Since I first was introduced to computer graphics back in 1994, I’ve wanted a digital sketchbook.
My wife still kids me because that year, after I was introduced to digital art by working with Photoshop on a friend’s Mac, I took a Photoshop book to the beach with us and read it like a novel, before I had either Photoshop or a computer to run it on.
I also found myself right away imagining a Mac tablet computer, on which I could paint with digital colors on the beach, without the hassle and complications of carrying around the materials for plein air painting. I’ve been waiting not-so-patiently for Apple to release one for the last 13 years, and, though rumors are flying again about an iPod Touch style tablet, I’m still waiting.
In the meanwhile, I haven’t been willing to drop $1,200 plus on a Windows tablet computer that I would have to buy additional software for and that I would use for only one purpose, so I’m left with few options. I do some digital sketching with my Powerbook and a small Wacom tablet, but the combination isn’t as compact and portable as a tablet.
I’ve been running TealPaint, a fairly clever little digital painting application on my Clié (Palm PDA), but it’s frustrating in that there is no allowance for “soft” brushes that simulate painting with lowered opacity strokes; everything is hard edged, and blending can only be simulated with patterns.
Simon Rodgers, a concept artist who I profiled in 2006, and who enjoys painting digitally, was kind enough to write and let me know about what amounts to a pocket sized digital sketchbook for under $200. It’s a solution that allows digital painting with soft and hard brushes and varied opacity. Oddly enough, it’s by way of a portable game device.
Jens Andersson has written an application called Colors! that runs on the Nintendo DS portable gaming device (Amazon link). The Nintendo’s pressure-sensitive screen and stylus, combined with its small size and relatively low price, make it an excellent candidate for a digital sketchbook.
Though I haven’t had a chance to try this yet (I may wait till after Christmas to see if I can pick up a DS cheap, and just to make sure they don’t announce an Apple tablet at Macworld), but by all accounts Jens has done a nice job. The consensus seems to be “It may not be Corel Painter, but it’s pretty darn good”.
The app lets you use the aforementioned hard and soft variable opacity brushes, that by all appearances look like they do a pretty good job for digital painting, a color picker, eyedropper and other simple tools. Jens is still developing the app, but points out that his intention for it is to remain simple.
The site for the Colors! features an online gallery that includes some impressive work. There is also a YouTube vid in which a user gives a short tour of the app.
For more impressive images that show off the applications possibilities, see some of Simon Rodgers’ quick concept sketches, and some en plein air digital sketches by Sparth (Nicholas Bouvier) a concept artist who has long been an advocate of on location digital painting with a laptop (see my profile of sparth construct from 2006). You’ll also find his concept sketches in the Colors! gallery.
There is also a similar application for digital painting on the Nintendo DS under development by Bob Sabiston, who created the Rotoshop software used in the rotoscoped movies Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, under the working name of Inchworm. You can see some of Bob’s Inchworm images here, and a Popular Science article with a video tour of the app.
Inchworm has not been released. It may become an official Nintendo product, or it may be released to the homebrew circuit, but Colors! is available now and looks as good or better.
Unfortunately, creating a digital sketchbook with Colors! it isn’t quite as simple as buying a DS handheld game system (about $130) and downloading the software (free). You also need a “homebrew enabled cartridge” (about $50), which is a hardware adapter that allows you to put the application on a compact flash card that can then be read by the Nintendo’s top slot. I don’t know the ins and outs of this, as I haven’t purchased one, so I’m reluctant to recommend a cartridge or a supplier (it’s a specialty gaming item). There is a FAQ on the Colors! site, but it’s not aimed at newbies and non-gamers.
I’m writing to the Colors! developer suggesting a FAQ for non gamers who want to know how to get started with a “homebrew enabled Nintendo DS” required for running the app. I’ll append the post if I have news, or if I get one myself. [This has been added, see my addendum below.]
(Images above: Simon Rodgers, Sparth, Mattias Snygg, image of Colors! color picker in use over Snygg’s image, screen capture from video about Bob Sabiston’s Inchworm application in use on the Nintendo DS)
Addendum: Jens Andersson has written to say that they had been planning and have now added a section to the Colors! FAQ explaining the basics for those of us who are unfamiliar with the Nintendo DS and related hardware. (I just took a look and it’s an excellent introduction and guide, even for those of us who are gaming impaired.)
Also a couple of things I didn’t mention in the original post: the images are saved as PNG files at the root level of the memory card in a folder called colors/, and can be easily transferred to your computer and opened in Photoshop/Painter/whatever. The resolution is 512×384.
Another interesting feature of Colors! is that the sequence of creating a drawing or painting can be recorded, and then played back like an animated movie (similar, perhaps, to the feature in Corel Painter). These recordings can be shared between Colors! users, and frequently are through the online gallery.
There is a Java applet running on the Colors! Gallery that lets you play back the recording of the brushstrokes in your web browser, giving you a time-lapse animation of the making of the painting. If you click on the thumbnail images to go to the large versions, you will see a Playback button below many (but not all) of the images.
Addendum II: Chantal Fournier has written with a link to a very good step by step tutorial by Jannis Borgers on how to set up Colors! on the Nintendo DS in the ConceptArt.org forums. The detailed how-to includes photographs of the DS, example adapter cartridges like the M3 DS Simplify and the R4 Revolution, and the tiny microSD memory card. The article thread also includes three pages (at present) of lively discussion about using Colors! on the DS.
Raphael Piasek, who created and maintains the Colors! gallery, has written to let us know about a more advanced feature. The current version of Colors! allows you to email your images to yourself (or someone else) using Wi-fi. In the process, will reinterpret the native format DRW file (not the 512×384 PNG) into a 1024×768 JPEG. As an example he points to this image.
There is also a Java applet by Ben Jaques called ColorsDraw that is used on the Colors! gallery to display the recorded painting sequences, the desktop version of which will run on any computer with Java installed and can interpret the images up to 2084×1536. How this works is still a bit of a mystery to me, but so is the nature of the native DRW file format, which apparently stores a record of the brushstrokes.
Piasek has written to say that the application apparently records the brush strokes as vector information, and they can be played back at a larger size with larger brushes to create a new, enlarged version of the image. Piasek mentions that the Colors! FAQ has been updated to include information about the ColorsDraw applet. There is also some discussion of this on the ConceptArt.org post mentioned above.