Saturday, June 20, 2009

Computer Art From The Stone Age

I found these images of some of the first computer art I ever did, and thought they were worth a look. Or more likely a laugh.

I bought my first computer circa 1988. It was an Amiga 500. I remember the big selling point of this model was that it was capable of displaying a whopping 4096 colors (!). I hear you chuckling, but at the time that really was the most advanced display available. All other home computers of that era were only capable of displaying 256 colors.

The actual computer was built into the keyboard unit (with an internal floppy drive), and it came with a monitor and external floppy drive. There was no internal hard drive. They were available or course, but back then they were prohibitively expensive (for me, anyway), costing hundreds of dollars. It didn't come with a printer or a scanner either. Those were also extremely expensive items back then, far out of my reach.

Since I didn't have a hard drive, that meant that each time I wanted to use the computer I had to load the operating system into RAM. Amazingly, the entire operating system fit on one floppy disk (!). Let's just pause a moment and let that concept sink in, shall we?

Anyway, I bought the thing in order to start producing computer generated art. The system I bought came with a couple of graphic programs. One was called Deluxe Paint (I think, it's been a long time), and took advantage of the Amiga's 4096 color palette. There was another one called DigiPaint or something, that only let you use 256 colors, but they could be 256 of your own choosing.

Looking back, it's amazing I was able to draw anything on this system at all. As I said, scanners were the price of a used car back then, so if I wanted to draw an image from a sketch (something I do all the time now), I had to resort to several alternate methods. Sometimes I would draw a sketch on a piece of clear acetate, then tape it to the monitor and draw "under" it as it were. It worked about as well as you'd think. The other method was to use a water-based marker and sketch directly on the monitor screen (!), and again, draw under that image. My least favorite method was to just use the mouse and draw, erase and draw until the image on the screen was a reasonable facsimile of my sketch.

Because printers also cost more than the average house payment back then, I had no way to print out a hard copy of my art. Even if I could have afforded one, home printers of that era were all the horrible dot matrix kind-- you know, the noisy ones that printed one horizontal line of the image at a time and produced pale, washed out colors in terrible resolution. So, resourceful lad that I was I worked around my lack of a printer by taking a photo of the screen with a film camera (digital cameras were 20 years in the future) and having the film developed. Yeah, I know.

I remember producing a fair amount of art on the Amiga, and I remember that even the simplest of images took hours, sometimes days to produce. I didn't have a graphic tablet back then either, and as far as I know they didn't even exist. They were far in the future, like DVDs and personal jet packs.

Anyway, I found some of the photos I took of my (ahem) artwork from those dark days. Sorry about the quality, but remember these are scans of photos shot from a computer monitor!

Here we've got a cat posing in a "Tom & Jerry" type of cartoony background. The bizarre angles and perspective on the floor and cabinets were intentional. Really, they were.

One of the amazingly advanced features of this early graphic software was the ability to create your own patterns or textures, something I went way overboard with here. Note that the dog has the cliched "window pane highlight" on his nose, even though he's outside. I guess there must have been a floating window frame between him and the sun.

Wow. Obviously this was some sort of Max Headroom ripoff, er, I mean homage (ask your parents about him, kids!). Don't judge me too harshly, it was the 1980s after all. It looks like I was using that pattern generator here until it squealed "uncle."

I have no idea what's going on here. Some sort of cosmic doorman or egg-headed general, I suppose.

One thing that jumps out at me looking at these images is the extremely low resolution. You can see individual pixels from 3 feet away. These must have been about 36 dpi!

This one was drawn with the more advanced program that could utilize the 4096 colors. I can tell because of the relatively subtle shading. The only downside to using this program is that the shaded art tended to look a bit blurry on the screen. So you had two choices back then: 256 colors and a sharp image, or 4096 and a blurry one. Yes, it was a golden age.

This was a recreation (as best I could manage) of a colored pencil drawing I did. It was a character I used to doodle a lot back in the 1980s. It was my idea for a comic book, back in the days when it seemed like comics would be around forever. It was about a Rambo-esque space soldier who gets turned into a teddy bear. He was still a brutal killer, and was always furious that no one took him seriously because he looked so cuddly. I can't remember the main character's name; it's been too many years.

Although that looks like Iron Man just above the bear's head, it's supposed to be some sort of alien wizard. If I remember right (I haven't looked at or thought about this stuff for years) he's the one who cast the spell that turned the Soldier into a teddy bear. Maybe I should try and resurrect this image and redraw it.

Nice shading on the gun, I guess.

More of the blurry 4096 color program. That's a lovely font there too!

As crude as it is, I have to say I'm impressed that it almost looks like a three dimensional rendered object. I just got lucky that day.

God help me, I don't know. I guess this was supposed to be like a sci-fi novel cover? Who knows, it's been twenty years.

If you can stand to look closely, you'll see the faint features of a face there behind his glasses. Deluxe Paint had the amazing ability to utilize transparency, which back then was technology rivaled only by time travel. So I think I was trying to figure out a use for the transparency function and create some sort of semi-invisible soldier... person.

I like his gun though, if I do say so myself.

You know, if you take the basic shape and look of a Smurf and change its color, you'll have a completely new and different character!

In my defense I think I was copying the Smurfs on purpose, trying to create some sort of evil anti-Smurf. That's what I'm telling the judge, anyway.

Drawn in the blurry program again.

This was a recreation, sort of, of the first issue of Frank Miller's "Wolverine" miniseries he did for Marvel back in the 1980s.

I had a crude Amiga animation program, so the plan was to create a short animation of Wolverine's claws popping out, and his left index finger beckoning in a "Bring it on!" gesture (note he's missing said finger on his left hand). This project was scrapped when I discovered that making ten or so frames of animation was far beyond the meager amount of memory my Amiga had (I think it had maybe one meg of internal memory). Oh well.


  1. Bob: There is some great stuff here (and yes, I well remember the limits of the available technolgy. How fast things change in the digital world, right?). My favorites are the egghead general (and our "I have no idea what's going on here" comment, which made me laugh outloud), and the "I'm a Germ!" How many can remember these days of computing? I remember my first computer, which had a monster hard drive of 35 megs (I spared no expense and went huge!).

  2. Thanks! Looking back at these, what's amazing to me is that in each case, every part of the drawing was done on the same layer. There were no layers back then like Photoshop has now. So I couldn't do the background as a separate piece on one layer, then draw the figure separately on another layer. Nope, it was all on the same layer.

    It's been too long to remember exactly how I drew this stuff, but I suppose I drew the background first and then the figure over it. I'm sure there was lots of erasing and redrawing.

    I think there was only one undo back then too, not multiples like we have today. It's amazing I was ever able to draw a recognizable shape at all.

  3. these are super fun! thanks for sharing these!!!
    i actually kind of like the look of these, sort of retro saturday morning cartoon look. ok so if these are from 20 years ago, and with the stuff we can do now - what will our stuff look like 20 years from now?

  4. Brad:

    I figure I will keep on illustrating and learning and growing as an artist, then when I'm about 90 I'll say, "At last! All those years have paid off! My art is now perfect!"

    Then I'll clutch my chest and drop dead.


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