A Monthly Column
Learning With Computers:
Computers In The Art Class
Glenn M. Kleiman
Teaching Tools: Microcomputer Services
Palo Alto, CA
A look at three Apple and Atari programs which assist the computer artist.
An important first lesson in computer literacy is that computers are flexible tools for working with all types of symbols – numbers, words, pictures, and sounds. Many people think of computers as "number-crunching" machines, useful only for business, mathematics, and science. Since computerized word processing has become popular in the last few years, more people have realized that computers can be used for working with words as well as numbers. But few people are aware of the potential of computers for working with pictures and sounds. In this column, I will focus upon computer graphics – the use of computers to create pictures.
Computers already influence our visual environment. Movie makers use computers to produce all sorts of special effects. The best example is the movie TRON, which contains superb computer-generated animation that appears to be three dimensional, Pictures generated with computers are used in television shows and commercials, magazine advertisements, stadium scoreboards, and, of course, video games. Computer graphics are becoming widely used in business to produce charts, graphs, and other pictorial representations of the results of number crunching. Artists, architects, designers, cartoonists, engineers, and educators are all using computer graphics.
Personal computers capable of high resolution color displays are powerful tools for computer graphics. You will not be able to fully replicate the images of TRON, but you can create all sorts of pictures, even three dimensional animations.
You can create pictures on computer screens by writing programs in BASIC, LOGO, or other languages. However, to really explore computer graphics, you will want a program designed to make it easy to create and manipulate pictures – a graphics editor. As word processing programs facilitate working with written text, graphics editors facilitate working with pictures.
You can use graphics editors to create pictures to be combined with computerized lessons, simulations, or games, to provide visual aids for presentations, and for many other functions. Best of all, you can use these programs to explore this exciting new medium for creativity.
Available graphics editors vary in capabilities, ease of use, necessary hardware, and price. Some are combined with special drawing surfaces, so pictures drawn on the surface are transferred to the computer screen. Others use game paddles, joysticks, light pens, or the keyboard. These editors let you draw pictures quickly and easily and may contain other options for colors, textures, changing sizes, combining pictures, and so on. The following descriptions will give you an idea of how these enjoyable tools can encourage you to explore the exciting world of computer graphics.
The Designer's Toolkit
The Designer's Toolkit is a top-of-the-line graphics creation program. Although too expensive for most people, it provides a high standard, both in capability and ease of use, against which other programs can be evaluated.
The Designer's Toolkit is for Apple II computers equipped with a graphics tablet. A graphics tablet is a thin, flat device, about 16 inches on each side, with a stylus attached by a cable. Through a special interface and software, the computer can decode where on the tablet the stylus is touching and whether or not the tip on the stylus is pressed.
The Designer's Toolkit was developed to make all of the graphics capability of the Apple II available and simple to use. The package includes the toolkit disk, a demonstration disk, a 115-page manual with 32 color pictures (all created with the Designer's Toolkit), and a plastic overlay to put on the graphics tablet.
Most of the graphics tablet is used as a drawing; area, but the top and bottom are used to select options in the program. The overlay contains boxes with colors, shapes, and words. You select each option by touching the stylus to the appropriate box. This lets you use almost all the program's capabilities from the drawing surface, without having to use the keyboard.
The simplest option is drawing. If you hold the stylus near the tablet, a cross mark appears on the screen to show the position that corresponds to the location on the tablet where the stylus is pointed. If you press the stylus down and move it, a line appears. With a little practice, it becomes completely natural to move the stylus on the tablet while you are watching the screen.
Ten Permanent Brushes
If you were painting, you would not want to be limited to a single thin brush and white paint on a dark background. The Designer's Toolkit provides ways to change the "brush," "paint," and background. Ten permanent brushes are built into the program. These vary in thickness and shape. Some are round and others are long and thin, like a calligraphy pen. You can change your brush at any time by simply touching the stylus to the box representing the brush you would like. Similarly, you can select for either the background or paint color any of 16 colors permanently built into the program.
This selection of brushes and colors is very powerful, but it is just beginning. There are also ten user-defined brushes and ten user-defined colors. The package contains special programs for creating your own brush and color sets. You can make a brush of any shape – a person, letter, pattern, or whatever you like. (For those familiar with Apple programing, the set of user-defined brushes is a shape table.) The color definition program lets you select from 160 possible colors, created by combinations of different dot patterns.
If you were drawing on paper, you might use a ruler, protractor, and compass to create straight lines, angles, and circles. There are options for lines, triangles, rectangles, and circles. Each of these options uses a "rubber-band" technique. For example, after you select the rectangle option, you place the stylus where you want one corner of the rectangle. You then slide the stylus to locate the opposite side. As you move the stylus, the rectangle changes size and shape so you can see exactly where it will appear. When you lift the stylus, the rectangle is automatically drawn with the current brush and color.
There are also options to rotate pictures along the horizontal or vertical axes; to fill enclosed areas with any color; to change colors or to remove colors; to relocate pictures on the screen; to pick up a section of the screen and repeat it elsewhere (a "rubber stamp" option); and to define a temporary "window" to restrict changes to one section of the screen (for erasing or coloring one section only).
The Apple II can hold in memory two pages of high resolution graphics at one time, and you can alternate pages displayed on the screen. The Toolkit lets you copy pictures from one page to the other and merge pictures. You can make a set of small pictures, save them on a disk, load one picture at a time to one page, slide, invert, rotate, or color it, and then merge it with the other page. This makes it possible to create a complete picture from a set of simple ones. There are three merge options, which let you simply combine pictures (OR merge), combine pictures while erasing any parts that overlap (XOR merge), or create a picture with only the parts of the two pictures that overlap (AND merge).
A Magnify Option
There's more. A fantastic magnify option lets you select a section of a picture and magnify it to be anywhere from two to 64 times as large. The original picture appears on one page, and the magnified image appears on the other. You can then change the magnified image, and the changes automatically appear, in reduced size, on the original! This is ideal for making very detailed drawings and for making careful corrections.
You can also add text, in any of 18 type fonts, anywhere on the screen. There is even a review picture program, which lets you create a slide show of pictures on a disk. The extensive manual explains all the options and contains a great deal of information about the capabilities and limitations of Apple graphics.
In sum, simply amazing. Now the bad news: the graphics tablet costs $800, the Designer's Toolkit $225 (both from Apple dealers).
Paint is a graphics creation program for Atari computers. It requires joysticks; if you are already a Pac-Man or Asteroids player, you do not need any new hardware. The Paint package includes a disk with three programs (Simple Paint, Super Paint, and Art Show) and a 145-page manual.
The Simple Paint program is designed so most three-year-olds could use it successfully, Once the program is started, only the joystick is used – the keyboard is never needed. The bottom of the screen shows four "paint pots," four "brushes," and an "erase" box. The center of the screen shows a marker which can be moved with the joystick. The child can select a paint color by moving the marker to the paint pot and pressing the button on the joystick.
A brush size is selected by moving the marker to one of the brushes and pressing the joystick button. When the marker is moved and the button held down, a line is drawn in the color and brush size chosen. The joystick controls the direction and length of the line. A new color or brush can be chosen at any time. The erase box is for clearing the entire screen. Sections of the screen can be erased by painting over them with the background color.
Simple Paint makes available all the colors the Atari can display. To change a color, the child moves the marker to a paint pot and presses the button twice. Then, moving the joystick to the left changes the hue; moving it to the right changes the saturation. When the desired color appears, the child presses the button and resumes painting.
Super Paint adds a number of powerful features to those of Simple Paint. Each option can be selected from the keyboard or by using the joystick to display and choose items on menus. There are nine different shapes of brushes, each of which can be in any of nine sizes. There are options for straight lines, circles, and rectangles. To draw a circle, for example, you select the circle option, move the marker to where you want the center, press the button, and then move the marker to anywhere on the circumference of the desired circle. When you press the button again, the computer completes the circle.
The Zoom Option
You can set the speed of the brush movement to draw quickly or slowly. You can fill areas with a color and change one color on the screen to another. You can select paint colors as in Simple Paint, but Super Paint also lets you draw with plaids, stripes, and other patterns.
A "zoom" option magnifies your picture. When the picture is magnified, the screen functions as a window which can be moved to display different sections of the picture. You can draw on the large picture and then shrink it back to its original size. You can save pictures on disks and use the Art Show program to show them as a series of continuous slides.
The main limitations of Paint are due to the hardware used. It is more difficult to draw with a joystick than with a stylus on a surface, and the joystick registers only eight different positions, so you can draw only angles in 45 degree increments. Also, in the graphics mode used, the Atari can display only three colors at a time.
Paint is one of the best designed programs I have seen. I have observed children as young as six master most of the options of Super Paint by exploration, with little help from adults. I have also observed a professional watercolor artist who had never before used a computer become fascinated with creating with Paint.
The first 45 pages of the 145 page manual describe the programs; the rest is a well-done description of the way computers work, the history of art, the relation of computer art to other art forms and to our culture, the uses of computer graphics, biographies of computer artists, and ideas for using Paint. The book is a valuable introduction to computer art even without the program.
The Paint package sells for $39.95 (available from Reston Publishing Company, 11480 Sunset Hills Road, Reston, Virginia 22090). Developed at the Capital Children's Museum in Washington, D.C., Paint is an outstanding software/book package and an exceptionally good value.
Edu-Paint is an inexpensive graphics creation program for the Apple II. It requires game paddles (or a potentiometer-type joystick). You draw with the paddles as if you were using an Etch-A-Sketch. You can choose colors, and there is a "palette" for creating blends and patterns. You can draw lines, circles, and rectangles, fill enclosed areas, and duplicate a section of the screen (like the stamp option in the Designer's Toolkit). Each option is chosen from the keyboard. Edu-Paint is an easy-to-use graphics creation program. It is available for $10 from Softswap, Microcomputer Center, San Mateo Office of Education, 333 Main Street, Redwood City, CA 94063. For a catalog only and information, send $1 to the same address.
The VersaWriter is a hardware and software package available for Apple II, Atari, and IBM computers. (I have not seen the IBM version.) The hardware is a drawing board with a pointer attached. The computer can decode the position of the pointer on the drawing pad.
The VersaWriter seems designed primarily for transferring pictures from paper to the computer screen. You can place a picture on the drawing board and trace over it with the pointer. The software lets you change the size of the picture as you trace over it. You can draw with several different brushes and with many colors, fill enclosed areas with color, add text to pictures, and select other functions. The software also lets you create shape tables on the Apple II or player/missile shapes on the Atari. Additional "expansion pack" programs are available for the Apple, to magnify or shrink pictures, combine two screens into one picture, and rotate pictures.
The VersaWriter is a good tool for creating graphics to incorporate into your own programs. It has the advantage over Paint of providing a drawing tablet which allows better control and the advantage over the Designer's Toolkit of being less expensive. However, it is not as smooth or quick to use as the Designer's Toolkit or Paint. You do have to switch between the keyboard and the drawing board for every command, and if you draw quickly the computer doesn't keep up. The VersaWriter, therefore, does not encourage creative art work as well as the other packages do. The VersaWriter tablet and software package is available for $299.95 from Versa Computing, 3541 Old Conejo Road, Suite 104, Newbury Park, CA 91320.
Versa Computing also markets for Atari computers a less expensive ($39.95) Graphics Composer program which uses a joystick instead of the drawing board. Although not as flexible as Paint for creating pictures, it contains capabilities (not found in Paint) for adding text to pictures and for creating player/missile shapes. Like the VersaWriter the Graphics Composer seems better designed for creating graphics to incorporate into programs than for exploring computer art.
Why Explore Computer Art?
As Alex Packer, author of the book accompanying the Paint program, writes:
It only seems appropriate that a culture so thoroughly linked to technology and machines should create art with the ultimate machine of our times, the computer. The computer is an artist's tool. Instead of a chisel, a brush, a stick or a trowel, the artist paints with a computer. Instead of oil paints, acrylics, pastels, charcoal or sand, the artist paints with electronics. Instead of canvas, plaster, wood, marble or paper, the artist paints on a cathode ray tube; light is the medium. Throughout history, the breakthroughs of science have been integrated, directly and symbolically, with art forms... Where will it lead? Nobody knows. It will take years to explore the expanded creative flexibility and techniques offered by the computer.