. We have seen the tablets become more streamlined and get more buttons to do fancy things unrelated to painting, but nothing to actually really improve the input process for the pen. 

To understand this better:  Essentially what happens is, when working in Adobe Photoshop with a Wacom tablet, what we have is a binary input from the tablet that detects where on the tablet an input occurred and at what pressure it occurred at. This input is transmitted to Photoshop, which then rubber stamps a pattern on the matching area on the screen, and modifies this rubber stamped pattern based on pre-programmed settings. 

So in the end, it is synthesizing the look of traditional media by pasting an image where the brush tells it to. 

For the screens, we have seen Wacom do truly amazing things with the Cintiq, which allows input directly on the surface of the screen, creating the uncanny illusion of actually painting. And the Cintiqs are improving with each iteration. (A thinner screen surface, a faster response time, more pressure sensitivity, and so on.) 
But this improvement is limited to the tablet itself, and so far still nothing has been done to make the brush part of digital painting feel more natural. 

It could be argued that digital painting doesn't need to feel like traditional painting. That it is its own animal. 

 Consider the works of: 

These artists are taking the tools for what they are and are doing incredible things with them. They are blurring the lines between digital, conceptual, illustration, and fine art. They are taking the medium beyond itself. 
But I still can't help but feel that while all the other technologies, and specifically touchscreen and 3d modeling technology, are progressing; that input for digital painting is still in its infancy. Or at least in a sustained adolescence from neglect. 

So, to just lay it on the table, what I want is something like this: 
To work at 24" x 18" touch screen, 
That is as responsive as the Intuos5
Which allows me to use brushes on the surface to make the strokes.  

I could see this going 2 ways: 

1. A Supersensitive Tablet 

A tablet like the Intuos5, but that responds to all media that it comes in contact with (such as your hands, or a pencil or a traditional hogs hair bristle brush) and captures all of what feels on the surface, and transfers that to Adobe/Painter, which then displays the brushstroke on the monitor. 

Interesting developments along these lines can be seen in devices like the Optipaint.  (Article here


2. A Cintiq With a Fiber Optic Brush 

The Brush would have fiber optic bristles, which would transmit light from their tips (and if possible, from several nodes along each bristle as well) to optical sensors on the screen itself. If it were possible to have several nodes along the fiber of the bristles, then it would be possible to have even more input for how each bristle is bending, thus allowing the programs to render a much more accurate representation of the brushstroke you just applied. 

Patents for a brush like this already exist. Check this outhttp://www.google.com/patents/US5646650

This would allow true to life brushwork and would be what I would consider the Holy Grail of digital painting. 

Note: Fiber Optics make the most sense to me, but then again, I failed Algebra 2, so maybe I am not going to be the first person Wacom's Engineering Department is going to listen to on what they should use specifically. I would accept anything that accomplished something similar to this. 

The traditional painters who are still reading will be smirking at all these hoops I am jumping through for this. 
(Hey Gerard, I have an idea, why not just paint on this new technology called paper with this new technology called watercolor?) 
And yes, I am painting traditionally more and more these days as my frustration with the limitations of digital increases. 
But I would love to see this technology become fully realized. The possibilities are amazing and I can't help but want to see them become reality. 

Why Do I Demand this of Wacom? 
Because Wacom has long been the industry leader in this field, and since they brought about some of the greatest advancements in the field of digital painting, I am laying the burden on their shoulders to take the next steps. 

There are already many other companies that are on their trail.  The Flow for the iPadThe Next Window for the desktop.   
But these are not true digital canvases.  They leave us with a sense that the technology exists to make this happen, but without anyone who is actually providing it. (The point here being that if Wacom wants to remain the industry leader, it should definitely listen to me on this, even though I failed Algebra 2.) 

Lastly, some might argue that this is the job of the programs themselves. The 2 industry giants being Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop

Here is why this won't happen from them: Adobe has improved a little (for the digital painter) in the last decade. It is overall more stable than it was, and its brushes are on their way to catching up with those of Painter. But with their pending move towards a renting "cloud" model after CS6, I am doubtful that we will ever again see any meaningful progress from them. When a company has a captive user market, that must pay them a monthly fee to even use their product, then that company no longer has any incentive to improve its product. Whereas before, they had to at least have the appearance of new features to entice the user market to pay for an upgrade. 

With the new cloud model the users will be paying more than they were before, and with no likelihood of any real improvements. I am not counting on them to have much to do with improving the state of digital painting tools. 

(Wether the cloud model is a good idea or a bad idea is a subject we might take up in a future discussion. The question of what to do about piracy is a legitimate concern on their part. The monthly usage fee for a program that may cease improving itself is a legitimate concern on ours.) 

Too Long; Didn't Read: 
I want you Wacom, to take the current Wacom pen, which is a marvel, and multiply it times 100. I don't care if you have to do it with nanobots, gel, cold fusion or beaver pelts. Just make it happen.  
We are counting on you for this.  

And for our hoverboards. Thank you.

No beaver pelts were hurt in the making of this article.  Please send all other complaints to: JustinGerardillustration (at) gmail (dot) com.


  1. great read! thanks for the info. I've wondered about this topic as well, although not as in depth. I think that with how much money comes in from the entertainment biz, this sort of thing could happen if people like yourself who work in it, demand it. it is crazy how fast technology advances in these sorts of areas!

    I have also wondered, that if the people creating these things love art, and love working digitally it is only a matter of time.

    Do you think that it matters to those who never learn traditional media? and if we focus so much on the digital, will the desire for the feeling of traditional functionality be gone, and thus no use for a screen that can sense fibers of a brush etc?

    i hope not. I hope we don't loose a love of traditional practice as well.
    I've been wanting a hover board as well, and I support this message.

    1. Well, to be honest I think everyone should learn traditional before going digital :)

      And I can see what you are saying about the culture perhaps losing a desire for the feel of traditional functionality as it goes more and more digital. But even if that does become the case, I think there will still be a demand for a tool that offers more input control than the current pen tool.

      I also sort of think that while new technology is great, there has to be something said for a device (like the brush) that man has been using for millennia to create art with.

      I'm with you, I hope we don't lose the love of traditional practice either.

  2. I completely agree, but I think most weirdness in digital painting could actually be solved by one thing: a better active cursor for the stylus. Right now none of the programs are showing you exactly what the stylus in its current position will do when you start painting, or giving clear feedback on how your brush will react to change in pressure/angle/etc. The stupid brush preview window in Photoshop doesn't count because it breaks all sorts of rules for intuitive design.

    That said, I would love to see a flat brush design from Wacom. Something that allows you to use the 4d pen features but gives you correct response for the corners would be awesome. With a live view of what's happening with the cursor, especially awesome. And don't take away my thumb buttons this time!

    1. That is a great idea. It seems like you would almost have to include the active brush view as a window in the UI.

  3. Justin, have you seen this? http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/digitalart/

    Unfortunately it's only available as part of an interactive space at MoMA. But the kinds of tools you describe above are coming. It's just a matter of time.

    I'd like to hear you expand further on why there's such a disparity between the advances in 3D vs. 2D art technology. Is it because 3D is where the money is? Is it because the 2D tools are considered "good enough"?

    For many years 3D has been playing catch-up to 2D. In video games, for example, there was a period where 3D game artwork almost always looked worse than 2D game artwork, simply because in 2D you could control each pixel. You could do complex animations on the cheap using sprites. Mimicking the same movement, texture detail, etc. in 3D was difficult given the computational constraints at the time.

    Even today, I imagine the thumbnails you linked to above would be pretty difficult to pull off using 3D, whereas someone could conceivably use MS Paint to draw them one pixel at a time.

    In 2D you are directly creating and manipulating the end result, whereas in 3D you are creating a model (not just the objects themselves, but cameras, materials, lighting, etc.) to create the end result. 3D is more indirect, but also more powerful. Having the model that creates the end result is like having a tiny snowglobe, rather than just a photograph of a snowglobe. Want to view it from different angles? Rotate the snowman? Easy. But in 2D those kinds of changes can be ridiculously time consuming.

    Maybe the advances in 3D are related to this power and flexibility, coupled with the challenges that stem from its newness. People are motivated to overcome the (numerous) challenges because of the payoff, and so it moves faster.

    I'm sure there are an equal number of challenges waiting to be solved in the 2D space. But the payoff is less, so it advances more slowly.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Hi Ehren,
    Thanks for writing and the great points!

    I have seen the Moma installation, and am not convinced that it is using anything superior to what Painter or Photoshop already employ, except that it is touchscreen sensitive. It looks as though the surface isn't detecting each strand of the brush, but rather a single binary input, (the object touching the surface is at x,y point) which it then orders the program to paste a stamp of a pre-programmed pattern at that point on the screen.
    It's the right direction, but we need more.

    I think the reasons you listed for why 3d has advanced so much further cover the topic well. And you are right that for years 3d was playing catch up with 2d. I think as you stated, the payoff for realizing highly realistic 3d graphics is at the moment much much higher than it is for 2d.

    And also as you hinted at, 2d art is at a point that it can sufficiently do most all that is required of it. Especially since it is mostly used for concept and pre-vis art and for manipulating textures that will be mapped onto 3d objects (In the film and video game worlds). 2d is at a point where it can do these things well. We may literally not need anything better than CS5 and an Intuos4 for these areas.

    It is only for illustration and fine art painting where I find the 2d tools are still lacking. But because there is far more money being invested in 3d video games and films, that is where the development resources are going to be spent. It makes sense. A 3d world offers far more versatility and alterability than a 2d world for both video games and movies. Once you've created the world, its uses are essentially limitless. And if you need to change something, like lighting, time of day, or move your characters to a new environment, the changes are all relatively painless. Whereas with a 2d world, you are stuck there. And any changes to the world are incredibly hard (read: expensive).

    So it makes sense. And I can understand if the 2d illustrators are lower on the list of priorities. But I still think it would be a valuable tool for the art world and one that it appears current technology should be able to support.

    I also think that another part of the disparity is that 3d has been able to capitalize on other technological progresses that 2d has not. For instance, the faster processors get, and the more tasks they can handle simultaneously, the more functionality 3d has, both in games and film. The ceiling goes up dramatically for 3d with this processing progress, but since 2d's functionality was already fairly high, (since it doesn't require nearly as much processing power) we don't feel the increase in processing power there nearly as much.

  5. have you looked at leap motion? http://www.leapmotion.com/
    I'm waiting to upgrade from my Wacom Intuous 2 until this thing comes out. We'll see what it can handle.

    1. Hey they stole that from Tony Stark! Oh wait...

  6. I believe that Microsoft was working on a kind of screen that has cameras on every pixel, and according to what a read would let you use a stylus to lay down let's say a pastel, and then it would let you use your fingers to smudge it around... if you combined that would pressure sensitivity for the stylus, that would be pretty neat

  7. I just bought the Intuos5 Touch, not very far from what you say. You can pilot many things just with your fingers. I still couldn't configure it perfectly, but you can drive things like opacity or brush size, just with the wheel on the side and some menus.

    So far there are some interesting things, but nothing that would really be complete enough. For instance there is an app (I can't recall where I saw this) that allows you to mix colours on a digital palette as if it was a real palette, then you can import the result into photoshop.

    So much potential

  8. Justin,

    You need to get this company https://www.sensubrush.com/ in touch with Wacom to create exactly what you want. The brush tip already exists. I believe there are approximately half-a-dozen companies providing these stylus types. (please note the website examples are on cheap iPad applications)

  9. more one cool thing... paint with wet brushes digitaly - I hope you like.

  10. This just sums it all up. I'm really pleased others are getting on Wacom's trail now because they don't seem to be breaking new ground much anymore. Not of the sort we need. I dream of the day I can work on a beach, or in a cafe, on a slim, lightweight, pressure sensitive device that doesn't cost more than the laptop which runs it. Actually, I'd probably be willing to pay more than I did for the laptop if it was as good as it needs to be! I hope whoever cracks this first make a bundle of cash- good luck to them.