10 open source tools for digital artists
ArtPrize starts today. Yay, ArtPrize. An interesting category of art on display around Grand Rapids is digital art, art that involves digital technology in its conveyance. Anyone with a computer has the tools to do some interesting art. I have wrangled a list of open source tools which anyone from the digital artist to the curious dabbler can use to explore creative possibilities without spending any money.
My intention here is to provide a brief overview of available tools. By no means is this an all-encompassing list. If there are alternatives that I’ve overlooked, feel free to comment and include a link to other tools worth considering. This is not intended to be a tutorial, but to help guide the budding digital artist towards tools to help them execute their vision. So, off we go:
Image Manipulation: GIMP
The first thing any artist is likely to want to do on a computer is manipulate a digital image, whether a photo from a digital camera or a scan or some creative commons licensed image from a source like Flickr.
The defacto program for this sort of digital manipulation is Adobe Photoshop, and it is really difficult to find a Photoshop alternative that is as highly usable. If you have experience with Photoshop, GIMP can be an awkward program to get used to, but it does provide advanced image manipulation and is free.
Vector Graphics: Inkscape
Vector graphics are images that are drawn rather than pixel-ly bitmaps. The leading commercial product in this category is Adobe Illustrator. A strong open source alternative is Inkscape.
3D modeling: Blender
3D modeling and film-making are very exciting, but also very complicated. Tools in this category can be extremely expensive and require a lot of training. The fact that a tool like Blender is available for free is a beautiful thing.
There is no getting around the need to create spreadsheets, word documents, presentations, etc. Any project is going to include these sorts of things. Most people are familiar with Microsoft Office, but the open source alternative is OpenOffice. This tool set includes a drawing program without all the advanced features of Inkscape.
Now the fun starts
The above tools cover the basics of building the raw materials for your digital art project. But what if you want to incorporate advanced user interaction in your project? Well, here’s where things can get complicated. Say you want to wire a digital video camera to a projector and create an interactive wall display. Say you have visions of animatronic actors mimicking the behavior of real actors on a green screen, etc., etc. I won’t get into all the details of wiring this to that, but if you expect to involve electronics and experimental input devices, well you’re going to have to write some code. The following tools assume that you are open to experimenting with code and are not afraid to get your hands dirty. These tools are very technical.
An important thing to recognize when programming digital art is that the technique is a little different from traditional programming. Programming is often taught with an engineering focus. This shouldn’t scare off the artist who wants to accomplish advanced interactions. A digital artist wants to be expressive with code. Thus the tools for programming digital art and the process of accomplishing it can be a little different than a traditional development environment.
Foundations: Flex SDK
Adobe has made a lot of cool products and one that has changed the way we perceive the internet is Flash. Not a lot of people know is that the foundations of Flash are open source. Adobe provides a free solution developers kit for those users who are comfortable working with ActionScript and Flex code to programmatically define extremely sophisticated interactions without purchasing the Flash product. If you want to put your digital art project online, it is well worth the effort to become proficient with this tool set.
An alternative to the Flash approach to creating highly interactive digital art is to use a tool like Processing. Processing provides a simplified version of the Java programming language that is a great way to learn to program as well as a powerful tool for gluing together all sorts of interactions. There are many libraries of components for Processing that make accomplishing your artistic vision easier than you might think. Multi-touch interfaces, facial recognition, you name it, there is probably an available library that will let you experiment with some of the most innovative interactions out there.
One of my favorite libraries for processing is NextText. Check this out:
Digital Art Platform: Field (on a mac)
The Open Ended Group does some amazing work. They have open sourced their digital art development platform, Field. Unfortunately, it is currently only available on the Mac. Hopefully this gets ported to other operating systems because it is quite an innovative tool. If you use a Macintosh, play with this. Be sure to check out some of the performance videos to get a taste for what has been done with this tool set. Truly inspiring. Notice that this tool integrates nicely with Processing.
Digital Puppetry: Animata
I love Animata. I think it is so cool that the artists who are creating these sorts of tools recognize the value of open sourcing them. The video above shows an advanced application of the toolset that uses motion-sensing cameras to create a puppet show with real actors. There are also examples of creating digital puppets that respond to sound. This is a tool for creating digital puppets and assumes you have the know how to wire up the necessary components to accomplish your vision.
More Glue: Pure Data
I won’t go into too much detail here, but if your art involves sound, you should probably look at Pure Data. Creating innovative interactions involves plugging this into that. Pure Data is all about that. And it is not limited to manipulating sound. You can incorporate graphics, 3D models, and just about anything else you can dream up.
Machinima Movies: Movie Sandbox
There are some really interesting projects that have been done with the tools above. I’m just scratching the surface here. Each of the websites I’ve linked to include tutorials to get you started as well as compelling examples. Here are some additional links to explore:
The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center - Troy, NY USA
HOW TO CONTROL ANIMATA WITH OSC FROM MAX/MSP AND PURE DATA
3D ink scanner in your bathtub
Making Things: a place for hardware, robotics, etc.
Instructables: Tutorials for making things
Graffiti Research Labs
Puppenspiel-Performance at CyNet Art Dresden
Point A to B (excerpts, installation visualization)
RiTa Project Gallery
Electronic Arts Intermix: Best practices for selling/protecting digital art installations
So what if you want to do digital art, but you don’t have or can’t afford a computer? Ellohay West Michigan is a local digital inclusion program in which a number of People Design folks have been involved. Its mission is to put gently used laptop computers in the hands of under-served individuals in the West Michigan region. These laptops are donated by area companies and equipped with the open source operating system Ubuntu. So no one needs to feel left out. Except where noted, all these tools should run on Ubuntu.
Have an interesting digital art project? Have an inspiring link? Please share. We love this stuff.
Now get out there and make!