Digital Artists Handbook: Graphics

Image reigns supreme. From the thousands of films churned out each year from Nollywood, to the persistent recording of images by security cameras in London to the scaling of windows on your desktop computer, you are already a pixel pusher. But, how can you reign supreme over images? How can you become an active participant in the creation of graphics and move beyond passive consumption. While the distinction between amateur and professional is erased in the Youtube-record-a-video-get-rich-generation, the focus upon high-quality content controlling tools is key. What is the point of mastering verion 3.5 of Killer Graphics App 97′s fuzz filter [1] if you don’t have a use, or you have become locked into a niche application that costs 2000 Euros for each new version? The focus of this chapter is about exploring free and open source tools that empower you to do what you want to say and if the tools aren’t working out, you are allowed to change them from the inside-out! The major tools in this chapter to be discussed are bitmap editor Gimp, vector drawing tool Inkscape, 3d graphics with Blender, and algorithmic graphics creation with Processing [2]. By the way, these tools are free! They have huge constructive communities around them waiting to help you with your tasks, adding new features and supporting vibrant actively producing pixel pushers.

In working with any graphics application, it is important to understand the difference between vector and pixel graphics. Vector graphics describe the use of geometrical primitives such as points, lines, Bezier curves, and polygons to represent images in computer graphics [3]. It is used in contrast with the term raster graphics (bitmap graphics), which is the representation of images as a collection of pixels (dots). Vector graphics are math equations to define curves, generally have a smaller file size than raster graphics and also, can be scaled from tiny to massively huge billboards with no loss in quality. The letterforms for these words I’m typing are vector graphics. Bitmaps on the other-hand, are the types of images that a camera outputs, for example. Maybe your camera is a 5-megapixel camera, meaning it can record 5 million pixels per image. With bitmap graphics the more data about an image, then generally the better quality image, and thus a larger file size.

Gimp is one of the oldest free and open source applications. It is now 10 years old and is on par with major closed-source [4] applications. Gimp is primarily a tool you can use to edit all aspects of a bitmap image, from color retouching of photos, to painting on a canvas to fixing blemishes on a face, Gimp is chock full of tools. Its vector-based sibling is Inkscape, an Open Source drawing tool. With it you can make complex typography, make huge billboards, draw architectural plans and make lovely charts. This powerful tool implements the World Wide Web consortium’s Scalable Vector Graphics specification (SVG) and points out another strength of Open Source graphics tools in supporting free and open standards that won’t just vanish because a company closes shop, or locks down a format under proprietary patents.

Another important concept for graphics is the difference between two (2D) and three-dimensions (3D). Most graphics applications, including Gimp and Inkscape, are two-dimensional, meaning they deal with height and width of graphics, also called X and Y coordinates. Think of 2D graphics as a piece of paper. 3D graphics, like those operated on by the free software editor, Blender, add depth (Z-axis) to 2D graphics. This is what you see in the famous Pixar movies like Toy Story and Cars [5].
These typical 3D animations also add a fourth dimension (4D), time. While Blender does handle the fourth dimension by allowing 3D creators to animate, for these chapters, the concept of 4D also includes the concept of graphics through time and interactivity. When Casey Reas and Ben Fry developed Processing, a simple Java-based language and runtime for creating generative graphics[6], the tools for creating graphics primarily relied upon manual creation with Gimp and Inkscape, or more sophisticated knowledge of graphics programming in C/C++. Processing lowered the barriers for participation in creating interested graphics from code, and also allowed for these graphics to take on a life of their own through user interaction. It should also be noted that Inkscape, Gimp and Blender all offer forms of scripting and automation as well to enable creators to be extended quickly. The main difference between these three apps and Processing, is that Processing generates standalone applications which can be run anywhere. This is great for artists who are making interactive installations, but way too much manual controls for simple photo retouching.

In addition to these great free and open source tools that exist, there are projects as well, which focus on the community of graphics creation and on connecting together graphics applications into a coherently focused suite. The Open Clip Art Library encourages the upload and remix of public domain vector graphics under the guise of “clip art” and the Open Font Library goal is to build the world’s largest free and open collection of fonts [7]. The Open Clip Art Library has approximately 15,000 pieces of high quality public domain clip art, meaning anyone can do anything they want with these resources. The Open Font Library is still a fairly new project with ~40 high quality fonts that are either in the public domain or under the new SIL Open Font License [8]. The most notable font on the system is by famed blogger, Jason Kottke. He created the super-popular font Silkscreen, a small bitmap-looking font used everywhere on the web. He recently licensed it under the Open Font License and uploaded it to the collection, signally clearly to other font creators that they can build upon it and make it better.

While all these projects exist in the free and open source software universe, the projects did not talk very much until two key projects developed. The first is the Create Project, whose goal is to provide a third-party space for creation applications to work together on standards, shared resources (palettes, brushes, patterns, keyboard mappings), and to encourage inter-project communication [9]. The other key development is the annual Libre Graphics Meeting [10] which is the major event where artists and developers come together to work on making free and open source tools better, seeing what is possible by artists, and massive amounts of cross-pollination to create the future for graphics pixel pushers.

The major difference to closed source proprietary drawing apps is that you can’t reign supreme over images. You can’t become a true pixel pusher. You can only be the pixel pusher that someone else wants you to be. By using Gimp, Inkscape, Blender, Processing or one of the many other free and open source applications, you can dig deep into the code and communities of these projects. You can even shape the direction of these projects by joining in the discussions, filing bugs about problems with the tools, and showing off how much you reign supreme over images pixel pusher.


[1] Please note, this is vast satire over learning tools rather than having a reason to use them. Also, please note, this should be called the cheese filter.

[2] See http://gimp.orghttp://inkscape.orghttp://blender.org

[3] My Vector Graphics definition is based on because of the object-oriented reference.

[4] I dare not link to the various Adobe applications you all know I’m referring to: Adobe Photoshop for the GIMP, Adobe Illustrator for Inkscape

[5] The irony of this is that 3D graphics are rendered back into a 2D representation onto a screen, or in a movie theater.

[6] See

[7] See and


[9] See

[10] See


Jon Phillips, December 2007


PDF: Digital Artists Handbook: Graphics