Thursday, November 10, 2016

Art creation software as of 2016

Art creation software - recollections from the olden days and now it's late 2016.

What am I looking for?
I wonder why - with all the years and all the time to develop so much better tools - we still work with mostly 1994 technology and tool metaphors that predate that by decades - and, I sometimes wonder - with all the potential that the computer offers - we still work within a very narrow focus of what makes a good software's purpose and what makes good tools or good processes for the tools.
I wonder also why developers of software and users are still - as I am much of the time - fixated on recreating with software artistic tools that mimic traditional media (real world) tools and effects.

In a way - I know that the tool metaphors are imitations of real world tools because no one really knows how to make tools that work outside traditional tools focus of communication. Basically - we make tools that mark things because we know tools that mark things and know what the markings are about.
But inside this marking metaphor, there are areas that I am surprised haven’t been addressed. Maybe for lack of thinking of them - or maybe for lack of anything but an adventurers willingness to explore for exploring sake - the options that might be available with tremendous computing power.
Look how long it took just to get multiple undo on basic desktop software.
Image how long it may take to make something that can allow unlimited re-editing at multiple levels.
Editing of everything - color, form, texture, scale, shape, movement… Maybe interactively in ways barely imagined...

I like (good) digital software for making art. I like making art with digital tools. I like to hunt up and try out tools.
I even like some less than particularly deep or complex software - the way I like a basic school 2B pencil - I can get an amazing amount of expression done with minimal tools.

I have been working with various software applications for 26 some years. Starting with proprietary software developed for coloring and animating by American Film Technologies, around 1990.
Back then - on state of the art PC’s 386’s running some variant of a DOS shell and some - for the times - excellent vector based animating software.

In the early 90’s I picked up Mac skills and learned to work with EA’s art software Studio 8 and Studio 32.
Studio 8 was a brilliant bit of 8 bit art software. A few hundred Kb for the whole application. Sure - it was 8 bit no antialiasing (Studio 32 did have anti-aliasing), 72 dpi - but if you had the art skills to begin with you could make some fantastic imagery with that tool. Studio 8 dictated less about how art will look than the artist. That is the factor I continue to judge all software by. Can I make something wonderful (looking) - and have that something not look like the byproduct of the applications limitations.

Thru the nineties I worked with Adobe Photoshop, version 2.5 on. I loved version 3 and 4 which laid down the real core elements of the program - drawing tools, Layers, multiple undo and layer Blending Modes. Just about everything that has followed those basics have been functional fluff. I admit the newer Brush engines are great - but not wildly greater than other imitation brush engines nor enormously greater than the old PS4 brush potential.

I worked a little with the Painter packages of the day - but found that the UI of Painter superseded the cool painting options and interfered with the creative (marking) processes as mush as expanded or facilitated them.
I worked a tiny bit with Adobe Illustrator in the early 90’s as well - but just couldn’t see the output equaling the effort with Illustrator. Maybe this attitude has lingered thru the years - because Illustrator is still a surprisingly hard to get results from piece of software. Its improved as it imitates other easier to use applications - but still requires too much of a battle - where it should (by now have evolved to) facilitate art making.
I also worked with the bitmap to vector conversion software Adobe Streamline - which was one of the first pieces of software I used that by its nature dictated a “look” that was essentially the same for any artist using it. This result was one of the biggest examples of software “dictating” a look that I had encountered and the limitation rankled me. This limitation also set a standard for me. Sensitized me to tool limitations on artistic effects.
Streamline was a very handy tool for some things - but both Streamline and Illustrator both dictated a look that was very difficult to rise above. The look that the applications generated could be identified - even when very different artists created material with the applications.

Macromedia Flash - to the modern day Animate
Right in the middle if the 90’s I picked up what was then Macromedia Flash. I started on version 3 (which in my mind was completely broken) and thank goodness version 4 came out just a short while later - heavily redesigned and thankfully influenced by Macromedia Director. I had been working with Director for several years (Macromind Director) and had a good mastery of its timeline and animation tools - even a smidgen of code skills. When Flash was redesigned to work more like Director - with Directors more logical timeline tools - I found a whole new world of animation opening up.

Flash was basically a desktop version of other industrial strength animation software on the market (way too expensive for the average artist) - but it made garage animation production possible for the first time. It leveled the fleld for many artists. It made animation production possible without big budgets. On top of which - Flash had its own interactive code - that could turn just animation into interactive activities - all running on the web.
What makes Flash (Animate) stand out far above the crowd:
I can give hundreds of reasons why Flash is a brilliant piece of software - revolutionary in the real sense - as it allowed the ordinary person to become dramatically more influential and come closer to near equal to the extraordinary than any other software of the time. No big industrial studio needed to make animation. Flash is a peoples tool.

I use Flash (Animate) today in my regular work.
My work is all about static interface or semi limited but often very involved animation. Wonderful things can be made with Flash. Oddly tho - in all this time - I see very few artists using Flash as an Illustration tool. By version 8 I could create most anything in Flash that I could in Photoshop. On top of which Flash output could for the most part be done resolution independent. Since version 8 Flash has had most of the core blending tools of other art software. All the core features of easy editing - multiple undo and layers and so forth. Using Flash as an illustrators tool still just doesn’t get much press.

Flash, now another Adobe product (has been for some time) is renamed “Animate” and is almost as good as it has even been as an art tool. I think the product is becoming a little less revolutionary as a peoples tool… Particularly as it accumulates old Adobe features that are at best limited - at worst - poor implementations of “artistic” tools… Tools meant to look artistic - but as a result of their own imitation  nature - don’t really enhance the application as much as set limits on it.
Illustrators “Art” brushes and variable weight editors are an example of tools (now in Animate) that - tho interesting - are not very practical, flexible or full implementations of the concept they attempt to imitate.

Some time around 2000 I encountered Synthetik’s Studio Artist (SA). By this time I was in the habit of trawling the internet for new art software. Applications were coming and going again - or changing on an almost regular schedule. I stumbled over SA while looking for art software. What's new - anything good?
SA was and is novel in several ways. My first encounter with it was a big “WOW!” I could choose one of its preset brushes and paint with VERY interactive results instantly. The look was VERY different from the Photoshop like way tools imitated at the time. Above all the experience was fun! I had never really felt that digital art tools were all that fun til I encountered SA. I have not put it down since. SA has something that many other applications that purport to take a traditional media approach don’t. It stays true to its digital nature while rendering results that can be as rich as traditional media.
SA is so feature rich it is literally mind boggling - but can be used as a marking (painting) tool immediately. Potentially no need to go further than testing and selecting tools and “painting”. Because the variety of what SA can do is so great - it actually becomes difficult to count on the application to recreate - never mind dictate - a look. SA became my new standard for application breadth. Its been 15 plus years working with SA and I am still both discovering new looks and processes and also still struggling to repeat my successes with the software.
What makes SA stand out far above the crowd:
Born of the synthesizer model - SA is all about tangents. Representational art can have a thousand surface looks. Experimentation is one of the features of the software rather than reliable sameness. The creator of SA, John Dalton also pointed out a feature of SA that could be found in no other art app. The “wet mix” quality that SA allows for almost all its presets. The highest achievement however in my opinion - SA is fun to use. Fun over finish. Almost all other software aims towards a standard quality of rendering that keeps the artist working down a track toward a very specific finish. SA doesn’t allow for a prescribed, neat finish - repeated the same way every time. For a working artist that's not a very commercial outcome - but is a VERY artistic channel for expression.
Why would an artist use this tool?:
The fun factor alone is like a ray of light burning thru the walls of grey efficient tools created for production.
When do you hear how fun it is to use software to just make marks on a digital canvas?
The door to experimentation is not only open but the walls around the door are crumbling too with SA. If you have a vision - but want to break from habits of training - the tools in SA allow you to ride a wild tangent like no other software.
SA can still be reigned in for consistent production of art. It takes an effort. Working with SA requires some old school traditional art style planning and execution - this too might be an artists helper by forcing a focus of intent - relying less on undo and recombination and more on deliberate “statement” and action thru the whole art process.
I bought this one early on because I wanted to work with it all the time unlimited. Easily my favorite software of all time and also easily the hardest to use. Very, very expandable with personally programmed art tool presets and processes, SA is also a wonderland of variety. I highly recommend this software as a part of a digital artists tools set for several reasons: Great experience - truly enjoyable digital tool. Unexpected variations of looks that expand the mind and potential style and intent of communication an artist can take advantage of. Great support. Great results - what comes out of the tools is magical.

Not long after encountering SA I stumbled across CreatureHouses Expression3 (E3). A vector based application that had integrated bitmaps (essentially bitmap mapping) into vector strokes and fills. E3 had all the vector features Illustrator had for creating art and added bitmap texture to the tools - taking the application to a new level in the field. The option to combine some of the rich texture of bitmaps with vector control and edit-ability made art making possible that usually required extra hard work and two Adobe like applications to accomplish otherwise. E3 was another application that could rise above a digital standard look by virtue of its extensibility. E3 had a cousin application called LivingCels - developed for animating. I never took advantage of the animation options of the software. Had Flash not been around LivingCels might have been a much bigger contender in the field. E3 was consumed and essentially dumped by Microsoft in the early 2000’s and never found wide favor amongst users comfortable with Adobe products.
What made E3 stand out far above the crowd:
E3 took many of the same vector tools as it competitors. The same tool metaphors - but added a dimension that solved some of the problems of bitmap based art - editing limitations - resolution limitations - and broke the barrier that separated the two formats. The richness of bitmap texture could be combined with vector edit-ability - easily - for the first time. What's more - from my standpoint and how I used the tool. I could create a look with an unruly but inspiring application like Studio Artist - and with just a little work - transfer the look to E3 thru the creation of bitmap brush sources and texture sources, taking the style experiment from the one application and recreate it - with more editing friendly tools in the other.
E3 was a very under appreciated piece of software. Tho Microsoft thought enough of it to buy it... (still didn't think enough of it to maintain it). The core of E3 has however made something of a comeback in the modern application Affinity Designer (AD). AD has not quite re-created all the features that made E3 outstanding - but the developers of AD must have understood that the concept behind E3”s features was brilliant. They are borrowing liberally from the original. I hope they borrow wholeheartedly.
E3 was a superior final art development tool.
I bought this one way back in the day and a year later it was made free. Worth the purchase and easily the top of its type. The developers were brilliant. Of all the applications I have worked with - E3 is the most artist oriented. Perhaps because one of the original designers/programmers is an artist?
I would recommend pulling the free version - last E3 version was from 2004. It won't run on most systems from 2010 on. But will run in emulation.

Little applications with big hearts:
This little application worked as an overlay for the computer screen.
What was handy about this - the ability to draw directly over something on screen comes in very handy when sketching illustrations for instance directly over a page layout.
The simple drawing tools - even a bit clunky - allowed for old school pencil sketch (with multiple colors) and eraser tool and little else (useful) - but that focus - on just sketching and the applications quick performance allows for fast image making and idea realization. Even tho the results of drawing with Ultimate Pen were crude and granular - I found the interface and environment liberating. Intention rules over any particular technical look. Working with Ultimate Pen is all about sketching. 
Why I use this app:
I have used this extensively as a way to layout illustrations for books. Open a books basic layout (InDesign file or Flash book or…) with book pages and text taking up much of the screen. Open Ultimate Pen and sketch directly over the layouts. Then screen grab the combination. A totally digital layout/sketch step. A very useful concept development tool.

TabletDraw seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. But… free (limited features) versions can still be had on the web.
TabletDraws limitations were a selling point with the software. All about a sketching experience. With a smooth line drawing action and on or off blending mode and layers and simple selection, cut and paste and distort tools and a few sweet features like rotating canvas… TabletDraw remains all about intent. This tool actually does limit artistic expression with its one option tool set. However, this same limit becomes a powerful pre-visualization tool as a result. A digital pencil and pad. I am sorry to have seen this software's development and support dropped… It's still runs on OS X 10.10 and remains a go to app for early sketching - but may not last much longer. It's a great concept development tool.
The free version did all I ever needed.

RITA is a still basic but usable vector based application that has so few features it becomes and intent dominated drawing tool. The tools work fast and smoothly. RITA can be all about a sketching approach. There are not enough features to get lost in or rely on for results. The ability to draw in large semi-transparent swatches - this application gives me an environment that I can draw in line art or a vector watercolor wash like look equally well. I have not once been able to take a piece of art to print quality final with RITA. But -it's a wonderful concept development tool.

This is a new little app that has a few basic tools that recreate simple traditional tools very effectively.
One of the few new tools that, like TabletDraw - because it does very few things - liberates the artist in me to just sketch and directly approach a painting process without becoming lost of fancy natural media emulations that distract from the act of communication. I have this one in my core tool set and make it an early go to for concept development. I actually would consider this a number one application for preproduction illustration. For making a visual comp that comes close to how I might want final art to look - rather than being a basic pencil-like tool like TabletDraw.
I bought this one. It was cheap. I got a lot more than I paid for. I can recommend this as my number one choice for a preproduction tool.


Why should I not include so many good tools in this list?
When I work on developing art work - I find certain applications stifle my creative impulses and others liberate them.
Some applications are super cool tools. Some have very clean and easy interfaces and tools and smooth, fast drawing and painting options that are exciting at first glance… But when using these to attempt anything from preproduction sketching to full digital painting - these same tools make me start to feel like I am embedded in tar and struggling to get the littlest things done.

A watercolor and other media emulator of the highest quality. Totally desktop ready and able to produce wonderful results… However while easily the best emulator on the market… I find it strangely less than satisfying. I won’t stop trying to use it - but haven’t made Rebelle my go to application.
I bought this one because I want to make it work for me - unlimited. Worth it… But I am still learning.

An up and coming imitation of Expression3 with many of the tools and features available - but some crippling brush and tool limitations that keep the application from being at the top. Maybe some of these limits will be overcome in future generations… I think the application is great and can make art that is excellent - and have some fun doing it. 
I bought this one hoping it would replace Expression3 which only works on OSX 10.6 or so… It's good and I hope will get better.
Totally recommend this software as a good and inexpensive alternative to Adobe Illustrator. The best of its kind.

Newcomer with potential AP could be a replacement for Photoshop… But the brush tools are not in the same league. Good, but awkward.
I bought this one hoping I could drop Photoshop if I needed to. It's not there yet, but getting closer all the time.

ArtRage is another very nice emulator. More a dry media emulator. Nowhere near the wet media powerhouse that Rebelle is. I have really tried to make ArtRage a number one go to in the past - but found I lost interest with the application quickly. The emulation may be the reason. Artrages emulation is effective but not fun. I can do anything in Studio Artist that I might want to do with Artrage and in SA's environment emulation is only one option.
I bought a version years back and lost interest within a year. It was worth the price - still is... but the thrill factor did not last not for nearly as long as I would have liked.
Nice tool. Worth the money for what it can do.

SketchBook Pro
SketchBook Pro is a very fast. very light - limited feature drawing tool. A good, fast to open and focused alternative to Photoshop. But oddly, for all its smooth sketching and painterly options - I never found SketchBooks feel liberating. I could draw nice smooth lines that stayed true to my strokes… But found the interface and apps surface environment cold. Great results - no inspiration - no fun or excitement.
I get a better feel from Photoshop.

Mischief again has smooth drawing tools. Layers and infinite canvas and other attractions. It works great and produces nice results. Same cold feeling when working with this tool. I am going nowhere with it.

Clip studio
Essentially a light weight Photoshop - but my experience with it - while all good - felt a little underwater… Something about the application makes me feel sluggish and uninvolved in the art... That dissociation is particularly unsettling.

All these and many more are decent to good tools. By being good they can be used efficiently to generate art… But the fun factor is missing to some degree in all of them. They are tools that work.

I should add that I use Macs. Some of the software above is Mac only.

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