A little-known fact about me is that I can draw better than your average cat. It is a hobby of mine that became dormant with my pretty challenging professional and Free Software activities in the past few years.
Drawing is hard, let’s go hacking
One of the things that previously threw me off from drawing more is the huge amount of time and effort required to produce a single coloured illustration. I used to sketch, ink, scan, then colour… and end up feeling like the paper sketch looked better than the digitized, coloured version (scanners have shitty dynamic range, by the way—I eventually built a photographic ring light just to be able to preserve details in sketches and forego inking).
The colouring process was improved and sped up quite a bit when I bought an inexpensive USB Wacom graphire tablet a few years ago; I moved away from “cell shading” and achieved smoother results, quicker. Why Wacom? They’re the industry standard, their stylus/pen uses electromagnetic induction (no batteries required), and their hardware works out of the box with GNU/Linux and GNOME.
A piece was still missing, however: I was never able to sketch on a USB tablet because I really need my hand to be physically coordinated with my gaze. I could not replicate the precision feel of paper with a “desk-top” tablet. Drawing directly on the screen is an illustrator’s dream, and there’s the Wacom Cintiq for that, but is so outrageously expensive that it is not something you can really justify to yourself if you do occasional art “for the sake of it”.
On the other hand, Linux geeks like me tend to love Thinkpads: they are very well supported by Linux, their design is timeless and robustness legendary. Well, guess what? It just so happens that the tablet variants of the Thinkpad X series are actually inexpensive Wacom screens. And you can find them used much more easily than a Cintiq. I took a mental note to try one of these one day.
First illustration in years
Except on one recent occasion, I have not made any sketches in the past three years, and I have not made a full-colour drawing for over five years.
Trying out a stylus-enabled Thinkpad today, I managed to replicate the feel of my mechanical pen on paper, by setting the zoom to 25% in MyPaint and using David Revoy’s “pen” brush with a 2.0 opacity setting (default size and hardness). Since you’re at 25% zoom, you can zoom in to clean way more details than what would be possible on paper.
I was quite pleased to see that, much like riding a bicycle, drawing is a skill that does not really fade away in the absence of practice. With my new toolset (MyPaint + Thinkpad tablet + GNOME 3.12), I spent one hour sketching and two hours colouring, leading to this result:
I think this is simultaneously the quickest and most satisfying color illustration I’ve done so far. I rarely get the feeling that the coloring process was worth it, but this time I did. It took me more time to write this enthusiastic blog post than to draw the damn thing.
Speaking broadly, GNOME Shell and GTK3 applications are quite nice to use with a touchscreen: thumb scrolling (I miss that in my browser), dragging windows in/out of your virtual workspace, tiling or maximize them using screen edges, etc.
GNOME’s distraction-free desktop experience, combined with MyPaint’s minimalist interface, is quite soothing. I’m looking forward to the GTK3 version of MyPaint, which is said to use symbolic icons and the dark variant of Adwaita. I hope it will also feature GTK3 client-side decorations to save vertical space.
GNOME Control Center provides a nice Wacom tablet/screen configuration and calibration tool. It allowed me to remap the stylus’ sidebutton to middle-click (useful for panning around an image) and to calibrate the screen. However, the screen calibration yields incorrect results when the screen is rotated, whereas I was able to achieve perfect accuracy when the screen is not rotated. Filed bug #732442 about it.
It is amazing that we’ve come to a point where, barring the bug above, everything just works and is a pleasure to use.
Artists should prioritize the use of a Free Software creative applications (like MyPaint, GIMP, Inkscape, Pitivi and others) and a Free Software desktop/OS like GNOME, rather than relying on proprietary platforms:
- Those tools are available to everyone.
- They will continue to improve and be available to everyone.
- They use open file formats and standards to ensure that, down the road, even in ten years, I will still be able to easily open my digital art files. The .ora format is not only MyPaint’s default format, it is also supported by GIMP, Krita, Scribus, Pinta, etc.
What concerns me is that I’m one of those “odd beasts” that love traditional devices like Thinkpad laptops. I’m wondering if many artists are now moving towards consumer tablets—the “disposable” ones, without a keyboard and user-replaceable operating system or battery. It would be great if, with GNOME OS, we could provide a compelling alternative to that and ensure the long-term freedom of artists.
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