Now...Where was I?

It has been a Good Long While that my website and this blog have been off the radar. I had a Flash-based site for several years. Flash, however, has been dying a long death for as long. I began planning on a replacement and just sunk into the quicksand of website creation. I eventually settled on Squarespace as a platform and have been in a kind of website purgatory for what seems like forever.

I have had plans —forever!— to combine the former pixlart Flash site and Google Blogger PixlBlog page to centralize everything, including an art gallery and digital brush sales. But the PixlBlog is a priority and needs to get back into circulation. So here it is. The rest will be forthcoming (I’ve actually got those sections well underway and will endeavor to get them live ASAP.).

What you’ll currently find here is a curated group of earlier posts from the old blog, as well as a couple of articles I wrote initially on linkedin. Speaking of which…I continue to write courses for Linkedin Learning (mirrored at My latest is Painter 2019 Essential Training. I have also been working on a long-term expressive Painter brushes project that will be seeing the light of day soon (before the end of the year).

Consider this site in the beta stage with more to follow. Please bear with me as I get up to speed with Squarespace.I hope you’ll check in regularly to watch this website expand to its full scale. I will be posting here regularly going forward…I promise!


Artists, we're living in the Future


Using your fingers or stylus to interact with a mobile phone is pretty universal these days. But it wasn't always so. The digitizing table originated in the early '70s as an analog-to-digital interface for traditionally hand drawn pen & ink engineering drawings. A draftsman would register a completed drawing on a large-format digitizing table, then use a wired puck or stylus to digitize the crucial data points representing the drawing and transfer this data to a computer.


A smaller version —the digitizing tablet— was appropriated and used in concert with early commercial paint and draw applications. Until we arrived at the current drawing on glass era, the digital artist has been required to learn an eye/hand coordination trick in which drawing is done on the tablet surface while watching the resulting strokes appear on the display. I've been working this way for over 30 years and I'm completely comfortable with it. But, for many artists new to expressive digital mark-making tools, this paint-in-one-place-see-it-somewhere-else approach is disorienting.

John Tokyo.2png

By the late 90's, tablets had acquired the ability to sense all six degrees of motion (X, Y, Pressure, Tilt. Bearing, and Barrel Rotation). With this data, the artist's full gestural motion was now capable of being translated into expressive strokes by savvy software apps. However, the bugaboo of look here, draw there remained. This changed in 1998 when Wacom introduced the PL-300 LCD Pen Tablet.


The PL-300 used an outboard power supply and required an external computer (Win or Mac). While this technology realized the dream of direct stylus interaction with the screen, specification-wise the PL-300 suffered from low resolution (1024 X 768), poor color accuracy (typical for LCD displays of the era), tricky setup, as well as sluggish performance. It would take Wacom several product generations to eliminate these early impediments.

Apple in 2007 debuted the iOS-based iPhone, heralding the dawn of the multi-touch finger-sensitive touchscreen interface that is today ubiquitous on multiple platforms. Following the success of the iPhone, the iPad arrived in 2010 sporting a larger form factor. Both the iPhone and iPad utilize capacitive display technology which enables direct interaction using your fingers. Unfortunately, this technology is not well-suited to precise expressive mark-making. As a result, several 3rd-party stylus solutions solved this limitation by leveraging Bluetooth as a means of sending pressure-sensitive data to the iPad. Due to the capacitive display, however, these styluses suffer from large tips that hinder precision.

Apple addressed this in 2015 with the iPad Pro and its integrated Pencil stylus. Improvements in display, processor, and stylus sensing technologies provide the iPad Pro with an elegant expressive gestural mark-making solution, albeit within the iOS ecosystem.


The iPad Pro's dependence on iOS limits the artist's choice of expressive draw and paint applications. While there are several good iOS-based apps that take advantage of the Pencil's gestural savvy, users wanting to use industry-standard pro tools like Photoshop and Painter are out of luck. Cue the rise of the pen tablet...

Microsoft's Win10 pen tablet —the Surface Pro— comes to the rescue. The Surface Pro (originally released in 2012, now in its 3rd generation) has pressure-sensitivity built in. Win10 enables full versions of design and gesture-heavy applications like Photoshop and Painter to run. Other hardware vendors are starting to adopt this form factor, now including Wacom.


The recently released Wacom MobileStudio Pro takes the Win10 hybrid and outfits it with specific proprietary Wacom features: surface controls (Touch Ring, ExpressKeys), zero parallax surface, 8192-level pressure stylus (Pro Pen 2), as well as fast processors, GPU, 4K display, and cameras capable of 2D and 3D capture. And all in a 4.5 lb. package (MSP 16). 

With all of this miniaturization and increased processor power we have commenced the era of the truly portable digital paint/render/photo-retouch studio. Just a few years ago, this was science fiction.

Artists, we're living in the Future.

A Glimpse into the FUTURE of Digital Painting

One of the hallmarks of traditional painting is its physical presence. As viewers, we tend to pay the bulk of our attention to a painting’s pictorial content. On a more subconscious level, we are aware of the painting’s matière —the three-dimensional texture and impasto buildup of painted brush strokes. When a painting is photographed, this physical presence is at best implied by the manner in which the painting is lit. For example, the use of directional side-lighting emphasizes the painting’s surface via highlights and shadows.

Digital painting in virtual 3D (also referred to as two-and-a-half dimensions, or 2.5D) has been around for awhile. This visual effect is achieved by borrowing some tricks from the 3D rendering side of the tracks. The use of a height field —an extra grayscale channel in an image that uses gray values to represent a brush stroke’s height— is illuminated with a user-adjustable virtual lighting model, creating a 3D visual illusion. Brush color is simultaneously applied in concert with the height field. The result is a painted image that appears to have the three-dimensionality associated with a traditional painting.


Recently, an intersection of technologies has emerged that enables stunningly accurate 3D reproductions of traditionally painted artworks. Verus Art of Norcross, GA utilizes advanced laser imaging and Océ Arizona UV flatbed printer elevated printing technology to create high quality reproductions of famous paintings. Elevated printing utilizes a series of layered representations of a 3-dimensional scan —in this case, an oil painting— and builds up height via multiple layers of ink.


Verus’ initial project is a collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada. The collection includes several works from textural masters Van Gogh and Monet, as well as other European luminaries such as Degas, Gauguin, and Cézanne. Verus was allowed to scan several paintings the NGC collection. The resulting reproductions are done as limited editions and are priced in the $2,500-5,000 range (example below of Verus' 3D printing).


Allow me to add up what I’ve discussed thus far: the 2.5D digital paintings we today create onscreen will soon be capable of being 3D printed to reveal the thick impasto buildup depicted on the display. The key missing component currently preventing this is the ability to output a 2.5D digital painting in a format that a specialized 3D printer understands. Once a compatible file format is in place and a 3D printing service offers prints from user files, impasto style 2.5D digital paintings will be capable of being recast in the real 3D world.

I'm not suggesting that traditional oil painting is now irrelevant. But consider this: we tend to be comfortable with what we know. Change can be disruptive. Take a look at the invention of the automobile. The public initially dubbed autos a horseless carriage for the sake of familiarity. Another example is Greek temple architecture, whose original construction material was wood. As stone replaced wood building materials, the shapes of elements —columns and entablature, for example— remained the same.

In these and innumerable other cases, new materials have resulted in new forms. While it may be initially entertaining to recast an oil painting into a new medium, in the long term these mimicked forms will evolve beyond the limits of the older medium it imitates.

Advances in nanoscale science and engineering are already producing new classes of coloring materials that will eventually make their way into commercially available art materials, including paint and inkjet inks. These new colorants utilize structural coloration rather than dyes or pigments. The perceived color doesn’t arise from pigmentation, but from the light scattering off nanoscale structures embedded in its wings.


Structural color is the production of color by microscopically structured surfaces fine enough to interfere with visible light. For example, the brilliant iridescent colors of the peacock's tail feathers are created by structural coloration. Because the produced color is light, it is both brighter and more saturated than pigmented color.

These glimpses into evolving new media offer us a peek at the kinds of expressive tools our children and their children will have at their creative disposal. Were we to travel, say, 50 years into the future —I've no doubt that we may not initially recognize what expressive painted art has evolved into.


Ominous Clouds before the Storm

Sunday, May 11th (Mother's Day), the Kansas/Nebraska/Iowa section of the Great Plains experienced a strong outbreak of tornado-producing thunderstorms. We didn't get any tornadoes here in Omaha, but we did get an impressive display of mammatocumulus clouds.

These cloud formations are often associated with the leading edge of supercell thunderstorms and are a good indicator of an impending storm. I've seen these prior to tornadoes, as well. Fortunately, the Omaha weather event did not spin up any twisters in the immediate area. However, the area did receive quite a bit of wind damage. We lost a big tree limb but otherwise escaped unscathed.

New Painting App Sketchable: All in the Family

There is a new Win-based painting app on the block, Sketchable by Silicon Benders, now available at the Windows Store. Description from the download page:

Sketchable provides the best creative digital journaling experience on the market. Whether you import an image, snap a photo, or start from a blank canvas, Sketchable puts the creative options in your hands. No matter the context, Sketchable is the perfect app to breathe life into your ideas. The elegant interface is designed to get the most out of each device and fast fluid brushes allow for an uninterrupted workflow.

Sketchable is tablet-friendy and pairs nicely with the Wacom-enabled Surface Pro. The app is a free download with and comes with brush and eraser tools. In-app purchases offer 7 additional painting tools. I'm happy to say that I had a bit of involvement with this new app; I created its textures and brush presets.

Silicon Benders is the brother team of Miles & Ryan Harris. Painting apps appear to run in the brothers' genes: their dad is Jerry Harris, co-author (with Keith McGregor) of early Mac paint app PixelPaint Pro, the first full-color paint application for the Macintosh. Jerry is now a Principal Computer Scientist on the Adobe Photoshop team.

Sketchable is designed to be easy to pick up and start using with a minimal learning curve. It is a particularly pressure-sensitive savvy app offering a wide range of expressibility in concert with its tools. Sketchable has a simple interface with plenty of room for expansion. I have a feeling we'll be seeing this app grow over time. Highly Recommended!