Freedom in Creativity

On Thursday 16th September I’ll be giving a talk at Birmingham Linux User Group about the issues affecting artists who adopt open source and free culture into their practice.

I have done a talk about open source and art once before at the LUG, which was well received despite the audience being mostly techies (maybe they’re artists at heart!). This talk extends greatly on what was said and goes into issues of copyright and what experiences I’ve had as an artist in the open source world

When

Thursday 16th September, 7:30pm start

Where

Aston Science Park [map]. If you can’t make it the whole thing will be broadcast online and made available for streaming shortly afterwards.

Digital Inclusion Unconference

On Saturday I went along to the Digital Inclusion Unconference hosted by We Share Stuff. I went there tot try and gain more ideas for fizzPOP as part of it is about getting new people in who may not have otherwise dabbled with technology.

Of the four discussions that I took part in two really caught my attention. The first was the talk on what digital inclusion actually is and what it means. After an hours discussion and lots of note taking I still don’t think I was any closer to deciphering what it means to be digitally included

My notes. Still makes little sense

Although there are government plans afoot to get more people online in some way (access to TV, PC or mobile phone Internet access) does that mean someone is digitally included? Is it measured by the amount of comments people leave on blogs or if they even have a blog or Internet presence? What does digital mean anyway? Most of the things in my kitchen are in some way digital, so does that mean I’m somehow more digitally included than my neighbour? Also, what about those who just simply have no desire to go onto the Internet?

For me, digital inclusion is first about inclusion and then about the technology second. For example, having a hyperlocal blog doesn’t mean that suddenly all of the community will start to become active members. However, these are just one aspect to encourage inclusion.

The second discussion that caught my attention was the one about open source software. Possibly before the inception of Linux there’s been an ongoing effort to get more people to use open source software and for more manufactures to supply products that use it. What we were discussing in this session focussed on the benefits to individuals, commercial companies and voluntary organisations. We also tried to highlight success stories.

It seemed like everyone at the discussion knew what open source software was and the benefits of it, so I wont go over that again. For that, wikipedia does a great job of explaining:

Open source describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product’s source materials—typically, their source code

What was interesting to hear was the reasons that they haven’t changed over to using open source software. Many have switched to Firefox/Chrome or OpenOffice already either because it’s faster and has more features than the commercial alternative or because it’s free. For some the move to OpenOffice was spurned by it’s cost but also out of frustration of the new Microsoft Word 2007 interface and native .docx format, which was initially unreadable by anything other than the 2007 package.

That last point brought about an interesting point. Some had gone to OpenOffice, with it’s familiar pre-Offce 2007 interface because they didn’t like the change that came with a new version, even though some have agreed that after a bit of tweaking it’s better than its predecessor. Perhaps people haven’t moved over to using open source software or operating systems because it’s a change from the norm of Windows. Costs involved with retraining staff has often been cited as a reason for not moving to any new software, proprietary or open source. Afterall, many of us, including me, have gone through 18+ years of education system using Microsoft products. Any change, however slight, will cause disruption

Of course there are technical reasons for not moving to open source. Sometimes it’s incompatible with hardware and, unless you buy a preconfigured system, there’s never any guarantee that all will work as expected (for example, on my Dell 155 laptop, after a time I cannot change the brightness of the screen).

However, as with most technology it can only change and get better. No operating system is without its bugs. The main issue seems to be how to encourage a shift over to open source software.

We didn’t come up with one answer but a few ideas, some of which are already in progress:

  • More adoption in the voluntary sector
  • When needing an upgrade, use open source software on computers in schools and government services
  • Present open source as an option when buying a computer
  • Those who use it should promote it more

Family Portrait

After seeing some of my recent work I was asked to do a family portrait. The last time I did a portrait on such a large scale was in 2007 in Adobe Illustrator and the last time I did a realistic portrait was probably back in 2006 of an old photographer buddy. I’ve been using Inkscape for just over a year now and whilst I’ve been doing little bits and pieces I haven’t actually done a major illustration.

As always I started with the outline first and filled it in with basic colours. I used GIMP and a very useful cutout filter to help me visualise how I was going to layer the colours and shapes that I needed. From there it was a simple case of refining and perfecting! Have a look at some of the progress shots:

1 2 3 4

The finished product looks like so and is probably my favourite piece this year:

The finished family portrait

The finished family portrait

The finished result was printed onto a canvas and is mounted on their wall. Yay!

If you’re that kinda person you can have a look at the wireframe of the image:

wireframe 1 wireframe 2 wireframe 3 wireframe 4

Overall working in Inkscape was quite easy in terms of drawing. One bit of praise I often hear about it is its drawing and node editing tools, and it really did feel quite easy to draw this. However, there are two areas where I feel Inkscape hindered my creativity in creating this piece.

The first is how it implements brushes. Inkscape does this by using the Pattern Along Path Live Path Effect, which in some instances can be more useful than Illustrator’s brush tools. What I feel some users want is for the pattern to act as the stroke of a path and to still be able to edit the fill of a path. This would’ve been very useful for me when drawing the hair.

The second is it’s lack of extensive layer blending modes. Currently Inkscape has five layer blend modes, which includes normal/no blend and these can only be implemented on layers, not individual objects. As far as I know you were able to set the blend mode for each paths in 0.44, but it was removed for technical reasons. I achieved the effects in my earlier work by, at times, combining over ten different blend modes on individual objects. Take a look at this walkthrough by popular vector artist verucasalt82 and you’ll see why it can be quite handy. So, in the absence of blend modes for individual paths could we see a few more blend modes, overlay in particular?

With all of that said, you can see that Inkscape is still a very capable program. I overcame many of the problems I described by just doing things a little different than usual.

Starting off Simple

I’ve been doing quite a bit of messing around with Alchemy. Whilst in search of solution for a problem in Blender I came across a rather awesome time-lapse digital painting from an upcoming Blender Foundation project, Durian. Not only was I blown away by the skill of the artist but also by the software that he uses. I’m an open source nut so was really glad to see him use GIMP and other open source software to produce his piece. One particular piece of software that stood out to me was Alchemy.

If you’ve watched the video already you’ll have seen how he used that program to create chaos from which to build something else from. I was a bit skeptical at first, thinking that GIMP and Inkscape can do this already and with many more options. However, upon using it I could soon see the benefits of using this program. As the website so clearly states, it’s not meant for finished pieces (although some have used it to create finished pieces). It’s meant to help generate ideas, to sketch, to just go crazy on!

After just a week of using it this was some of the work that I had created in it

Lunchtime Butterfly (by hellocatfood) Stop Hitting Yourself (by hellocatfood)

I soon began to think more about what I perceived to be the point of the program. Typically, when I sketch my marks start off very light and whispy. Then, I draw over these whispy lines with more confidence until the original marks either become thicker and darker or are simply overshadowed by the newer marks. With practice you would then expect one to be more confident with their mark making, to the point where there are no more whispy lines, just sharp, clear marks.

Also, after many hours of studying you would expect one to make marks that represent any form in as few marks as possible. One important lesson I learnt at university is that you should only add detail where it’s needed. Spending 100 hours on an art piece may be personally satisfying but when people wont notice or have the time to appreciate that amount of detail why bother. In another situation, when you have a deadline looming, do you really have the time to add insane amounts of detail?

In time I feel I should be using this program to help develop this skill and my confidence as an artist. Drawing intricate layered pieces may look impressive but personally I know part of the reason I use that style is lack of confidence. I have put a suggestion to the developers to add a feature to Alchemy (and I’m slowing learning Java) that can help facilitate this by restricting the amount of shapes you can have on screen, but until then I’ve been doing a few tests of my own. Partly born out of frustration I’ve been trying to do portraits of myself using as few shapes as possible, in this case four shapes. As there are soooo many different recognisable features about our own individual faces it would be quite a challenge to pick just four features or shapes.

Working from memory I drew these portraits last night.

Portrait 1 Portrait 2 Portrait 3 Portrait 4 Portrait 5

On a side note the good thing about Alchemy is that it can record a snapshot of your drawing to a pdf at timed intervals. You can download a zip of all of the pdfs if you really wanna see how I did it.

Admittedly the first portrait probably has six shapes (open the pdf up in Inkscape to find out) but that was because I accidentally used a white shape on a white background. Alchemy has no undo function so I just painted over it in black.

I slept on it and came back with a few new ideas. Do you really need to draw someone’s head or hair? That depends on what their most recognisable features are. I am quite well known for my hair, but I proved last year that even without it people still knew who I was *shock*. So, maybe it’s not that important. As a test for yourself, try taking a portrait picture of yourself. Open that picture up in your favourite picture editor (I use GIMP (duh)) and apply the photocopy (or equivalent) filter. If needed erase the background until you have just your facial features.

With Hair and clothes

With Hair and clothes

Without Hair and clothes

Without Hair and clothes

Is it still recognisable?

So, I tried again to draw myself using only four shapes, but this time only my facial features. Here are my results (same four-shape rule applies).

New Portrait 1 New Portrait 1
(download zip of pdfs)

A little more recognisable? Four shapes might be a little bit too restrictive but you only really learn from challenging yourself. Why not try making the cursor invisble when you draw (press H) or draw “blind” (Affect > Draw Blind). Going back to the aims of the program once you feel more comfortable using very few shapes let yourself go a little bit and maybe use 10 or twenty shapes. Here is my final piece, starting with simple shapes, then going over with more detail

Final Portrait
(download pdf)

Blending Inkscape and Blender

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is to work on an image in a 3D environment but then export the resultant image to an svg. Being the open source nut that I am my main weapons of choice are Blender for 3D work and Inkscape for vector. These programs have their advantages and their disadvantages. The main advantage they have over many similar programs is that they’re open source and free. They’re very capable products and are used quite widely and are being actively developed. In fact, Inkscape is getting ready to release version 0.47 (I’ve used a prerelease and it’s awesome)

For my task of exporting 3D models to SVG Blender falls slightly short because it doesn’t natively support this. There are a few plugins that have attempted to offer this and do well, but sometimes crash or give unexpected output. That, and for some users going through the hassle of finding the plugin might be too much.

The disadvantage Inkscape has is it’s handling of lots of nodes. The moment you hit around 10,000 nodes the program begins to noticeably slow down. For most simple logo work this isn’t a problem, but when you come to illustration and highly detailed artwork it gets in the way. This was the main thing stopping me from using the SVG that can be generated from Blender. To test it yourself, import an SVG into Blender and then export it as an SVG using either Pantograph or VRM. You’ll notice that it is now made up of about several hundred smaller shapes.

Before Import to Blender: 11 Objects, 124 nodes

Before Import to Blender: 11 Objects, 124 nodes

inkscapeblendertext

After Blender import: 2264 objects with 6792 nodes

This makes colouring or modifying the shape really hard. Sometimes, in Inkscape you can just highlight all of the shapes, go to Path > Union (Ctrl + Shift + +) to combine them all but sometimes it makes it all disappear.

Luckily there is a technique to get this to work. If you import an SVG be sure to apply the Ninja Decimate modifier to the shape and drag the Ratio slider down (thanks to heathenx for this tip). Please note that this only work if you shape is a mesh, so hit Alt + C and convert your shape to a mesh.

If you’re working with text you may notice that after you’ve applied the Decimate modifier and dragged the slider down all of your text looks… crap.

screenshot_15_01:24:52

This is because the modifier is treating the text as a whole shape and thus reducing the face count of the whole combine shape rather than treating each character as an individual shape. You need to separate them. To do this, in Edit mode (hit TAB to get there) hit P (don’t do this in normal mode. It runs the Blender game engine and will most likely crash Blender).

Separate menu

Separate menu

From the Separate menu choose All Loose Parts and now each character is an individual shape. Now, if you run the Decimate modifier on each individual character you have a lot more control over its final appearance.

After Modifications: 324 objects, 972 nodes

After Modifications: 324 objects, 972 nodes

I exported the text to an SVG using VRM but you can do so using that script, Pantograph or the 3D Polyhedron extension in the Render extension menu in Inkscape. Here’s another render showing exactly why you might want to go through this procedure:

70 objects, 36601 nodes

70 objects, 36601 nodes

After basic modification (text from an upcoming project)

After basic modification, 4042 nodes (text from an upcoming project)

The Decimate modifier has its limits. Where a human would simply combine two big triangular faces into a rectangle the modifier sometimes misses this and just over-complicates things and sometimes completely destroys a shape. This is where I ask the Blender community for assistance. Is there a script to easily reduce the face count of an object?

I think native SVG export is something that Blender should work towards in the future. There’s just too many possibilities and opportunities!