Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Creativity and Painter, Part 1

Painter 1.0, which shipped in much-less-corroded
paint can than this one, had a theme of creativity
For those of you who have read my introduction to this blog, you may have wondered what I meant by "creating Painter". This post should clear up any confusion on the subject. There are resources detailing this from other perspectives, and they are to be cherished. John Derry's interview on Painter and other subjects makes fascinating reading. He's got it right. Karen Sperling's account of writing the first Painter manual also gives more wonderful insight into the process. Some of this has also been included into the various books on Painter techniques and artistry as forewords.

Corel sells a product called Painter, currently in version 12, that is an excellent application for painting and sketching. What is little known these days is that I wrote the initial technology entirely from scratch, starting in September 1990.


In October of 1989 I was in the back room of my house in Aptos working on Shapes, the illustration layer for ColorStudio. Shapes was a system for controlling Bezier curves in a manner similar to PostScript. On the 17th of that month, a 7.1-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake came which dumped the heavy CRT monitor in my lap and sent me running out of the house. I could see my 7-foot grand piano bouncing two feet off the floor. I headed out the front door with my family, dodging bricks that were falling off the fa├žade surrounding the front door. These were real full-sized bricks, unfortunately. The earthquake felt like a giant fist hitting our house from the side again and again. As I ran out from the cacophony that was the inside of our home, my foot slipped on the brickwork and I twisted my ankle painfully. My (then) wife Ruth was justifiably quite frightened and this led to a traumatization that caused her and the kids to sleep outside for a month.

It took several months to get the house fixed up. Several headers were under-spec and had to be joisted properly. Internally, the wood framing had to be re-strapped. The chimney was heavy brickwork and had pulled away from the house. If it had come crashing into the house, I might not be writing this blog now. It had to be reframed using zero-clearance and was redesigned to control a heatilator, which allowed the heated air surrounding the fireplace cavity to be circulated into the house.

The insurance company paid off and the house was repaired. But this took almost a year. When the construction people were finally out of the house, my mind was at rest and it became time to start something new. Exactly what frame of mind I was in is a complicated story.

Secret Starts

Tom Hedges,
later in life
Source: John Derry
My job at the time was really a partnership with Tom Hedges, called Fractal Software. Starting something new wasn't in the cards for me, since ColorStudio 2.0 was underway and improvements to Shapes were my official task at Fractal Software. I couldn't start anything new at work, because Tom would have blown a gasket. And the process of making the new revision of ColorStudio Shapes was in the debugging stage.

For those of you who know me, you probably already know that I'm more a developer than a fixer-upper. And Tom, of course was the ultimate finisher. His debugging and troubleshooting skills were legendary. He was also a great systems programmer.

So I was always starting something new. This time, I spent a lot of my time deriding what ColorStudio had become: a production tool. You see, production is not what I do. What I like is creativity. Sketching. Drawing. I am an incessant artist.

Let's take a step back. Our first actual project together had been an audio digitizer and software, called SoundCap (for sound capture) to drive it. Our first customers were actually Steve Capps, Bill Atkinson, and Andy Hertzfeld from the first Macintosh team. We licensed this product to a marketer in Minnesota (MacNifty, run by Mike Halvorson) and they promptly had our software reverse-engineered and replaced, so he wouldn't have to pay us the exorbitant royalties we charged him.

Grumbling about this, I started a new project initially called GrayPaint. This application had the ability to use a mouse to sketch using a pencil, using charcoal (that actually built up from lighter to darker so you could shade), and a fingertip that smeared the image. I spent plenty of time perfecting this notion of a more realistic drawing capability. Tom got the insanely great idea to connect this grayscale technology to scanners (which were able to collect sixteen levels of gray!). So he began to implement connection software for scanner after scanner. Between the two of us we had just developed the first image editing software for Macintosh. We showed this to Marla Milne of Letraset and she codenamed the project The Realist and we signed with Letraset. This project became ImageStudio, and it was our first real moneymaking software application. It was with the royalties from this software that I was able to purchase my house in Aptos.

The net result was that I was the lead on ImageStudio. So when 24-bit cards began to show up from RasterOps and Supermac, Letraset began asking us about a color version. This time, Tom wanted to be the lead on the project, and I agreed. This became ColorStudio, and ColorStudio wasn't an artist's program. I spent months working on RGB to CMYK conversion software. And then Shapes. All the programming was technical, and none of it was creative. I became bored. But ColorStudio made much more money for us, so who was I to complain? It was a coincidence that the first Wacom tablets arrived at that time.

At home, after the earthquake repairs were over and I had more time on my hands, I just couldn't stop thinking about what had been lost with ColorStudio. So in September of 1990 I began studying how pencils interacted with paper. How to create seamless textures. How these textures could be used to simulate pencil strokes. I studied how felt pens built up to make new colors. I created log-density equations to allow for the build-up of charcoal and graphite on the page. I modeled brush strokes and the physics of the motion of the hand using the (initial, crude) input from the first Wacom tablets. I had to write software to de-jitter the lines.

I did all this in secret because I was worried about what Tom would say about me doing something that didn't have an obvious monetary value. I proceeded studying chalk and ink pens, pencils, charcoal, and even oil paint for some five months before I actually even showed it to another living person.

One day I did bring it into work and I was immediately criticized by Tom for not concentrating on the matter at hand (ColorStudio 2.0, and Shapes). One week later, we got the notice from Letraset that they were terminating their software division. We knew that that meant: no more royalties. And Letraset still had the license to ColorStudio and ImageStudio.

So we brought some good friends into our small 660-square-foot office to look at our new software, which I had nicknamed Painter. Lee Lorenzen and Steve Manousos were their names. Lee had made his fortune on Ventura Publisher and was busy monetizing his software for cross-platform development at Altura Software. Steve ran a service bureau called Aptos Post with Linotype machines and printers and had become an invaluable resource to Tom Hedges and me.

They were impressed and we started Fractal Design Corporation a few months later.

The Creativity Begins

The rush to get out a product (in August 1991) led to interesting developments like cloning, but, as you already know, the finishing work on a product was more Tom Hedges' expertise than mine. Also, while Painter 1.0 got finished for Mac, Painter 1.5 was being developed on Windows 3.1, using Altura's cross-platform development environment. Tom did an excellent job of this, while simultaneously developing a system for virtual memory using image tiles. This was a period when Tom's contributions really shone.

But I got restless to make something new. Based on my observations of animation sketch artists' stations at Disney, I decided to implement canvas rotation. In Painter, this is the tool that allows you to rotate the canvas you are drawing into. This is necessary, because the artists' hands typically favor certain angles (45 degrees for right-handers such as myself) and the best sketchers actually rotate their canvas quite often to do better freehand work.

Also, at this time, we hired John Derry.

I met John at the same MacWorld conference in August 1991 when Painter was debuted. He was demoing Time Arts' Oasis. His demos were spectacular. I knew I could only just barely approach that kind of artistic flair and skill in demos. So I made him an offer. It was the best decision I ever made.

Rule Number 1: Take Notes

In those days I kept notebooks in my pocket, along with a FaberCastell DESIGN EBONY pencil. These were used to keep any ideas that I had, so I could harvest them later. Fortunately, I have kept them all!

On these pages, I kept some of my more interesting ideas and concepts. Here are two pages from my notebooks, dated June 1991; this was two months before Painter 1.0 came to market. Hope you can read my handwriting!


This is the original notebook I used. Note that there is a small sketch, my initials, and the date. Also note that the original EBONY pencil is still stuck into the spiral binding at the top! The title is "inimitable features of natural sketch".

Based on the next pages and dates from that notebook, I remember not more than ten days after writing these notes I had a conversation in Banff, Alberta with Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, about their new deal with Disney for three feature-length animation films (which became Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2). And about the relationship with his new CEO at Pixar, Steve Jobs. That was one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had.

Later I started using a Moleskine (without lines) and a gold Cross pen. Once we hired John Derry, there were press tours for Painter 2.0 and Painter 3.0. These were watershed times for creativity.

I often used little yellow notepads for my incessant note-taking. Here is one example of a feature concerning circularly-arranged brush bristles and their contact with the canvas as you turn the brush and simply change the direction of your brush stroke.

At one point, John Derry numbered all my notes. I can't remember for the life of me why he did such a thing, but the numbers at the top left corner of each note are in his hand. I remember that this was around Painter 4. The notes clearly show the intimate relationship of lists, diagrams, and equations in my notes.

Later on, in the Painter 6 time frame, after Fractal Design had merged with MetaTools to become MetaCreations, I continued to take notes. Some of my notes were very graphically oriented, showing my technical/artist sides. Here is a particularly florid example from 1999.

© 1999 Mark Zimmer. All rights reserved.

As this page from my notes shows, I was concerned with the state of Painter 6 (list on right hand side) and  the state of the impasto brush (this was Tom Hedges' greatest creative moment, by the way!). You will also notice that the first customer ship date of Painter 6 is listed as September 24, 1999.

I don't know where to begin with all the graphics on this page. At the lower right is an idea for an animation where a 3D shape consisting of 7 cubes assembles itself. There is a heavy influence of positive and negative spaces here. Also, an interesting folded-paper symbol is drawn in three styles in the approximate center of the document.

A curious mention of "metaflash" - a product that never really came to fruition - along with a "capture your soul" tagline appears at lower left. A comparison to quantum-leap technology leads me to use a metaphor of taking polaroids of indigenous peoples. I have heard that they used to believe that photography could capture your soul.

You will also notice that most everything on the page is tilted about ten to fifteen degrees.

The reference to 3D Paint was because I was working on Detailer, the 3D Paint product.

Rule Number 2: Never Stop Creating

Wherever you are, you should still continue to create. Be able to capture your creative ideas on the move. Here is an example of that kind of constant creativity that worked famously.

John Derry and I were in Chicago for a Print Expo one year. We were sitting in an outdoor cafe, under the shade of some nice trees. I remember this day vividly because, on a table closer to the street corner some rude college-aged kids would make some reference to "corn muffins" to every pretty girl that walked by. I still don't quite know what they were talking about!

Anyway, John and I were eating lunch when suddenly John said. "Hey Mark. There's a tree. How can I paint with that?". He just wanted to paint and have a tree come out immediately. He pointed to some stucco texture on a neighboring building and asked the same question. Then he pointed to some bricks and repeated the question.

I began to formulate an idea of capturing snippets of reality and having them come out, individually masked, onto the canvas right out of the brush. I thought that each one could have a shadow, or could be individually lit with some kind of 3D model in mind. So I began to draw out a structure where these images could be stored and referenced with varying degrees of randomness and at varying scales and angles. I started thinking about how these scales, angles, light, and shadows could be controlled by the user's hand, by the parameters that come out of a stylus.

This technique, which became the Image Hose in Painter, was dreamed up entirely within this lunch in Chicago.


  1. Enjoyed reading this. It was a thrill doing Fractal Design with you, Tom, Lee and John. Hope you'll write some more about Fractal.

  2. wow, this was an amazing account of the birth of Painter!
    to me it's like getting a wonderfully amazing Christmas present and many years later finding out how the maker made it and the story behind it!
    So at first it was just a handful of people? Amazing!
    Who came up with the idea of the can as packaging and later on the "paint chip pack" for the tools info? (I don't know the real name for that, but you know what I mean, right?) That was a stroke of genius!
    Thanks for this blog, it's really really interesting!

  3. There is a new post on how the paint can came to be. And skeuomorphism and its uses at Fractal Design. Yes, and the Painter Power Palette Picker!

    Not sure who developed the idea for the PPPP, but I'll ask Mary. She'll know.

  4. skeuomorphism?? What is that?
    I'll look for the post on the can.
    I tell you, many years later I got rid of the can (sadly, but we moved...) but I kept the PPPP, it was that cool! Actually I still have the discs for painter 4 (floppies) I am not sure for what.... Smithsonian maybe?
    There was so much about Painter that I loved... still do, but some things have changed... and are somewhat going towards a photoshop-look...
    I loved that the tool selector was like a drawer with actual tools and you could change the drawer paper. That was even more evident in the cheap version of Painter, it was neat, like a real digital studio.
    I loved the posters and paraphernalia that came with it, it was real clever marketing. It showed a creative mind behind it all.
    Yes, even the weaves were neat, because they were also another creative expression.
    I have few questions for you, but I'll tack them to another post, more appropriate for the topic.


  5. Skeuomorphism is a trendy term that means UI that looks like real objects. And the essential thing is that you already know what that does. Good examples are like Apple's iPhone App "Find Friends" that has a stitched-leather UI. With Dabbler, we traveled into the skeuomorphic domain with wood texture and actual drawers. We carried this into Painter 3, 4 and 5 as well.

    I have all the floppies as well, in real Paint cans. No way to use or read them, though.

    I insisted on the posters, quick reference guides, and other stuff. And that each and every version was lushly illustrated by real artists. And color manuals. It really increased the cost of good sold.

    But I maintained that business was not about greed. It was about customer satisfaction, attention to detail inside and out.

    Things Steve Jobs is famous for.

    I was looking through the PPPP yesterday, and all the weaves I found really took me back. I entered all the Scottish tartans! Ahhhh, those were the days. The tan and brown "Shadow 1" weave pattern was an actual weaving I made in real life. And so was "Our Green One". It was hanging on my wall for a while.

    Stay tuned for more outrageous posts on patterns and complex post on how Painter's Paper Textures were made. All lost technology until today.


  6. Skeuomorphism, I like that! I didn't know the name but I certainly liked the effect and look of it. I wish Painter had retained it. The new UI is not so great.
    I get confused easily.
    There used to be (there still is, I am sure) a plug in program that applied effects to images, I think it was for photoshop. (I will not mention the name, mostly because I don't remember it! I removed it from memory out of frustration!!)
    It had an UI so obscure that I could not figure out how to work it pasts the most basic stage. I hated it so much that I stopped using it.
    I was glad that Painter did not have that problem, and that the whole thing had the look of an actual art studio! I could deal with that.
    I see the trend in apps and apple products in general. I like it, and I am glad things are going that way!
    Why reinvent the wheel?
    I do have one small beef however, with the Painter UI, and that was that the buttons "cancel" and "ok" in the responses window were reversed. The norm is Ok on the left and cancel on the right. With Painter, for years it was the other way around, and being the creature of habit that I am, I would click on the cancel button so often, without thinking or looking, thinking I clicked ok.... I think by now they fixed it and now it's up to standards.... but it drove me crazy!

    The old painter stuff.... I can see why you would keep them! Like a child's first tooth, or baby shoes, or the first haircut locks... It's your baby, and somebody has to preserve it for posterity!
    You said the can is getting rusty, there has to be a way to preserve it without messing up the labels... Otherwise it's just a can of paint!

    I said it before and I'll say it again, that attention to the quality of the product and of the company itself shone through and I for one appreciated it a lot!
    Which brings me to the questions I had for you.
    With a preface.
    When Painter was taken over by Corel I was worried that they might absorb it, take the best features of Painter and stick them in Photopaint and discontinue it altogether.
    I like Photopaint, I have used it for years when I couldn't afford photoshop, but I hoped they wouldn't do that. I was glad to see that they didn't!
    Then I heard about photoshop natural media brushes and I thought Oh no! This is going to be the demise of Painter for sure... If their brushes are as good and are incorporated into PS, who is going to need a separate program? Shortly after Painter will be gone.... :(
    But then I upgraded to the PS with the natural media brushes, I've used them and I thought... no way, they don't even come close to Painter.... That demise won't be for a loooong time!
    So my question to you is what do you think is in the future for Painter, and does it really face any dangers of extinction from these two potential rivals?
    Are you still involved in any way with its development?
    Thanks and sorry for such a long comment....
    PS glad to hear you dug out the weaves and PPPP again! Strolling down memory lane!

  7. Hi, I had posted a long message to this post and I don't see it here. I don't know if it came in or not. If it's waiting for approval before posting, let me know. If not, I'll re-post it...

    1. Daniela,

      It got turned into spam and truncate by Google's blogger.com engines. But I did receive the entire message on email, and I answered it there instead.

      No problem

  8. It did?? You did? I didn't get it. Did you send it to dgsquare@gmail.com?
    Is there a limit on the length of posts?

  9. ok, I just got it.

  10. Hello :)
    I can't see 2nd Photo 'Tom Hedges, later in life Source: John Derry'

  11. I was just posting about this, and how I discovered that painting with Painter elicited exactly the same pleasure as painting with brush-and-paint. I used a wacom digitiser tablet and pressure sensitive stylus. I miss it. I reviewed Corel post PhotoImpact takeover and was disappointed at the features they thought unnecessary that were my lifeblood. Dare I try Corel Painter or will I want (again) to storm their garrisons and take out the infidels who don't recognise fabulous functionality.