Jhon Derry - Of pianos and oranges

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Of Pianos and Oranges

by John Derry



I recently spoke with Pedro Meyer. We talked about the tools we make at Fractal and how people use them. Pedro expressed an interest in the design process that goes along with creating expressive tools like Painter. What follows are some of my thoughts on the tool-making process. I'll start with a bit of personal background.

My own schooling is in the traditional arts. I have both BFA and MFA degrees in drawing and painting, as well as a period of living as a "struggling artist" under my belt. This provides me with a strong grounding in traditional expressive media. I was heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionist school, especially the work of Robert Rauchenberg and Jasper Johns. Both artists intermixed graphic imagery and expressionistic painting. As in their work, I employed a variety of techniques to incorporate existing images with my painting and drawing.



The artist Robert Raushenberg and John Derry the tool maker

(Photograph courtesy of Vivek Menezes)

My first direct encounter with computer-generated imagery occurred in 1982. I had the opportunity to do some freelance work for the local cable television operator creating "frames" of graphics for an experimental interactive channel. The idea was that you could shop, do banking, play games, etc. through your cable hook-up. To create the graphics, I had to work with special grid paper and a fixed set of colors.

For example, I'd be given a number of visual ideas to be used for clues that were part of a children's spelling game. I'd use the grid paper and color combinations to create a mosaic-like image of an apple tree. This frame would appear at the appropriate moment in the sequence of clues to help the player spell the word "apple". After designing a number of these images, I would turn the sheets in to the computer operator who would, in turn, keyboard the grid squares sequentially into the computer. The result would be a crude "mosaic" of the image on the monitor.

I'll never forget the first time I saw one of my designs glowing on the monitor screen. Some basic thing was forever changed in the way I thought about making images. This was something new and amazing. It was the birth of a medium!

As fascinating as it was, however, the method of creating the images was very foreign to someone with a background in painting and drawing. I spent a couple of years working for the Nebraska Arts Council as an artist-in-residence. This provided me with the opportunity to educate myself about computer graphics. I attended conferences like SIGGRAPH and took a few programming courses. I quickly determined my talents were not in writing code.

I also became acquainted with small software company in Santa Rosa, California. The company was Time Arts and had a product named Lumena. Lumena was one of the first PC-based paint systems. It featured a toolset that included pens and brushes. It was also based around the use of a digitizing tablet as an input device. This immediately appealed to me because of the familiarity of the tools and the stylus-based mark-making instrument. It also supported 256 colors, which in 1984 was rare for a personal computer.

One thing led to another, and I found myself moving to Santa Rosa to work for Time Arts as a demo artist. Once there, I quickly gravitated to the programmers. These were the people who crafted the code that comprised Lumena. I was fascinated by what inspired them to come up with the tools in the first place. They, in turn, were fascinated by my art background and talent. What amazed me was that they would lovingly craft a mark-making tool and then have little interest in using it. They quickly discovered that they could have me play with the tools and provide them with feedback as to how to improve it.

My rudimentary knowledge of programming provided me with enough understanding to be able to communicate with the programmers in their jargon. It was as if I was present while a blacksmith formed a piece of red hot iron on the anvil with a hammer. I had the opportunity to suggest certain bends and shapes while the iron was malleable. Once the metal was cooled down, I could look at it and see my contribution in the final form. I had been transformed from a tool user into a tool maker. I would never again be satisfied with just being a tool user.

During my tenure at Time Arts I became proficient at tool and interface design. I was able to fully exercise my skills on the design of a Macintosh-based paint application called Oasis. Oasis introduced the Macintosh world to the pressure-sensitive tablet. Time Arts had embraced CAD-based digitizing tablets very early and had kept pace of tablet developments as they occurred. We had created many tools in Lumena that used pressure in different ways. I was always advocating various ways of using pressure sensitive tablets to simulate traditional media. Oasis provided us with the opportunity to start from scratch and evolve our tools and interface to the next level. Oasis received a lot of attention but ultimately failed in the marketplace due to Time Arts' inability to muster the resources required to sell and market shrink-wrap retail software. The other reason was another piece of software that showed up around the same time...Painter.

The very first time I saw an early beta version of Painter, I immediately knew that Time Arts heyday as the leader in creative mark-making tools was over. It didn't take long before I made a beeline for Fractal. I immediately hit it off well with Mark Zimmer and Tom Hedges, the engineering talent behind Painter (and ImageStudio and ColorStudio previously). In particular, Mark had a passion for creating tools that simulated traditional media. We discovered in each other a perfect complement to each of our skill sets.

Now that I've provided you with a snapshot of how I became a tool maker, I'd like to step back and describe some of the guiding principles we have developed at Fractal that we use to keep us aimed at our initial vision.

One of the phrases we use to describe what we do at Fractal is "capturing the human gesture for the purpose of creative personal expression". In its broadest sense, this is what Painter does. Our approach to crafting creative software is parallel to crafting musical instruments. We create instruments of expression. Natural media software is the graphic equivalent of synthesizers that mimic traditional musical instruments. Along with this lies a deep respect for the traditions and techniques of creative mark-making tools. The way in which man makes marks to express himself has evolved over a great deal of time.

With the advent of the computer, many of the early techniques for digital drawing and painting were tailored to suit the strengths of the computer and its interface. The mouse is a good example. As a pointing device used in the service of navigating graphical interfaces the mouse is great. But when used as a expressive drawing instrument, it leaves a lot to be desired. I have often said that drawing with a mouse is like drawing with a bar of soap. The shape of the mouse does not provide the feel of a stylus in the hand. A lot of the mark-making characteristics of stylus-based tools are imparted into it through way an artist can adjust its angle an direction by wrist and finger motion.

More importantly, a mouse cannot detect pressure. A pressure-sensitive stylus is the optimal form factor to correctly duplicate traditional mark-making instruments whose tip is the delivery mechanism for the marks it makes. A great deal of the subtlety imparted into an expressive line by an artist is due to the varying hand pressure applied as the line is rendered. Pressure-sensitive input is only half of the story, however. Once the artist's gestural motion is captured, it needs to be interpreted by software that can do something with it.

Painter's initial charter was to faithfully replicate, as closely as possible, the catalog of traditional mark-making instruments used for expressive purposes. Mark and Tom's initial efforts centered on maximizing the data that streams from a pressure-sensitive tablet and creating a texture technology that interacts with the tablet data in real-time. Starting with the humble 2B lead pencil, Painter has grown into an extensive library of traditional mark-making tools recast into a digital medium. We use the term "Natural Media®" to refer to this technology. The library is by no means complete, but we continue to add to it with each new software release.

In recasting these tools into the digital realm, several major goals are accomplished. First, by utilizing the long-standing traditions of mark-making as a "first principle" of natural-media software, the computer becomes a valuable tool to the large number of people already familiar with traditional expressive graphic media. This has the benefit of allowing the artist's style to come through in the work they create with these tools. Secondly, by existing in digital form, media that were formerly thought of as mutually exclusive now flow effortlessly together. This offers the artist a greater range of possibility. Finally, and perhaps even more fundamental, is the fact that all of the major forms of communications media are now digital-based. Natural media software extends the range of expressive human gesture directly into these pervasive communications forms.

If re-casting traditional tools into digital equivalents were the sole charter of Fractal, my story would end here. But there is another core value we use to direct our efforts: Extend the range of expressive mark-making by taking advantage of the unique properties of the computer. In other words, to be able to make marks that no other mark-making tool has made before. This is the area that is most tantalizing to me as a toolmaker...the possibility of being able to contribute to the pantheon of expressive mark-making tools used by artists.

All art-making is wrapped up in creating a unique personal expression. A major challenge in working with expressive media is to take the same basic tools that have often been in use for centuries and arrive at a unique graphic statement. As both an artist and toolmaker, I find it particularly rewarding to be able to transfer this challenge inherently embodied in the use of the tools and extend it to the actual tool-making process.

A few years ago, the technology of 3-dimensional modeling reached the milestone of being able to render a synthetic scene with essentially photographic realism. My first encounter with such an image was a cover of Science magazine in the early '80's. It was an image of a Pixar rendered scene of a billiard table frozen at the moment of several balls in motion. The illusion was stunning. It was amazing to look at these images and realize that they were not of photographic origin. After the initial shock wore off, my response was, "So what? I can photograph the same thing much easier and less expensively." It took a few years, but the magic that lay beyond synthetic reality was fully realized in the landmark special effects that appeared in "Jurassic Park". Here, for all the world, were motion pictures of living dinosaurs. The rational side of our brains told us that they were mere cinematic illusion, and yet our eyes told us we were seeing the impossible.

For me, it is this magic that lies beyond mere imitation I find the most exciting. In 1992, Mark and I were sitting at an outdoor cafe during SIGGRAPH in Chicago. We were having one of our first brain-storming sessions. I pointed at some trees across the street and asked him why I should have to hand paint every leaf on a depiction of a tree. Couldn't we take advantage of the power of the computer to somehow sample an image of a tree and then allow it to proceed and just generate more "tree"? Well, it turns out that is no simple request, even with the power of a computer. What we did ultimately end up with is what we call the Image Hose.

The Image Hose is a mark-making tool that uses any group of image elements as a content source and sprays it onto the digital canvas. Using my tree story as an example, you can take a photograph of a tree, scan it into Painter and proceed to use various masking tools to extract individual leaf elements and then spray them out of the Image Hose. The result looks remarkably close to real leaf clusters with the benefit of being able to create an endlessly random tree texture. Once you grasp the technique of the Image Hose, the possibilities are endless. So, here is an example of a tool that uses the fundamental traditions of expressive mark-making as well as extends its vocabulary.

Another example of extending the range of mark-making tools is one that we recently introduced. It actually does "extend" expressive gestures: Net-Painter. As I mentioned earlier, all of the major communications media are now digitally based. A very high-profile aspect of this transformation is the Internet. Suddenly, the inter-connection of many of the computers spawned during the information revolution has reached a critical mass. The potential of an individual reaching a massive global audience has transformed itself into a reality. The meaning of publishing is changing before our eyes. Net Painter technology provides a way to broadcast, via the Internet, creative human gestures interactively to a far-reaching audience. Additionally, it is possible for real-time collaboration on a single image among several people to occur. Net Painter is so new we don't even know at this point exactly what impact it will ultimately have.

Who do we make these tools for? How do we intend for them to be used? I said earlier that we are close cousins to musical instrument makers. I believe our mutual intent is similar with regard to whom we make these instruments for. We initially draw upon our own experience and expertise creating art and then strive to craft the best possible expressive tools that we can. After the tools are in use, our users become co-collaborators by providing us with feedback. Our users, as well as musical instrument users, constitute a wide talent range. And, like a musical instrument such as a guitar or piano, they can be used to create great works of art or absolute drivel.

This is not to say that these tools should not be available to the casual user or hobbyist. A great deal of satisfaction (and frustration) can be experienced through interaction with creative tools, even for a novice. But it is only through disiplined experience with a creative medium that one comes to master personal expression. I can roll an orange on the black keys of a piano and make pretty sounds, but it may not be music.

I don't believe that a toolmaker should judge whether or not the output of their instruments in others' hands is "art". What is absolutely crucial is that they be filled with the zeal to create the best possible instruments their collective talents can muster. Just as the tools are capable of creating art, there is an art to creating the tools. As a toolmaker, the first person I must please is myself.

You can contact John Derry at FractlDsn1@aol.com

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