Computers provide new medium for artists


April 29, 1991|By PETER H. LEWIS

Writers and musicians were quick to recognize the advantages of computer technology, but artists have been relatively slow to give up their palettes and easels in return for the millions of colors and magic canvases that computers offer.

It isn't that artists are slow; it's just that drawing with a computer mouse is like trying to draw with a potato. It lacks elegance.

Throw out the mouse. A remarkable tool called the Wacom SD-510C pressure-sensitive digitizer (list price $695), which comprises a cordless, pen-like stylus and a 6-inch by 9-inch tablet, comes close to being a magic paintbrush.

Nothing can replace the immediacy and tactile responsiveness of a brush or pencil in an artist's hand, but the Wacom stylus seems to be the next best thing.

We tested the Wacom tablet and cordless stylus with a new Macintosh paint program called Oasis (list price $795), which gives the artist all the tools necessary to create on screen the varied effects of watercolor, charcoal, pastel, gouache, pencil, ink, oil, crayon or almost any other medium.

Instead of painting on canvas or paper, the artist "paints" invisibly on the tablet and sees the results displayed on the computer screen.

Wacom Inc. of Paramus, N.J., and Time Arts Inc. of Santa Rosa, Calif., the maker of Oasis, announced last week that they were bundling their products for a combined price of $1,195, a savings of $295.

For more information about the products, contact Time Arts at (707) 576-7722.

Using the Wacom SD-510C and Oasis in tandem, someone with more artistic talent than we possess conceivably would be able to mimic virtually any artistic style, or even invent new styles unique to the computer age.

Included in the Oasis software tools are controls that transform the Wacom stylus into a versatile painting or drawing implement, from pencil to broadbrush to airbrush.

The artist can select colors from a color Macintosh's entire palette, which on our model comprises some 16 million hues. That's some paint box.

Further, Oasis permits the artist to choose special attributes that we have not seen in previous computer paint programs.

Using the pressure-sensitive Wacom stylus, the artist can vary the density of any stroke; that is, pressing harder makes a progressively darker image, just as it would on paper.

Also, a line might start wide and taper off as the pressure decreases, again as it would in a conventional brush stroke.

The artist can even control the color density, "wetness" and dry-out speed of any stroke, plus many other subtle controls that are made possible by the pressure-sensitive tablet.

We especially like the Oasis "lightbox" feature that permits the artist to overlay one "page" over another, and make the top one transparent. One can then use the stylus to trace an image into a new file.

Besides Oasis, most of the major paint programs for the Macintosh now support pressure-sensitive input.

They include Digital Darkroom and Superpaint 2.0 from Silicon ,, Beach Software, Photoshop from Adobe Systems Inc., Colorstudio from Letraset Inc., Studio/32 from Electronic Arts Inc., Pixelpaint Pro from Supermac Technology, and Ultrapaint from Deneba Systems Inc.

As the Wacom tablet gains wider use, more programs can be expected to take advantage of it.

So far there is only one major pressure-sensitive paint program for IBM PCs and compatibles: Lumena, a $2,495 program from Time Arts, the maker of Oasis.

Besides its steep price, Lumena also requires advanced graphics equipment that most PCs lack. However, several PC software companies are reported to be preparing programs that recognize pressure as well as width and direction.

The Wacom device has the potential to affect more than computer art. Pressure sensitivity adds more dimensions to the information created when one draws a line on the screen with a mouse, trackball, joystick or even another stylus.

The lines created by those devices have a uniform thickness and density. People who care about such things refer to such lines as having two dimensions, X and Y, because the lines can be plotted on an X-Y axis.

The Wacom stylus adds the "Z" dimension, or depth.

The stylus tip moves up and down depending on the level of force exerted against the digitizing tablet.

Wires in the tablet receive electromagnetic signals from the stylus and analyze them for 60 different levels of pressure on the "Z" axis, as well as for precise location on the X-Y grid. The signals are then sent to the screen via a cord that connects the tablet to the computer.

Although there are relatively few business software applications today that take advantage of depth, we might see some in the near future.

For example, many Macintosh and Windows-based programs have so-called cascading menus, where making a selection on one menu causes a submenu to pop up to the side. With pressure-sensitivity, one might simply press harder on the stylus to trigger lower-level commands.

Or, a doctor examining a CAT scan of Bo Jackson's hip, for example, might be able to point to a spot on one level and move through subsequent layers of images by pressing down. Pressing down on a spreadsheet cell might summon the underlying calculations.

There is still a major obstacle to the widespread adoption of computers for traditional arts: the lack of affordable, high-quality color printing.

Color printers and copiers that can do an acceptable job of re-creating computer art on paper are breathtakingly expensive.

That's the next hurdle.

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