Ric Holland's Blog

Allan Morse interview








Ric          Hi Allan to the Art of Making Marks. Please introduce yourself by telling us who you are and what do you do.

Allan       My name is Allan Morse, I’m the Senior Lecturer of Design, at the University of Newcastle.  I came up here in 1992 to establish a graphic design discipline in what was then a brand new design school as part of the University of Newcastle Faculty of Art and Design, and I’ve seen that progress through many different names and stages as universities have changed and chopped, squeezed and grown according to government directive, but here we are 16 years later still turning out first class graduates and still teaching, I believe, to the cutting edge of the technology, and that includes embracing digital technologies and the effect of digital technologies in the world of design. so I’ve been very much a part of that progress in terms of keeping our students right up there with the front edge in both design, design research and output in design.

Ric          So previous to this you’ve been a practitioner in the field?

Allan       Yes I have.  I actually lived and worked in Melbourne, I had a freelance practice, and I began my teaching as a casual part time person from industry at the Preston TAFE in the 1980s, and was then convinced to stay on and took over and coordinated what was then the finished art associate diploma of Preston TAFE, which became the associate diploma of graphic design in TAFE. It was very much an industry interactive process, and from there gained a senior position at the University of Newcastle which is where I am today.  At this stage completing or very near to completion of a PhD in design, and very much a practice based inquiry in my research, and this university is built around the fact that good design is about design practice, not just design theory.

Ric          So at what point in your career did you become aware of using Wacom tablets?

Allan       The year I bought my first version of Painter.  I was like everybody else very much Photoshop aware, but wanted something more, something which was more artistically responsive to being an illustrator. Photoshop was a glorified electronic photo retouching software it wasn’t designed to make art. I saw a brochure one day which had a thing called Painter, and there were some illustrations actually of what looked to me like ancient Egyptian wall paintings and in fact turned out to be completely digital simulations of creative artwork with this programme called Painter. It wasn’t by Corel the it was someone else.

Ric          Originally it was called Fractal Painter and then became MetaCreations Painter when I got involved with it. By the way John Derry one of the inventors of Painter actually did those illustrations.

Allan       That’s right Fractal Painter.  I bought my first copy of Fractel Painter and then realised with a mouse on what was then a Mac Quadra, a mouse on a small colour screen wasn’t exactly the way to get what I wanted. I began to do my enquiries and bought my first tablet and started playing and experimenting from there. I have to say that those first years were frustrating because my brain was quicker than the tablet and the software and the power and the pace of the computer to respond. I think the early difficulty and frustration with a lot of the software was that it was well ahead of its actual ability to be used on the equipment available but that’s not the case today.  The software is very quick, particularly because the amount of power we have in our computers is more than adequate.  I produced my first commercial job in 1997 using Painter.  It was a wine label and was my first real commercial venture into Painter. I approached it in the same way you would have approached anything as a commercial illustrator, that is draw it at least one and a half times larger or greater than the size you wanted to reproduce, and then take advantage of the compensation in terms of scaling it down, and low and behold you have this incredible, sparkling, full colour illustration shining out from the screen and off the paper for you.  So in that process I experimented with Painter’s ability to create paper textures, to create simulated watercolour.  Again, like everybody starts using this, what I wanted to do is to do what I used to do with brushes, pens and inks, except I wanted to be able to do it digitally and I want to be able to go back and forward through layers, I want to be able to save the bits that work, I want to be able to remove other bits. The best way to learn and experiment is to actually do a job.  The job was highly successful.  It moved quite a lot of wine through the Sydney restaurant trade.

Ric          So just coming up to today, what type of tablet do you use now?

Allan       We have the direct to screen tablets, where the student can sit there with a stylus and work directly to screen.  We have a laboratory which has been set up to do just exactly that, so the tablet is the screen itself, and I think they are called Wacom Cintiq. Then we have other tablets which the students use when they go into the ordinary lab situation where we’ve got four Macintosh labs that operate in the design building running through different stages of design up to honours students, which are at the top of our ladder. I have a specialist Mac studio, and that’s got scanners and tablets, and they can do anything they like literally in terms of using the technology.  We also have the natural history illustration programme here at Newcastle which is very unique in Australia.  We are in the process of producing a parallel set of skills and knowledge and abilities to the long held traditional watercolour art paper and Derwent pencils – all digital on screen.  So we’re teaching state of the art skills in terms of illustrators in that highly specialised field using the new technology.

Ric          So if you could ask Wacom for some new product or future innovation in digital mark making technology what would it be?

Allan       A wish list would be a larger screen tablet, probably totally wireless controlled with no cords. To me screens are never big enough, because you want to be able to see your artwork full size and so the screens aren’t big enough for me to do something like a large canvas painting.

Ric          Ok, so it’s a really big Cintiq maybe a 30 inch…

Allan       That’s almost about what you need to do.  You need to be able to see.  Like when you’re working in a traditional form, say A2 illustration, you see your paper on the desk and then you put all your inks and everything spreads out around it, but you can see everything at once and you don’t have to hide something, or shift something, or move something to make something happen, so I know that’s always the problem with all of these things, is having a large enough field of vision to be able to develop your ideas and still have the capacity to multi-layer.  The other thing is of course speed, response speed from the stylus, that if you could make and get your response speeds to be the same speed as the pencil on a paper, that’s the first thing I spoke about, which I think was the thing that was said way back in the early 90s when all the industry people said, “None of this will catch on because it’s all too slow, or it’s too pixely or it’s too rough and it’s too this and it’s too something else.”  The key is, then when we worked with pencils or paint or brush or markers on paper, the mark we made was as quick as our brain could think. We were working at what I call creative brain speed, and a lot of the problem with I think Painter in the early years, and tablets, was that you always had a lag time waiting for something to catch up.

Ric          Well in those days if you had a million dollars you could have had a Quantel PaintBox with a Wacom tablets but most of us didn’t have those so we tried to do the same with a PC and of course there was a huge gap in performance. Photoshop came along with really great ways to get those sorts of airbrush effects by using selections and channel filters, but so you weren’t actually brushing them in, and in a sense some of those real time brushing skills we’re lost and now we are in a digital renaissance for people to relearn and discover what it is to be able to paint in real time even on any laptop. The challenge now is to get real time performance using really big screens and huge file sizes.

Alllan      Exactly.  That is to me the end of the wish list.  If we have real time operations in this stuff it will change the world. I think that day is coming and when that day arrives, for joy, for joy for everybody. I think it’s an exciting era to be alive in because we are witnessing, as almost no other generation in the history of mankind has witnessed, a complete revolutionary change that would have in the past taken a hundred years to happen, and has happened in the space of 10 to 15 years within our very own lifetime.  When you consider that Steve Jobs and Apple was a 1983 invention, it’s only 17 years ago and we’re doing what we’re doing today. The artist in all of us wants to pick up a brush and paint, wants to pick up a pencil and draw, and I think the tablet and the stylus thing is the answer to that prayer.  That is the very instinct when we first begin to draw as kids, when we pick up a crayon at preschool and rub it on a piece of paper and we get that joy of making a mark, that essential ingredient is to make that mark and have the power over that mark.  Somehow holding the mouse in the hand and fiddling it that way is not the same as having the stylus, the pen, the brush in the hand and going dip, there it is.  I don’t think you can take that sense of power away from the artist, and once the artist is empowered with that, anything’s possible.  That’s the real inspiration, to be able to do that.

Ric          Fantastic Allan it’s been a pleasure having you with us on the Art of Making Marks.