Sunday, October 24, 2010

IllustStudio First Impressions


I’ve got a week of IllustStudio under my belt. The verdict: spectacular.

As I mentioned in my last post, IllustStudio has a similar interface to Photoshop’s. Many of the macros are the same, most of the button icons are similar, and you’ll recognize the same basic tools -- magic wand (comically transliterated from the Japanese as “magikkuwando”), color picker, lasso, etc. The key difference between the two programs is that IllustStudio allows you to make either raster or vector layers. In a raster layer, you draw with pixels. In a vector layer, every line you draw has at its core a tweakable, transformable mathematical spine. The important thing here is that from a user perspective, the two feel mostly identical. But boy, are they different.

The Eraser

In the IllustStudio demo video, you see this little guy in action a couple of times. Until I actually started drawing pages in IllustStudio, I hadn’t fully grokked how this tool, paired with vectors, could revolutionize my pipeline. The eraser tool has three modes: normal, intersection, and whole line.





Normal mode works exactly like Photoshop's eraser. It removes what it touches. Intersection, however, is a game-changer. Consider panel borders: in Photoshop, I used to use the line tool to draw overlapping lines and then manually remove the lines from the interpanel spaces. Not the toughest task in the world, but definitely a chore.

Here’s how you do it in IllustStudio: first, use the line tool to make two vertical lines that span the height of your page. Then, make two horizontal lines that span the width of your page.
Second, set your line-modifier tool (translated for some reason as "line level") to “duplicate lines,” and increase the influence area of your cursor so that it selects paired panel lines at once. Then click and drag your panel borders to place them where you want them. Finally, flick the eraser (set to “intersection”) over the lines you don’t want. This takes maybe ten seconds for the whole page:
 



Done. Ten minute task becomes one minute task.
Or how about speech bubbles? Another non-trivial task that becomes increasingly annoying in Photoshop as you switch back and forth to the paths palette and re-stroke your paths for every revision.
In IllustStudio, you start out with a plain old oval. You can easily tweak this oval into a more pleasing shape using your trusty line-level tool, this time set to “fix both ends” (you may want to play with the influence area of this tool as well -- too narrow and it’ll just give you dimples, too big and it’ll move the entire line at once. Warning: "influence area" is translated here as "adjustable thumb." No idea). Once you’ve got your bubble, add the tail by drawing two overlapping curves with the curve tool. Now go back to the eraser tool (again set to “intersection”). Boop, boop, and boop:


Done. You need to see this happening in real time to get a sense of how fast it is. All this happens in seconds.

Before I stop hyping the eraser tool, I should mention the usefulness of the “whole line” setting. In this mode, the eraser removes all of every line that it crosses, from end to end. Think about all the fuss that’s required to erase, say, the collar of a shirt in Photoshop. You’ve got to zoom way in and make sure that at the end of that line you don’t make a dent in the line of the person’s neck, right? That sort of stuff is ancient history now. With IllustStudio, you don’t ever need to zoom way in for anything, really.

Transformations

In Photoshop, you may find yourself scaling and rotating parts of images after you’ve drawn them (I usually end up resizing and repositioning parts of human figures this way). Of course, because Photoshop is raster-based, the result is blurred. And it gets worse if you do it a third and fourth time. What you catch yourself doing is transforming the element and then tracing over it to get a clean line again. Modify, retrace. Modify, retrace. A real time-sink.

With vectors, transformations are non-lossy (“lossy” describes any process that involves an irreversible loss of data). That means you can rotate, increase scale, stretch, shrink, rotate again, do the hokey pokey, and rotate one more time, and the line stays exactly as sharp as ever. That’s huge, right? How many hours did I spend retracing for issue #1? Days? Weeks, maybe? Are you starting to get a sense of how much this program rocks?

Related to the transformation fluidity is the ability to change page size. You probably already guessed this one, but I’ll go ahead and spell it out: you can change your page size to any dimensions at any point in your drawing, and the results will be perfectly clean. You can draw the whole drawing at 1000x1500 pixels if you want, and then scale it up by a factor of ten. Your lines will still look sharp.

For issue #1 of Nonplayer, I drew the pages at very high resolution because I wanted to be able to make posters from the pages at some point. This slowed everything down drastically -- with some files, it took five minutes or more just to save, and things got exponentially worse as I added layers. For Nonplayer #2, I’m working at a reasonable resolution (6.875 x 10.437 in @ 400 dpi), safe in the knowledge that I can blow up the entire page after I’m done (note: there is an upper limit to how big you can go -- I don’t know if it’s a hard ceiling or if it’s limited by RAM, but I didn’t have much luck getting the page higher than the 15000 pixel range. That may just be because my computer is a sissy).

Perspective Ruler

Perspective ruler, I love you. This is a fully-customizable ruler (in one-, two-, or three-point flavors) that lets you place your horizon, vanishing point, and key guide lines in seconds. But what’s really sweet about this tool is that once it’s been placed, the lines you draw with the line tool will automatically conform to the perspective you’ve chosen. It senses the general direction you’re trying for, compares it to the three available axes, and matches your line to the most similar axis. To be clear -- it doesn’t snap to the actual reference line on the ruler, it merely redirects your line to point either towards the appropriate vanishing point or makes it perpendicular to the viewer (in the case of one-point perspective).


I’m almost excited to draw some buildings. Almost.

Color History

Every time you use a new color, it gets registered on a color history palette off to the side. Most Photoshop artists I know (including myself) put color swatches along the margins and use the eyedropper to revisit oft-used colors. No more:


A little feature, but one I’ll use often.

Drawbacks

As with all programs, there are a few flies in IllustStudio’s ointment. Most of them are pretty insignificant -- the biggest hassle so far has been reprogramming my brain’s macro habits. Though most of the buttons and macros are similar to Photoshop’s, there are some notable differences. For example, ctrl-Z is undo, but crtl-Y is redo. That means if you want to do multiple undos, you just hit ctrl-Z over and over. For those who paired ctrl-Z with ctrl-alt-Z in Photoshop to toggle between an older undo state and a newer one, there does not seem to be a corresponding function in IllustStudio. There is a history palette though, so it's really just a matter of changing habits.

Another problem is the dearth of online tutorials in English. Try Googling “IllustStudio tutorial” and you’ll find very little. So far, the most useful English-language introduction I’ve found is this one. It's brief, but handy to have on hand for your first few minutes of exploration. From then on, it’s mostly a matter of clicking every button to see what it does. The English translated tooltips are helpful here, but not everything has been translated (Google will point you to the current English translation -- switching languages is a matter of replacing a single file).

Ultimately, there may be some tasks that still make more sense in Photoshop. For example, Photoshop’s blend modes are far more varied and robust than IllustStudio’s. I haven’t played much with coloring in IllustStudio (I’ll post again here when I do), but it may make sense to move everything over to Photoshop after establishing basic areas of color. Switching back and forth between the programs is no problem -- IllustStudio can save images in .psd format. As long as you keep the lines and colors on separate layers, there’s no problem with resizing the image later, even if rasterized colors are brought back into IllustStudio from Photoshop. The vector linework will cover up any unpleasant artifacts along the color boundaries.

Where Do I Get It?

The good news: IllustStudio is ridiculously cheap (around $70.00 US). The bad news: it’s sold only in Japan. This is the point where I wish I could tell you that I’ve made a deal with a local reseller and that I’ll get five percent of every sale referred through this post. Sadly, that is not the case. But it would have been sweet.

In my case, some friends and I contacted a Japanese importer who was willing to ship multiple copies to us in a single shipment (we ended up paying an even $100 for each copy). Looking around on the web a bit, I see that you can buy a copy at an overseas retailer and then have it shipped to this other company, who will then deliver it to you in your home country. I can’t attest to price or reliability, so a little due diligence may be necessary. I’m sure some net-sleuthing will reveal other procurement methods.

The Final Analysis

It’s taken a while for me to get fully settled into digital art making -- so many tasks require popping the clutch on my art-brain and going into button-pushing gear, then trying to get back into art mode again. It’s exhausting and counterintuitive. With IllustStudio, I think I may finally have found the perfect complement to the Cintiq (which puts the pen in direct contact with the image) and the Ergotron armature (which turns the Cintiq from a monitor into a pad). I feel like I've crossed over some intuitiveness threshold, back into traditional media territory. By dodging the price of Photoshop CS5 ($657.00 on Amazon) and buying IllustStudio instead, you’ve got nearly 600 extra dollars to apply to that Cintiq purchase, too.

Still no announcements on the publishing front. Nonplayer is quickly shaping up to be the Duke Nukem of comics, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Second Verse, (Hopefully Not) Same as the First

I’m visiting my wife's family in Seoul for a couple of weeks, which means I’m temporarily Cintiq-less. We timed this trip to coincide with preproduction on issue #2 of Nonplayer, so I’ve been concepting, writing, and doing some rough layouts on a “pad,” which is a non-digital wood-pulp-based substrate for graphite residue. I think it might be broken, though. The undo button doesn’t seem to work.

I skimped on the preproduction for issue #1, and everything took twice as long because of it. Driven by a desire to show pretty pictures to my friends as quickly as possible, I hung my final artwork on some very flimsy layouts -- sometimes they weren’t much more than stick figures. No surprise, then, that I ended up redrawing a lot of finished panels because of botched camera angles and bad poses.

Here at the beginning, it turns out you have to go slow to go fast. A little extra clarity, especially during the layout phase, can give you a lot more confidence going into the final artwork. It doesn’t hurt that when you finish clean layouts you’ve got the bones and muscles of your finished book, and you can recruit friends and family to catch storytelling errors (which, at my level, are plentiful).

When I commence final artwork, I’ll be trying out a new Japanese illustration program called IllustStudio. I still haven’t dug too deeply into it, but here’s what makes it cool: it has the UI of a raster-based art program, but the linework is vector-based (actually, raster-based is also available, but meh). The interface is not such a far cry from Photoshop -- you’ve got brushes, a palette, fill tools, that sort of thing. Using the Cintiq, you make the same kind of varied, tapering linework that’s possible in Photoshop. But underneath it all, there are vectors instead of pixels. This means the following:
  1. Linework can be modified after the fact, either by dragging the line or modifying its thickness.
  2. Image resolution is immaterial -- you can blow your image up to the size of a building without any blurring or pixelation.
  3. The line can be auto-smoothed as it’s drawn, cancelling out shakiness and freeing me from one of the most time-consuming rituals of issue #1: redrawing long, curved lines again and again until my wrists exploded.
There are lots of other promising functions -- I’m particularly interested in an auto-masking tool that prevents color from crossing adjacent linework. There are some nice perspective aids, as well. Here’s some mind-altering video of IllustStudio in action. As I get deeper into issue #1, I’ll post some more reactions to the software.

Finally, I’m trying to figure out if I want to set up an online store for Nonplayer merchandise. I’m not really sure what kinds of things people would be interested in finding there. I think poster-sized reproductions of individual pages might be fun. T-shirts, maybe? The thing I’m really excited about is figurines -- with 3D printing technology in its current state, there are some ridiculously detailed collectible sculptures making the rounds. I wouldn’t mind having a nice little sculpture of the guy on the cover riding his steed. Would you mind having that?

It sure would be swell if Nonplayer could start helping out with some bills. Heck, I’d settle for one bill. Nonplayer, please pay our Netflix bill. Thank you.

As always, an official publishing announcement is right around the corner. Man, this sure is a long corner.