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Exquisite tools, exquisite art: using digitizers and paint programs.

Exquisite Tools Exquisite Art: Using Digitizers and Paint Programs

Three recent developments in microcomputer technology provide exquisite tools for the production of artworks. The first development includes extended memory, sound and graphics capability for producing reasonably adequate visual microcomputer images. Next, a process called digitizing was developed which allows the user to easily import visual images into the microcomputer. Finally, paint programs or paint systems were introduced. These are programs that allow efficient and interesting creation and modification of visual images within the microcomputer.


The digitizer may be understood by analogy with the keyboard. Since the middle '70s, getting information into and out of the microcomputer has been straightforward. The keyboard has served as the major input device, and the monitor and printer have served as the major output devices. However, input devices for visual images have included, or been only slightly more adequate than, the keyboard--paddles, touch tablets, joy sticks and mice. Now, two new input devices are common--the digitizer and the scanner.

Digitizers are the best source of visual images currently available for microcomputers. They are remarkably flexible in the input they accept. The ComputerEyes digitizer accepts input from videotape players, videodisc players or television cameras. Coupled with the high resolution and greater variety of color in recent microcomputer images, digitizers can produce visual images which approach or even exceed the standard for television. Digitized images can also be taken from photographs.

Each microcomputer visual image is made up of pixels. The resolution of a graphics screen is reported in pixel dimensions. For example, a high resolution image may be 200 by 300 pixels. The light at each pixel is resolvable into five vectors. Three vectors represent the three primary colors of light: red, blue and green. This is the way qualitative color information concerning hue is quantified. Every hue can be represented as some specific proportion of red, blue and green. The other two vectors represent the intensity and saturation of the pixel. "Intensity" refers to the brightness of the hue, while "saturation" describes the amount of the hue, as opposed to grey tone, in the pixel.

Digitizer software permits significant alteration of the digitized image. The image can be "fine tuned" to resemble the source image more closely. Interesting effects also can be created by shrinking and expending the images--several images can be combined, or a peculiar "chunking" effect can be achieved because of the loss of information in shrinking. Another effect is created when the colors are replaced by their complements, or inverted.

Paint programs

Paint programs in the world of computers are the equivalent of painting tools in the domain of the arts. One aim of painting is to create a visual image with aesthetic value. Paint programs allow the creation of visual images, both on the microcomputer screen and as output from printers. However, unlike traditional painting tools, paint programs give the user a tremendous sense of power and control over the process of creating a visual image with only a modest investment of time and energy.

The newer paint programs cannot be understood without some reference to the mouse and pull-down menus. The mouse is a device which capitalizes on human hand-eye coordination; moving the mouse on a flat surface causes a corresponding pointer to move about the screen. Once a desired point on the screen has been reached, a signal can be sent to the microcomputer by pressing a button located on the top of the mouse.

Pull-down menus are a further elaboration of mouse capabilities. A menu bar of general choices appears across the top of the screen. Using the mouse, the arrow is made to fall inside one of three choices. The mouse button is depressed and held down, and a new list of choices falling within that menu category appears. The mouse can then be "pulled down" to the desired choice from this list and the mouse button released in order to make the selection.

These programs all contain a similar range of functions for which an acronym may be coined: ADEPT -- Access (i.e., file management), Drawing tools, Editing, Palette options and Text.

File management refers to the process of naming, storing and retrieving computer-based images. One can start a new file, open a previous file, and close and save the current file.

Drawing tool options are found in a tool palette symbolized by simple icons. Freehand drawing tools represent the traditional painting tools: i.e., pencils and paint brushes of varying thicknesses and spray cans. In addition, there are many drawing tools unique to the microcomputer, such as guided drawing tools which assist in drawing straight lines or solid or outlined geometric figures. There is also a hand tool for moving the canvas around and an eraser tool because we are human.

A fill tool allows a closed line to be colored or shaded. Typically, there is a palette of sixteen colors on the screen. When the fill option is activated, simply placing the pointer inside of an enclosed figure and clicking the mouse fills the figure with the active color. In one program, it is possible to create "gradient fill" colors, so that, for example, a sky grading from dark to light can be created with a single press of a button.

It is in the Edit features of these programs that we find some of the most amazing strengths. Just as words in a word processor, parts of drawings can be cut, copied or pasted in any desired position. Or, these captured areas can be flipped horizontally, vertically or rotated. While there is sometimes a fine line between drawing and editing, editing refers to an essentially critical activity, while drawing is more creative.

There is also a "Goodies" menu in some programs. The drawing can be greatly enlarged so that individual pixels can be altered easily. Mirrors and grids are available that allow the construction of symmetrical or regular drawings.

Palette options refer to color choices or painting as well as the possibilities for creating or blending colors. There is a great variety of color from which to choose. Because the hue of a color is represented by three color vectors, any combination of these vectors represents a unique hue. In PaintWorks Plus, for example, there are sixteen values for each of these vectors, giving a possibility of 16 x 16 x 16 or 4,096 hues. Unfortunately, only sixteen of these colors can be active on any screen. Any sixteen colors can be loaded and saved as a palette.

While working on a drawing, it is possible to "find" a color in your palette bar, or conversely, to find all the areas in the drawing where a certain color is located. Whole new palettes can be imported into a drawing--for example, a gray-tone drawing can be automatically converted to sepia or high contrast black and white.

Finally, text may be written anywhere on the screen in a variety of fonts, styles and sizes.


A major aim of art educators is to develop skills in the creation and appreciation of art objects, both representational and non-representational. The capabilities of digitizers and paint programs can provide a significant medium with which to achieve this aim.

Students are most frequently discouraged in their pursuit of drawing skills when their initial attempts seem to be visually unrewarding. The necessity for computer skills notwithstanding, digitizing offers a process that can produce immediate rewards.

Digitized images can be imported into paint programs, and this can lead to some astonishing successes. If someone's goal is representational art, he or she frequently finds that the digitized image does not quite correspond to the subject. Paint programs or digitizing software can be used to move the representation closer to the original in color, form or composition. Colors may be modified throughout the picture or toned differently in a specific area. Subjects may be outlined or otherwise highlighted. Distracting objects may be erased.

Paint programs also excel at facilitating the production of art that moves slightly away from representational. Sections of digitized photographs can be cut and pasted into a collage. Color palettes can be developed which highlight, contrast or give surrealistic effects. Moreover, these image modifications require no drawing skill. Finally, paint programs can be used to create abstract compositions. In fact, they lend themselves to the rapid creation of interesting combinations of form and color. Almost all actions, too, are reversible, so that experiments can be made without fear of losing the original.

At the level of theory, paint programs and digitizing software may be used to illustrate the principles of color blending. Using the color mixing features of these programs, a teacher may give a concrete demonstration that when red is gradually added to blue, purple results. The difference between contrast and brightness and their interdependence can be displayed by increasing or decreasing first one and then the other.


The creation of microcomputer graphics using digitizing and paint programs has important significance for the development of visual literacy. Using digitizers, one can take almost any form of video image and translate it into excellent microcomputer graphics. Because the digitizer analyzes light into its component parts, it is easy to modify these components in the microcomputer.

Paint programs also excel in the production of interesting nonrepresentational art, and may be used to illustrate principles of color mixing and form creation. None of these features require the investment in time and energy of traditional drawing and painting, although they do require a certain amount of computer literacy. Hopefully, these tools will be explored by those interested in art education.

PHOTO : Digitized flower image.

PHOTO : Editing options on a "Goodies" menu.

PHOTO : A digitizer receiving input from a videodisc player.

PHOTO : A digitized image from photographic source material.

James Andris is Coordinator of Computer Resources, School of Education, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Illinois.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Andris, James
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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