Monday, July 11, 2011

Waving the Flag of Open Source Software

I'm a big fan of open source software. Within the past few years I have incorporated numerous open source applications into my arsenal. I would even go so far as to say that a few of them have played a significant role in improving my artistic and technical abilities. Many open source applications have features you won't find in their mainstream counterparts. On a cerebral level, opening up a completely new application is going to cause you to think and work differently than just diving into your old standby. Here is a look at a few of my favorite open source applications, along with a few examples of how I have used them in my work.

Just keep in mind, even though these applications are completely free and open to the public, it does not mean the developers don't need some cash flow. If you like any in particular please consider giving them a donation.



By far my favorite open source application. Alchemy provides a simple and intuitive interface that allows for spontaneous creation and compositions. You just can't get this level of off-the-cuff creativity in Illustrator or Photoshop. There are no undos and no eraser (though you can fake it by just drawing with white or your background color). The toolset is completely non conventional, providing for all sorts of things you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. I guarantee it.

For example, take the "Speed Shapes." You can choose between smooth or straight line shapes, and adjust the speed to your liking. Begin drawing, and with every stroke you get something completely unexpected. It is this surprise element that most digital art severely lacks. Alchemy fills this void.

Another bizarre and experimental option is the "Mic Shapes" tool. While drawing, you can make various sounds into your microphone, and it will adjust the thickness and shape of your stroke according to the incoming waveform of your voice.

And these options are just the beginning of what Alchemy has to offer. Add in the ability to instantly send a vector file to Illustrator, or raster file to Photoshop and you have a formidable weapon for creativity.

Alchemy can be seen in many of my works in the past couple of years. I often use it as a an initial sketching application, or just something to doodle in when I don't have any particular ideas but still feel like creating something. It is amazing how quickly something can come to fruition out of thin air. Here is a prime example of how I used Alchemy for my piece "Heartwurm." The first image is my initial sketch in Alchemy, and the 2nd is the finished piece. You can see how Alchemy provided for a an incredibly quick generation of the overall piece that I could then build upon and enhance in Photoshop.



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Upon first launch, Inkscape comes across as fairly weak. This is simply because of the Windows 95'ish interface. But if you can look past that and get down to its functionality, Inkscape has a lot to offer that the big bully on the playground simply doesn't. For example: The "Draw 3D Boxes" tool.

Upon selecting the Draw 3D boxes tool, you can immediately start doing exactly as you would expect. Click and drag from corner to corner and you will draw a shaded box. But where things get really interesting, is that after drawing your box (or multiple boxes), you can then adjust the perspective accordingly. So say you draw a bunch of boxes that look like they are sitting on the ground. Click and drag on the vanishing points and you can shift the boxes to look like they are floating slightly, or high in the sky. Even better, you can go back and adjust the size and proportions of each individual box. Pretty slick.

And while it may seem incredibly simplistic to begin with, it is that initial inspiration that can lead to something much greater. Take for example my piece "Wormhole." The first image was my initial discovery of the 3D Box Tool in Inkscape, and the second is the finished piece.





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Blender is a masterpiece of open source software. It is a 3D modeling and animation tool that can run side by side with the likes of Cinema 4D, 3DS Max and Maya. While many naysayers will belittle it for its atypical interface and simply for the fact that it is open source, don't let that deter you. Blender is a powerful program that is not to be taken lightly.

I first started working with 3D modeling applications when I was 13. I have used 3DS Max, Bryce, Hatch, Lightwave, Maya and Cinema 4D. After all of that experience, Blender is still one of my favorites. While as of late I have mostly been using Cinema 4D, I still prefer Blender in many ways. Specifically, I prefer Blender's "Sculpting" tool over Cinema's "Magnet Tool" any day of the week, and Blender's "Modifier" system seems easier to grasp than Cinema's "Deformations." Of course, Cinema 4D has many things to offer that Blender doesn't, such as incredibly easy animation and seamless integration with After Effects. But when it comes down to it, for an open source application that won't break the bank and consistently gets better and better, it really cannot be beat.

Here is an example of how I have personally put Blender to use. On top is the plain, boring render directly out of Blender. Of significant note, I modelled the fighter ships from scratch and set up the composition in a little less than 45 minutes. And below is the finished piece, colored, tweaked and enhanced in Photoshop (for who knows how long).



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I will end with a program that I only discovered in the past few days but am incredibly excited about. It is called Sculptris, and it is an open source 3D modeling application that is specifically geared towards organic shapes. It is like Blender's Sculpting tool to the 10th power. Considering it's from Pixologic, who also develops the world-renowned ZBrush, it's pretty amazing that Sculptris is provided to us free of charge.

You start with a simple sphere. You can push, pull, prod and pinch it until you have a very natural, polished 3D model. You can then export your creation as a .obj, which works seamlessly with Blender, for final rendering. Since Sculptris is so new to me, I do not have any real world examples to present such as with the previous software, but I can guarantee that I will be utilizing it in the immediate future :)


So there you have it. I hope that you find these applications as inspiring and useful as I do. And by all means, if you know of any open source software that you think I should look into please let me know. I'm always excited to try new ways to make art!