JOHN DERRY – interview
Ric Hi John and welcome to the Art of Making Marks. John Derry, you were a traditionally trained artist before you started developing and working with digital mark-making tools. Tell us what you saw back then in the early days of working with computers that caught your interest.
John I always felt like we were trying to be respectful to the traditions of expressive mark-making tools, so that they retained all of the same character and richness, but what the computer adds to the mix is that in the digital realm it’s a much more malleable medium and by that I mean it encourages experimentation. You can undo your last action and turn on or off a layer. I call these things ‘safety nets’ and just to know that you have an undo on Painter that goes up to 32 undos back, which means you can do up to 32 strokes. Not that you’re going to sit there and count them, but you can do a number of strokes, knowing that you can undo them and in traditional media you can’t do that, so you make the stroke you make. Some mediums can be very unforgiving, some other mediums, well, okay, you have a chance to kind of correct it and fix it a little bit, but the traditional mediums are so much more brittle. You do something and to undo it is generally difficult, if not impossible. On the computer, options like undo and layers just make it so easy to go into the situation knowing that you can try things out because you can do it without fear of permanently changing the work and that, to me, is probably the single greatest contribution that digital painting tools has offered. From the walk-on side of that equation, by preserving all of those expressive qualities that we already know through stylus-based instruments, like paint brushes, charcoal and even a pencil, the medium still expresses the same but there’s this new extra assisting structure in place that allows you to just try things out and experiment.
I remember when I first started working on the computer after coming out of that traditional world and let’s say, for an example, I’d be in some kind of design problem where by there’s a decision between a circle or a square. Your intuition and experience says, “I know it’s going to be a square.” So you go to square. Then the next decision is, okay, red square or blue square and you go, “I think a red square would be right”, and you go with it. When I brought that mentality to the computer I remember the realisation of having the opportunity to go red square or blue circle and even though I thought red circle would be right I could try out blue circle, just to see how it works and damned if it wasn’t better and all of a sudden, wow, I’m starting to see possibilities I never would have tried out in the past. There it is, that safety net and it’s so overwhelming at first, it just really changes your ability to do things when you realise that you can back up and try different ideas and visualisations.
My first real encounter with digital art tools was back at Time Arts when I worked around the guys that were programming Lumina, which is long gone now, but it was also sort of born out of the same kind of thought process. John Dunne, the guy, the artist programmer that originally created it, his whole idea was to create expressive tools for artists and so he was sort of the mastermind of the program. There were several programmers working on it and the interesting thing I discovered at the time, and this isn’t necessarily across the board, but these programmers kind of hung around in their area. I noticed that they tended to write and work on the code to get a tool working, but as soon as they got it working they would say, “Okay, it’s done. I’m onto the next thing”, and for me it was like, gosh, the thing I would want to do now is pick up that tool and use it and experience it and figure out what kind of expressive qualities it had. The thing I learnt was that so many programmers, I mean they have engineering minds, what they tend to think about is that the art and craft is in the code itself. It’s like architecture. How elegantly can they write this code? How few lines can they use to make a tool do something? How tightly can it be written so that it’s fast?
And so their art and craft is kind of – it’s like a cathedral. These are the guys that are building the building that is a cathedral, whereas the artists are the people that go into the cathedral and perform music and express their soul and it was just interesting to see that the very people making the tools had a distance from the expressive quality, from the tool itself, but quite interestingly, a lot of people that write code tend to have musical proclivities. Mark Zimmer, for example, Painter’s author can write symphonies and software. When you think about it, writing code is very similar to writing music and so there is definitely a crossover there, but a lot of times the crossover stopped there. They weren’t interested in using the tool they had created which became my opportunity to work with them, once they had figured it out and said, “Oh, this guy John he is an artist” and I’d say, “Look, I’ll try that out. I’m interested to see what it can do”, and these guys would come back with, “Oh how does it work John? How does it feel”, and so I was able to start feeding back to them what felt good about the tool or how maybe I would want it to be different or better.
This story I’ve told many times, but is kind of how I got into expressive mark-making software. I had taken a few programming courses, originally thinking I was going to get into the field by learning how to write the tools. I very quickly found out that I’m not a programmer and that I don’t have the kind of mentality and mindset necessary for programming. I’m an artist and that’s very different, but it did give me an understanding of how the structure of code works in programming and so the concepts were in place. So I remember one of the early tools that I was exposed to, was when a programmer created what turned out to be an embossing program. It would take an image and make it look like it was in relief or slightly raised. He had it set up so that it had three buttons, being light, medium and strong so that you could get one of three levels of embossing applied to an image. He asked me try it out and then asked, “So John what do you think of it?” and because I knew what was going on under the hood, I was able to say to him, “Well, now, aren’t each one of these three buttons attached to what they call variables in programming and so it could be any value?” He said “Oh yeah, exactly”, and I said, “Well, here’s the thing. As an artist, when you tell me I only have these three choices, I want all the choices in between those three choices, not just those three choices”, and that’s where I started to kind of push the programmes towards not limiting the choices. I wanted the full spectrum. I want that full range of values available to me, so that I can adjust it to my particular liking. I refer to that as “season to taste.” Artists in general all have a different feeling for how much embossing or whatever they want and so this led us to putting more sliders into the interfaces of tools where there was a range of values associated.
Sometimes Painter was actually criticised for this amount of control, because you can open up the brush controls and find dozens and dozens of controls. Every one of those controls gives you a particular control over the way that brush will react, how it’s expressing itself or how the hand, through the Wacom tablet, can create an expressive mark and so the downside is, yes, there’s lots of controls in there. Of course the upside of it is that you can absolutely, totally control a brush to be expressive in exactly the way you want it to be. I was able to grow up through this sort of software evolution from having very limited choices to being the guy that prodded all the time, saying, “But I want more choices. Can we have more choices?”, and that’s, I guess, one of the things I have tried to push through all the different engineering teams I have worked with.
I was just on the phone with Mark Zimmer who now works at Apple and I was saying how I’m still making my living with Painter. I never had actually thought of it this way before when he said, “Well, gee, John, if you think about it, basically Painter was custom-programmed for you”. When I think about it now I guess that’s true. So much of the way Painter works was born out of my requests and so a lot of it, yeah, in a way it was custom programmed for me. Hopefully I represented what many artists would have wanted it to be able to do and so, looking at it now. it just blows me away to see how far people have taken it and without any of our input anymore. People have just picked it up and figured it out.
Ric Well, John, of course, that’s why I’m interviewing you for the Art of Making Marks, because in a way it’s your fault that we have expressive digital mark-making tools that work in such a wonderful way at all. Tell us a little more about the early days of Painter and where it’s evolution fitted in with tools like ColorStudio and Photoshop?
John Well, Photoshop timeline-wise, actually I think it came out in 1989 or 1990 and Painter didn’t come out until 1991 or 92 and so Photoshop actually was out a little bit ahead of Painter. What was directly competing with Photoshop in that market when it came out was ColorStudio, which was also written by Mark Zimmer and Tom Hedge. Photoshop preceded Painter by a few months and the difference between the two software applications is kind of like the Beta format versus VHS. Beta was actually a better format, but Sony kept it kind of closed while VHS or Phillips, I think it was, had the lesser format quality-wise but it was cheaper and more accessible and so it won out just by being more appealing to the public at large. I think that’s a bit similar to what happened between ColorStudio and Photoshop. Letraset being from the world of graphic arts and prepress, thought of ColorStudio as this very specific tool that would be used in prepress houses and connected to Crossfield scanners and such. So they saw it as a very high-end professional product and so they appropriately priced it as such. I think it was like $3000, so it was priced for a market that wasn’t universal, but very specific. So the tools in ColorStudio were great tools, but they were in this high end of the market, whereas the Knoll brothers created Photoshop initially as Thomas Knoll’s thesis project, but then shopped it around and it ended up being bought by Adobe as Photoshop. They priced it at I think something like $299 and, even though the tools maybe weren’t as precise and as high end as ColorStudio, the price point was the thing that set it apart and just a whole lot of people could get it, whereas ColorStudio was just hobbled by its high price and so the rest is history.
Photoshop took off and ColorStudio just slowly kind of died away, but it was in that same period that one of the tools Mark was working on for ColorStudio was emulating a simple pencil and so, because they were working on Colour Studio, they had a big Crossfield scanner and all this stuff, because Tom was writing drivers for it at the time. Mark scanned some pencil drawings to look at them really closely and try to figure out what do you need to do to emulate a pencil drawing. One of the things he noticed right away was that it’s not just the pencil itself, but it’s the surface that it’s drawing upon and it’s the interaction of that lead with an irregular surface that imparts a lot of character into the look of the marks made by the pencil. So that’s where he hit upon the whole thing; that he needed to create internal texture that the brushes could be sensitive to and one of the distinguishing characteristics of Painter early on was the fact that it had tools that were sensitive and responded to a virtual texture. Painter came with a whole library of paper textures and by using different textures, even with the same tool, you could make one tool look different based on those textures. It was realised that by the using of pressure sensitive stylus to interact with that virtual surface, the tools responded very much like traditional tools did and the marks made with it were very much the same.
The thing that’s probably what I would say a big difference between Photoshop and Painter’s internal engines, is that Photoshop was ultimately designed to composite pixels and so, back in the era when there just wasn’t enough PC processing power to do nice, smooth airbrush strokes, doing blends and compositing pixels using and doing operations to combine multiple channels or operations of pixels and transparency or different blend modes, whatever, was one way to get around the lack of horsepower. So throughout Photoshop’s history I’ve always thought of it as a compositing engine primarily.
Painter, on the other hand, from day one was created to write pixels to the screen as fast as it could, in an effort to try to overcome the processing limitations and do whatever tricks or cheats you could do to make brush marks seem fast, so that they seemed real time. It wasn’t really real time but appeared to be close to real time and so Painter’s engine really is kind of a pixel blasting engine that writes pixels to the screen real fast.
So those two different kinds of orientations in the architecture of the products has kind of led them down the paths that they’ve gone and it certainly wasn’t by accident. I mean each product by design was intended to do certain types of computing activities and so Painter just really has excelled at making marks on the screen really fast and then, beyond that, putting in a myriad of different things into that stream from the brush engine, smashing pixels to the screen to do all kinds of interesting expressive sorts of turns and twists to the marks that it makes, whereas Photoshop, if you look at its brush component, it’s not bad, but I mean it’s only really kind of like Painter version 1 or 2.
I would guess, architecturally, they probably cannot do the same kinds of things that Painter does, with the speed that it does, because architecturally it’s so much more built to be a pixel compositing engine and maybe I’m off the mark here, but that’s just what I’ve assessed over the years. It seems like those two orientations give them two very different kinds of things that they each do well, but the good news is, together they’re just this amazing broad set of tools, and the fact that Painter can read and write Photoshop format, and you can move the imagery back and forth so easily, is just great.
In the early days I used to hear people complain and say, “If you use this tool or that tool, I wouldn’t need to have Photoshop” and I’m sure on the Photoshop side of the tracks they hear the same kind of thing, “If they put this feature in or that, I wouldn’t need to have Painter”. What’s happened in the intervening years, is that PC processor speeds are so fast now and machines can easily handle running multiple applications, so that I usually have Photoshop and Painter on at the same time. I no longer have to stop, save the file, quit the application, launch and open it up in the other application. That’s all transparent now and so I don’t even think of them as separate working environments. It’s like your tool box or in your art room you may have Winsor & Newton brushes and you may have Grumbacher brushes and probably two or three brands of paint. I mean you’re going to have all these different brands, but in the end they’re just tools and you really don’t even think of them so specifically as, “Oh this is a Painter tool or this is Photoshop tool.” They’re just tools and you move to whatever tool does the job best, and so I think the good news is that over the years Painter and Photoshop have become really good, compatible tools and that, to me, there’s no competition between them at all. The story that sometimes I hear is, “I wish they would make Painter a plug-in for Photoshop”, but for the most part it just seems like they’re really nice, compatible tools that occupy and in a few cases overlap, but for the most part they each do what they do best and neither tool tries too strongly to do what the other one does.
Ric Well I guess they are now just part of much bigger production pipelines these days, involving all sorts of applications for editing Vector and Raster files and then there are many more 2D and 3D design and animation tools, music, video, etc. I guess what I’m seeing here though is that the common thread in a lot of cases is the Wacom tablet. John have you noticed that pressure sensitive pen/tablets have become far more relevant with the greatly increased PC processor speeds of today and that it’s almost like a renaissance for the pen/tablet? Almost like a forgotten art form lost in time, where once, previous to the PC revolution, multi-million dollar Quantel Paintbox and Kodak Premier systems were the sorts of devices that could actually blast pixels onto the screen quickly enough for real time airbrush retouching and illustration techniques to be developed. On the old PCs we had many work-a-rounds but on all PCs and Laptops today you can paint, draw, and do all of these things with a very high degree of finesse and responsiveness.
John To me the Wacom tablet is such an essential part of the mix. Kind of like the glue that puts many of these applications in the same playing field. It’s interesting meeting people that say, “Well, I use a mouse and that’s all I need!” but to me it’s their loss because there’s so much tactile feedback and control over what you can do with a stylus in your hand, whereas a mouse is not an expressive tool. The tablet is such a standard piece of kit for designers and artists that I very rarely run across someone who actually thinks that a mouse or a trackball is a better interface.
Ric With the introduction of innovative new pressure sensitive pen/tablets like the Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to actually work directly on the screen surface instead of getting used to the hand/eye co-ordination required to use conventional pen/tablets, do you think this will help traditional artists start to use digital tools?
John For the traditional artist, yes, but for me the thing that the tablet did originally was that it got my hand out of the way of the image. When you’re working with a traditional image, although people have done it for thousands of years without to much difficulty, but the thing that I realised was such a winner for the tablet was that my hand does not getting in the way of the drawing. I could totally work without anything occluding any part of the image as I worked and working with the Cintiq, the first thing I notice is that I’ve got my hand in the way. It really messes me up because I’m so used to not having my hands in the way, so I guess I’m no longer from the traditional school. So for me it seems like it’s an impediment to actually have my hand over the image, whereas for the traditional people it’s probably empowering or it liberates, being just like working on a canvas or a piece of paper. The fundamental things we have talked about are the safety nets, so I can undo and I can put things on layers and I can move them around and I can experiment so much more than I could. So I guess from that point of view the Cintiq brings it all back together for people in a very natural way to interface with the software.
Ric I’m sure many would agree with you, from a very large community of concept artists, designers and visual communicators, who have been using all of these tools with Wacom tablets for a long time and probably find the Cintiq an interesting development but not entirely necessary for them. I noticed with Ron Cobb, who I interview later in this book, says that he just loves the Cintiq 21, “I think it’s truly a significant advance in the evolution of Wacom tablets”, but then later I noticed him working away happily on an illustration using his Intuos3 6×11 and I thought, well, it’s going to take a little while for him to adjust after working on a conventional Wacom tablet for so many years.
Now, John could you tell us more about your early training in drawing and art?
John Well, I guess one of the things, and I’m sure you were probably in the same position, going through primary school, I always seemed to be the kid in the class that just gravitated towards being one of the top artists in the class. All throughout my grade school years I remember being asked, “John, will you draw the turkey for Thanksgiving?” Whenever it was that they needed something on a bulletin board or whatever, I tended to be the person that they’d come to. So from a very early age it was always sort of pointed out to me, “Oh you’re an artist. You can draw well”, and part of it may have come from the fact that my dad was an engineering draftsman, so we always had lots of paper and pencils and stuff around the house and I remember, even as a small child, one of the things that he used to do with me was sit and he’d have me just scribble on a piece of paper and he would then turn it into something, a cartoon character or something. I guess at a very early age it just impressed me about the magic of making marks on a piece of paper and then making them turn into something recognisable. I’ve always thought that probably had an influence on me at a very early age, plus the fact that there were drawing materials around the house and it was never like, “Don’t draw. Don’t waste that paper.” I mean it was always like, “Go ahead. Draw. Play with it.”
So I got encouragement at a very early age and then proceeded through grade school, where I just gravitated towards being one of the top art kids in the class. I was lucky that in my life I never had to go through that experience of, oh god, what do I want to do when I grow up? I always knew it was going to be something to do with art. There was never any doubt about that. So I just kind of proceeded along those lines and eventually found myself going to art school, but the other thing that was probably interesting to me was that I remember I was never interested in duplicating things that I saw and I mean I have great respect for people who will sit and draw and paint from life and create really great pieces from it, but that stuff kind of bored me because thought well, that stuff already exists. Why should I draw what’s already there? I was more interested in making stuff up and ultimately I mean I did go through drawing spaceships and concept kind of things, but I eventually gravitated more towards abstraction, just because I was influenced by the teachers I had. They were from the abstract expressionist era of painting and the thing about that era was that so much expression went into the brush strokes themselves and the marks that they made. I got very interested in just the expression of emotions through mark-making.
The other thing that probably influenced me also was that I always was very interested in the technical side of things. I never actually had a dark room myself, but I was around a lot of dark rooms and the technology of making a photograph into a print was something that really attracted me and then I guess I exercised it when I was in university. I really got interested in print making, lithography and just various forms of how things are printed and got very interested in graphic arts, all of the now, the whole analogue of techniques for creating graphics for print and so that technical side of me was something that I always had and I happened to have graduated from graduate school with a degree in painting in 1981, which is right at the birth, in the first few years, of desktop PCs. I became interested in desktop publishing very early. Some of the earliest applications I can remember even before Apple introduced the Macintosh and programs like MacPaint, very simple – they called them ‘paint’ applications.
Now we look back at that and I mean you can see where the word “paint” is used to describe that kind of application versus say a drawing application, but I mean they were absolutely crude by today’s standards. Some of these early applications I just got fascinated by. That’s where I went through this period where I thought, gee, is getting a degree in programming or learning how to program what I need? Back in 1982, 83, 84 there weren’t paint applications and there weren’t desktop machines that were easily available to just the general public. It was still a few years away. So I originally thought you’d have to get a degree in it. An interesting parallel in the years when I was in high school, I used to work at the engineering and architecture firm where my dad was a draftsman and so I was around engineers and architects every summer. I was very comfortable in an environment where engineering went on and yet I wasn’t one of them. I just felt very comfortable working with them and I think that helped me out later when I started to work around teams and groups of programming engineers. In a way it’s very similar to how it feels around a typical engineering or architect’s office space.
So that helped me out. Instead of thinking “Who are those weirdos in front of the computers down there? I was fascinated by what they were doing. I had a little knowledge about it and so I was able to use that to my advantage to get involved in the tool making process. I did have a little technical knowledge but also had a full background in working with traditional expressive mark-making tools, as well as having my BFA and MFA degrees in painting. So I was a perfect candidate to fit into that mix of people and be a component in a team that had the expertise of how these expressive tools work, and with a little bit of understanding of programming and being able to communicate with the engineers, managed to prod them along. I remember the first brushes on computers. I mean they called it a brush, but all it was was a round dot that, if you drew too fast, separated into individual dots because it was actually the illusion of a brush, by drawing and overlapping so close together it looked like you were drawing a continuous stroke. In fact it was a series of independent, individual dabs or circles and so that’s why they called it brush, but from my background I kept thinking why would you call this a brush? It doesn’t look like a brush at all and so I started to think why can’t we get more of the characteristics of a brush? Brushes are made of individual hairs and so it goes.
I was going up through the ladder of processing power, as it became available, using Moore’s Law and the whole thing – about every 18 months the processing power doubles. Well, we’ve been on that curve for 20, 30 years and being part of creating these tools while that same curve was playing out allowed us to keep reaching for the next rung on the ladder. We leveraged that and kept up the excitement to create new tools because the next level in PC horsepower was always right around the corner. So we were constantly developing and saying, “Well, this just basically isn’t going to work right now”, but in 18 months or so the next turn of the cycle would deliver that extra horsepower or advance in technology.
So sometimes we got criticised for some tools in Painter that would only work on the most high end machines at the time but we had to develop those tools for future machines. We constantly refreshed our in-house systems with those higher horsepower systems so that we were always on the cutting edge of what kind of processor power was available and then when the software was released the general public, in the most part, had not yet gotten up to that level, but in time they would. So you always had to develop for the future knowing the driving force to be that you’re always developing, knowing that more speed, larger memory, cheaper prices, all these things are on the horizon and so you aim towards that.
Ric I remember you once telling me about how at Fractal Design you had a wet lab for working out how to do stuff.
John Oh Yeah, the wet lab! Mark and I wanted to continue not just to abstractly figure out things like how paint comes off of a traditional bristle hair brush. So we actually set up a working space separate from the main building where all the engineering went on. I think being physically removed actually was a good thing because it just puts you in a different space. I had been dragging around a lot of art materials with me for years so we got all that stuff together and bought whatever we needed and whenever we wanted to explore a certain medium, like the pastels or charcoals or paint or whatever, we’d play with those tools and work with them, experience them and in some cases I would educate Mark about, “Here’s how certain techniques work” or whatever and just through a combination of play and explanation we’d educate ourselves.
I was looking at it expressively, like here’s what I want. Here’s how this brush does this. I want it to do that. Mark looked at it through kind of this algorithmic way he had of looking at things and he could figure out how he could mimic either the physics or just algorithmically do what this thing is doing, but doing it with pixels on a screen. A major part of Mark’s genius was that he could think in that way and he could see the code. So the wet lab just became a great resource for us to interact directly with a wide variety of traditional media and to give Mark the opportunity to view things and analyse them to break it down structurally and see what was going on in terms of writing code to do that same thing.
We’d go to the wet lab and play with things on a Wednesday or a Thursday and then Saturday morning we’d be over at Mark’s place taking what we learned from those sessions and applying it. Most times Mark could already see that this tool or this piece of code already kind of does what I want it to do and so he’d start with that. I always describe it as if he’d go in there with a machete and just start hacking code out, cutting, copying, pasting and writing things he wanted to add to it and a large part of my role at that point was when he’d get to say, “Okay John, should this be a radio button or a slider”, and I’d always go, “A slider, a slider. Make it a slider” He’d get it running roughly so we could look at it and think then, well, that doesn’t quite work. Let’s try something different and so, as he was in the writing phase of it he’d bounce ideas off me. By watching on the screen what tools were getting created I could input and say, “Well, can you make it do this or it takes too long for that to happen,” or whatever it was and I was able feed back directly to Mark what our intent of the tool should be and then he would write the code. So many tools in Painter are the result of that kind of process. We had to travel a lot, presenting Painter at shows, so when we were on planes, in hotel lounges or waiting for planes, we’d sit and write things in these notebooks and those notebooks became the basis for many many tools in Painter. On those Saturdays at Mark’s house, we’d start in the morning working on something and it generally seemed to take about 8 to 12 hours. At the end of that 8 to 12 hours we’d either figure out, wow, this is really a cool tool that’s going to be valuable or, well, that wasn’t a very good idea after all.
I always called Mark the mad scientist. He could write this stuff really fast, but it might be kind of bug prone and it might be slow or whatever. Tom Hedge on the other hand was a Standford trained engineer and he was able to take Mark’s code, and, because they’d worked together for so many years they knew each other’s code so well, Tom could take it and just really work at it and craft it to a very tight, elegant piece of code. The combination of the two of them in that way was very dynamic. Mark could very quickly create these maybe sloppy or sort of buggy things, but then Tom could take them and really tighten them up and make them work really well. So the three of us together became like a three-piston engine and certainly as time went on there were more pistons in the engine than just the three of us, but for several versions we were kind of the primary idea factory and forge for Painter to make it walk, talk and spit with nickels.
Ric At what point was the pressure sensitive pen/tablet introduced as an interface tool for Painter? Was a tablet always the preferred interface and then it just kept developing with the evolution of tablets?
John Well, yeah. The first thing I noticed about Lumina when I first saw it in 1984 being demo’d was that it had a tablet attached. It was a Kurta tablet, it didn’t have pressure sensitivity and the pen was attached by a tethered cable, so not like a cordless Wacom. The fact that it was a stylus-based instrument, to me, was really smart and that was one of John Dunne’s things. He wanted to use a stylus-based instrument and even back when I started working there as early as 1985, Jetico had a pressure sensitive tablet. It was really crude, with this little box that I think the pressure sensitivity circuitry was in and it was really prone to temperature changes. It had a little knob on it and you had a contour and we kind of twiddled with it to get the pressure sensitivity to work. Over time it would drift out and you’d have to play with the knob. It was really crude but you could see in some ways like, wow, pressure is such a major thing. Back in those days there were such limitations on processing power and pen pressure could only address one dimension at a time, whereas now opacity, tip tool width, the blending with other colours, all these things can happen simultaneously, plus you get into Tilt and Rotation with all of the dimensions that can be pulled now, they can all at once be pulled and all applied in real time.
Back then all you could do was use it to just change the width of a pen. You couldn’t do anything else with it and so it was limited, but yet, through either setting the tool up to change width or to change opacity, just seeing those two controlled by pressure was like, wow, that is really important and I think, as a company, Time Arts has probably encountered Wacom in, I guess, 1987/88 and I think, if I understand Wacom’s history, that’s right around when they’d done very well doing engineering digitisers, but they were exploring and starting to offer pressure sensitive tablets, along with this whole wireless pen capability and that just totally changed the picture, because all of sudden you didn’t have that wire attached to the stylus, which always seemed to be too short and it impeded the natural feel of the pen in the hand.
So it had that going for it and the other thing that happened was Time Arts realised that the Macintosh was a platform with a lot of promise and so they ported Luminar over to the Mac and a complete rewrite happened at that point and it was at that time where I remember being in on a meetings and saying. “Wouldn’t it be so cool if we could have pressure control more than one thing at a time, like if it could change the stroke width and opacity at the same time.” and so the programmers were saying, “Oh yeah, we can do that totally.” It was kind of impossible in Luminar because of the way the code had been written, but they could make that possible in Oasis and I remember the first day that they had that running and I started playing with it. We didn’t from day one design Oasis to emulate traditional natural media tools, but that day when they got pressure and brush width running at the same time was like this revelation “It just feels like, oh my god, look how it’s starting to look like pencils and brushes and chalk and stuff.” So we immediately capitalised on that and really pushed Oasis much more towards being able to emulate traditional media.
So Oasis was probably the first application on a desktop computer to really take full advantage of the Wacom Tablet’s pressure sensitive pen, and because we’d already had a relationship with Wacom, they were looking for software to show off their tablet and they also, like us, saw that the Macintosh was a creative platform. So we very quickly became fast friends marketing-wise and started sharing trade show booths and they gave us tablets to show off our product. They used our product in their demos and stuff. So we very early on had a strong relationship with Wacom and, completely independent of that, Mark and Tom were working on Painter and they also had realised that the tablet was a big deal. They also got working with Wacom and by the time I got over to working with Mark and Tom, the three of us had good reputations with the people at Wacom. It was like, wow, these guys really have a lot of ideas about what you can do with pressure and stuff. So we were quite often meeting with Wacom people, they’d come down and meet with us and we’d say, “Can you do this or can you do that?” We started pushing for Tilt and Baring and more attributes so I think for quite a long time we worked very closely. I know Tom was always very good at writing drivers. He wrote drivers for the things like Crossfield and Hell scanners so that ColorStudio could directly drive those kinds of devices. He was very comfortable writing drivers for various pieces of hardware and we did a lot of work independent of Wacom for the tablet spooler that’s inside Painter that helps it be able to work so quickly when painting directly to the screen. So we had a good working relationship with the engineers at Wacom and we used to communicate quite a bit.
So from early on we had good insights about creating pressure sensitive tools and had many discussion with Wacom about different things, how things could be programmed or how we could utilise the different features. We were involved at a level to help outline how the hardware could be used and different kinds of features we’d like to see in it. So there was a definite synergy there for quite a while between Wacom and us.
Ric John you’ve been involved from literally the beginning of the digital publishing revolution. You’ve been very much an instigator and architect in the way in which digital mark-making has evolved. What innovations would you like to see happen in the near future?
John Well, one of the things I like is on the Intuos3 and Cintiq tablets they have these additional input keys just on each side of the tablet, so that you’ve got express keys and you’ve got the touch strip and I haven’t seen one in person yet, but doesn’t the Bamboo have a little kind of jog wheel kind of thing?
Ric Yes, it’s a bit like the iPod’s touch pad wheel.
John Yeah. So Wacom’s developing these associated kinds of tools that start to lead towards thinking more about multi touch input. I keep thinking that it would be cool if you could have a tool, like a touch strip or a jog wheel that could be attached to dimensions of colour, so that you could change hue or value or saturation, for example as you’re drawing with your drawing hand and your other hand could be used to modulate those kind of attributes. Basically colour control could be adjusted through a second hand input while the other hand was drawing with the stylus. The idea of these additional control surfaces on the tablets is very interesting and then it gets into the whole multi touch thing, like what’s going on with the Apple iPhone and some of the demonstrations you see with multi touch screens. Maybe there’s some kind of multi touch thing that can happen with products like the Cintiq, being able to take your hand and just touch the screen and by rotating your fingers on the screen, rotate a layer or pinching or expanding your fingers to change the scale of the layer. Then that could be happening with more than one touch on the screen at the same time. That would be cool.
Ric Yes John that would be cool and I think something not so far fetched as it might seem. So now if Painter is an application developed specifically with the artist in mind then why is it that Photoshop seems to be the application of choice for most motion film concept artists? Later in this book I interview Ron Cobb who in my mind is the father of all film concept art and he uses Photoshop almost exclusively.
John Well, first of all, a lot of that kind of concept art comes out of a need to be able to very quickly depict things and so much concept art, when you look at it up close is amazing how little information is really there, but they’re very adept at creating the illusion of a lot of information with really very little information and I think part of that comes out of their heritage. I mean a lot of it was magic markers or designer colours or a very limited tool set because in order to very quickly visualise these things they can’t spend the same amount of time as a traditional painter painting them. They’ve got to be able to knock them out and so they’re used to working with a very small toolset and certainly, compared to Painter, Photoshop is a very small set of tools for drawing.
The other thing, I think, is that the people that generally come to that field, they’re the talented ones. I mean you’ve seen these guys. They’re incredible with what they’re capable of and they’re the kind of people I mean you could probably put Vegemite in a paper plate in front of them and they’d come up with something really cool with their finger. I mean these guys are so good. It all comes down to talent and Photoshop is probably already such a big part of their work flow and they’re familiar with it and the fact that they’re comfortable with a smaller toolset and they don’t need all the embellishments that Painter has. They do amazing things with the tools that are in Photoshop. So to me it’s just a testament to their talent. I won’t say Photoshop is limited, but compared to Painter’s brushes it’s somewhat limited, but even with the limitations of Photoshop it doesn’t seem to be an impediment for them. So I just think it’s largely talent and the fact that they’re used to working with probably, in some cases, two or three tools to accomplish what they do and they don’t need a broad range. They’re not necessarily trying to communicate a personal expression as much as they’re executing a vision that they see in their mind’s eye and even with a limited set of tools, knowing those tools, they can do it. These guys can take Photoshop and do amazing things with it but, yeah, it would be nice see more people using Painter for that kind of art.
Ric Thank you John it is my great pleasure to have known you through some of the life and times you have just spoken about. You have always been an inspiration to me and I hope this book will be an inspiration to many more people around the world who express themselves by making marks with the digital tools. Those various tools exist today because of you and others like you with vision and the passion to invent new ways for people to be expressive and creative.
In fond memory of Tom Hedges
Pioneer developer who helped make digital painting a reality.
John Tom was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer about 20 years ago, and at the time the best procedure for it was chemotherapy and radiation therapy. So he had that done and he went into remission for about, I think almost 10 years, and then in 1990 it came back and it was in a lymph node in his shoulder or his neck. So they did more radiation treatment there at the time, but it now appears that that second run of radiation treatment had a damaging effect on him. I mean it killed the cancer, but it caused a weakness in his nerves in his upper body muscles. So over the last few years he’s slowly but surely lost feeling in his hands, and I hadn’t seen him probably for 2 or 3 years, but in the last couple of years at least he’s gotten where I mean he has literally lost the use of his hands and they just kind of hang down.
I just found this out over the weekend. His wife has a store in Los Gatos, which is a nice cosy little community in Silicon Valley and she sold hats, and basically Tom just in order to kind of keep busy worked the cash register and anything electronic, which was difficult without the use of his hands. I saw a picture of him where he actually was using a stick in his mouth to run the cash register and punch individual buttons. When people came in to buy things, he punched it all in and then he’d tell them to ‘go ahead and get your change out of the cash register’.
Things were getting worse in the last couple of years and apparently it was actually starting to affect his breathing, because the muscles in your upper body are also the muscles that help you breathe. He died in his sleep last Friday.
And so that was the end. The good news was that he had managed to add 20 years onto his life that he otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Ric Which, of course was right through the ‘Desktop Revolution’ and he was at the centre of.
John Oh, yes. I met Tom Hedges and Mark Zimmer probably about a year or two before I started working with them directly. I was involved with Oasis, and Oasis, as you know was kind of a precursor to Painter in that it had these natural media tendencies. It was also one of the first application to introduce the Macintosh community to the Wacom technology. Through mutual industry connections, and the fact that even before they ever showed Painter, ColorStudio, did use the Wacom table and so there were times where Mark and I would be sharing space at a Wacom booth for example at a trade show.
So I mean there was a friendly rivalry, but it wasn’t like we wouldn’t talk to one another, and occasionally Tom would be around too. So that’s where I first got to meet them. Yes, I guess I remember one time in particular, I was coming back from Macworld in New York around 90 or ‘91 and all three of us happened to be on the same flight going back and, though I didn’t sit next to them we did had to wait for an hour or so for the plane. Either they came up to me or I went up to them and we just sat and talked about stuff. So yes, I did know them as friendly rivals for a couple of years prior to starting to work directly with them.
There is an interesting story about Tom I just read on a tribute page that somebody has put up with stories about him and Steve Manousos who was another founder of Fractal Design. Steve at the time prior to getting involved with Fractal had the distinction of having the first on the West Coast of the US, desktop Linotronic print output device at his desktop publishing shop called Aptos Post. Tom was one of the first people to show up for outputs, and he said, ‘I have got these files that I want to get them converted into Lino output, can you do that stuff? I will give you some software I am working on and train you on it.’ I think it was either ImageStudio or ColorStudio at the time, that he was working on. Once Steve saw the software, he said, ‘wow, is there any way I could directly drive my Linotronic Image-setter with this?’ Tom sat down and in two hours he had a driver working to drive his Linotronic Imagesetter directly out of ColorStudio. Not too many people were capable of that back then. It just shows Tom’s engineering skill and ability to cut through problems and figure out a solution. It was the same once they started working with Painter, we had a good relationship with Wacom and provided them with a lot of information. Tom was even able to do more from the standpoint of the tablet driver, because they were working on a driver inside a spooler inside Painter, to handle the data from the tablet. I think Dave Fleck at Wacom writes the drivers, I don’t know if he still does that?
Ric Oh yes sure, he’s still very much involved.
John Yes, they hit it off really well, and for a long time Tom contributed quite a bit to the development of the tablet driver, because he was one of the few people outside of Wacom who had expertise in working out what you do with this data from the tablet? How do you most efficiently take care of it, and do stuff with it? So Tom was very instrumental early on in just providing another point of view and some interesting engineering thinking as to how to most efficiently do driver software for an input device like that. So Tom definitely with his engineering mind touched the early versions of the driver for the Wacom tablet. I remember Dave Fleck coming down to Fractal at times, sitting and having meetings, particularly with Tom just to work through these kinds of ideas of how to do stuff.
Ric I remember in the mid 80s getting a Quantel Graphic Paintbox to ‘talk’ to a Macintosh computer through ColorStudio’s Tapewriter driver.
John Oh right, yes of course that was because of Tom. Yes, yes. That’s Tom’s software.
Ric It felt like real long shot. I was sitting there thinking, ‘How can I get files back and forth across these two very different computers?’ I actually physically sat the Mac II on top of the Quantel’s tape drive device and connected the Scuzzy cables and sure enough, bang it worked! I think I was the first person in Australia to try this out and it ended up being a great cost saving technique to be able to work out my layouts on a Mac and then do the ‘expensive work’ on the Paintbox after everything was worked out and ready.
John Yes. Tom wrote enabling technology that connected things together that previously hadn’t been connected, or had some hand in it For Tom it was just another interesting engineering challenge. I know later on he certainly did appreciate seeing all the art that was created out of Painter and realising, ‘wow this is stuff we did and all these people are using it now’, and he liked that. But knowing Tom at the time I don’t think that was his key motivation.
He was just interested in the engineering. If it was presented to him like, ‘here’s something that’s just not possible, this can’t be done’, Tom was kind of like, ‘Well I will show you that it can be done.’ Techno Tom was from Missouri in the United States, Missouri back when it became the state of Arizona was the ‘show me’ state. People from Missouri kind of had this ‘show me’ attitude. Like they wouldn’t just automatically believe something somebody told them, it was like ‘you have got to show me.’ So Tom sort of had that ‘show me’ attitude.
Ric Wonderful. It does seem that the dynamic of having somebody who is able to take, maybe how you were describing messy code and things that are a little bit out there, and then kind of drive some discipline through the whole thing to end up with something that’s very elegant. It seems to be kind of a winning combination. I have heard through other software teams and people like that, that it seems to be if you have got that kind of combination of people involved, then that’s how things are going to get done.
John Well Mark and I were definitely kind of like a Lennon & McCartney I mean Paul McCartney by himself was kind of a little too saccharine at times and John Lennon by himself can be a little bit too bitter, but you put them together and you get this really cool bittersweet unique combination that neither one of them on their own would have done. And Mark and Tom had that as well. They, in some ways were very alike and in other ways they were very different and it was kind of those differences that lead to a richer, more spicier result than you would have got by two people who were basically the same.
Before all this Mark and Tom both worked on software that was used to create the Intel and Motorola chips used in the computers that run our software. That’s where they kind of had many years of experience working with one another to know how each other wrote code. Tom could take Mark’s code and know exactly what Mark was doing. Tom at one point was Mark’s boss back in the early days when Mark worked there kind of on a part-time basis.
Ric So a bit of a mentoring thing went on back then?
John Oh yes, but Mark being this overt genius would out intellectualise Tom’, and that was a point of friction between those two. They were both very headstrong and they could get into these arguments around the office sometimes in semi-public, where they just shouted, ‘This is the way it is, this is how it’s got to be done.’ And the other one would be like, ‘no, you are absolutely wrong’, and they would just get into these yelling matches. People outside the bubble would look at them like, ‘oh my God is this company going to break up? Those two guys are the founders of the company Fractal and they are fighting as if they are going to start fist-fighting one another.’ And the thing was, they just knew each other for so long that they knew that that wasn’t going to happen, but they also knew you have got to stand your ground for your ideas and so they would get into these sort of knock down arguments. I ultimately had to become their handler in public because sometimes when people started seeing that kind of behaviour, I would have to take people aside and say, ‘don’t worry, they are like brothers almost, it happens all the time. There’s no guns lying around so it will be fine.’
When Tom went through his first round of chemo and radiation therapy, Mark was right there with him the whole time. I mean he sat by Tom’s side quite a bit when Tom was really sick. So that was another thing that bonded them together. They went through some really tough times together and when they both made the big bucks after we went public, they bought these really nice houses where there was literally just a big strawberry field between them. Mark had Internet access where he was, but Tom didn’t because his place was just enough outside in the country. So Tom being the kind of ‘let’s make something work that they say can’t work’, they actually built a Wi-Fi network, like this really high-powered targeted Wi-Fi that they both had these special antennas on Mark’s and Tom’s houses, so that Mark could transmit the Internet to Tom, so Tom could just hop on to Mark’s Internet signal and be able to have Internet access, even though it was like three quarters of a mile away. I think Tom actually just built the antennas. Nowadays you can buy this stuff, but he bought a bunch of parts and stuff and actually made the antennas, transmitter and receiver.
One day, we were sitting around and Tom was looking at something and he just kind of casually said, ‘you know I am working on the screen code here and there’s a spot in here that it would be literally like nothing to be able to make the screen rotate to any angle. The image is still really in it’s original orientation, but you could rotate the screen. Is there any reason you would ever want to do that?’ Mark and I just looked at each other and said yes, yes, yes. You have got to do that! We have got to have that feature to simulate turning a piece of paper on a desk. So he did that and I always joke and say it was like two lines of codes. I am sure it was more than that, but it was literally like, ‘oh let me do that’, and then in five minutes he had it working. We were just looking and laughing and ‘oh my God look at this, it just rotates like nothing.’ No performance hit or anything, amazing!
There’s another one where we said to Tom ‘we want to do watercolour’, and so Tom’s responsible for the whole original watercolour layer and making it fuzz out and diffuse, that was all Tom. He was always kind of proud of that whole original technology that we did to emulate watercolour.
John Tom would grab onto something and he would really research it and get right into getting his hands dirty crawling under the engine and working on the code where as Mark and I were more like ‘oh, let’s put fins on it and paint it with flames on the side, put fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror.’ A lot of what we did was about how Painter looked and felt.
Ric Just to change the subject a little as you probably know Microsoft have released Expression Design and I would like to ask you to tell us a little bit about the original Expression from Creature House and Fractal Design.
John Well Alex Hsu was the main guy behind it. He lived in Hong Kong and went to university there where he majored in Computer Graphics. He and a couple of former college mates submitted a SIGGRAPH paper presenting a new style of pressure sensitive vector brush stroke that was the core to Expression. When you submit papers like that which get published, a lot of times your work gets stolen or just adapted so you don’t reap the full benefits of it. Even though they had written the paper and other large software companies started adapting the concepts, they still started Creature House and so Alex was aware of Fractal Design and at that point thought, ‘these guys would be a perfect company to market our tool in the United States.’ We were in the process of evolving our product line with the re introduction of ColorStudio and ImageStudio (Grey Paint) Painter was doing really well and Sketcher had just been released so Expression was an interesting fit for us.
We really didn’t add much to it, we just repackaged it and probably cleaned it up under the hood to be working well on current machines. I think we were probably not selling Poser yet but we had been talking with a Larry Weinberg who wrote Poser because he was looking for a publisher for it. So we were in a mode where we were starting to try to expand our product line. When Alex Hsu was over here in the United States, I think he was probably shopping what was to become Expression around to different companies, but I think he saw in us a really good match. We were creating natural media tools and this vector-based tool would be a great complement to our pixel-based applications.
Ric I gave a shrink-wrapped box of the Creature House/Fractal version of Expression I still had to Leon Brown, the Expression product manager at Microsoft.
John Oh cool. I don’t know when and where and how Microsoft got interested in it, but all of a sudden one day I saw the announcement and it’s like ‘oh Creature House, all the assets of Expression are being sold by Creature House to Microsoft’, and like so many products I thought ‘well that’s the end of that, we’ll never see it again. We will probably watch pieces of it’s technology turn up in other products but well here it is again.
Ric Yes in fact they used the Expression brand name to create a whole suite of products and the original Expression product still exists. I am actually thinking we might see some very interesting things come out of this. Quite a lot of ex Adobe and Macromedia guys have joined Microsoft including Douglas Olson the General Manager for Expression. I mentioned to him that I noticed in the first release version of Expression Design Microsoft had taken out the raster layer option which turned it back into being just purely a vector based tool, but after talking to Douglas he said, ‘oh well, that’s Ok because we are doing a whole lot of new things with it.’