Artist meets open source

By giZMo/farbrausch, February 19th 2008

About a year ago I switched to Linux for my non-artistic computer needs. I tried this every now and then over the past decade but my attempts always ended up in half a system and lots of frustration. This changed when I stumbled across a liveCD from Ubuntu and to my surprise my laptop was fully supported incl. the 3d hardware and even the graphics tablet worked more or less out of the box. So I installed Ubuntu and a few weeks later I was quite comfortable with my Linux system... Firefox incl. flashplugin is equal to its Windows pendant, Gnomecommander is a weak but ok replacement to Total Commander, Thunderbird is annoying but usable, eye-of-gnome is not as good and fast as ACDsee (v3.1 or earlier) but imo still very good, xchat doesn't have auto-tiling but is otherwise an excellent chat-client and vlc is possibly the best movieplayer ever. So there wasn't very much i missed... well, except of course all my graphics tools :)

The old and the new together

So I went on a quest to get my daily used tools up and running under Linux: Mudbox, XSI, Zbrush and Photoshop. Using virtualbox I was able to install an old and unused copy of w2k on a virtual machine that, to my disappointment, didn't support 3d acceleration. Hm, ok, too bad.. So I tried Photoshop and Flash and both worked like a charm in my guest system. Unfortunately my Wacom didn't. At least not with the virtually hosted Windows, so the whole thing felt quite under par and turned at least Photoshop into a next-to-useless-experience for me. But

to be honest: booting an OS within another OS is somewhat cheating anyway, so I tried Wine instead. I have got to admit that I didn't expect very much and therefore I was positively surprised how excellent Wine performed. Zbrush3 and Mudbox worked as good as on native Windows, stable and without any noticable speed-drops. The only downside was that Zbrush sported some unfriendly error messages at startup but these can be safely ignored. I didn't try using Photoshop with Wine so far but according to the Wine-infopage it works quite well for many users out there. For XSI on the other hand exists a direct Linux port (yay!) so no Wine needed. Unfortunately this little gem is Red Hat Linux only, and right now I am not willing to jump through hoops and replace my system just to give it a try.. With Mudbox and Zbrush fully functional I am more than happy at the moment plus I have high hopes that Softimage will catch on and deliver a Debian/Ubuntu version someday.

The open source alternatives

But the most interesting question is: What cool open source tools are out there? Since I was still missing a good low-poly

modeller and a solid Photoshop replacement, these have been my main targets. I've downloaded and tried everything I could get my hands on and spotted a few rare gems. My first tool of choice was Gimp, of course and without going into detail my advice is: If you are an artist and want to happily paint under Linux: Stay away from the Gimp! This tool is a gigantic big collection of more or less cool and state of the art functions that are thrown together in a GUI that you simply don't want to use. period. Let them Linux-geeks have their fun with it and use Krita instead. it is way ahead when it comes to a clean and nice user interface. The keyboard shortcuts could be better though (you still need two hands on the keyboard for quite a lot of actions, which is bad since normally you want to keep one hand on the mouse/pen and the other one resting over the keyboard to strike shortcuts (preferably on the left side)), the brushengine doesn't mix colors as precisely and accurately as Painter and Photoshop do (rounding issues?) and I miss a quicker way to access different brushes (like the brushmenue floating or docked to the GUI somewhere instead of a popup)... I assume these issues will be sorted out sooner or later and all in all Krita is a lot more fun already than any other open source pixel based painting application I've come across...

Next in the line was Blender. Despite my experience with the other famous and kinda overhyped linux graphics tool I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised. While Blender felt very awkward as a lowpoly modeller UI-wise and the core clearly shows its age with tools and workarounds that are very 1995-ish it had some state of the art killer-features I didn't really expect. The LSCM UV-unwrapping tool is awesome. Those of you who have used Roadkill for Max/Maya/XSI know what I mean. Apart from Headus UV-layout Blender/Roadkill is the single best UVunwrapping tool available. Another great feature is Sculpt mode. Yep, sculpting! They implemented a full fletched Zbrush v2 style sculpting application into Blender. I doodled around with it for a few days and the only downside is that the tools are not designed for a real fast workflow UI-wise (this seems to be a general problem with many open source tools, they are not designed to be used 8 hours a day). Noteworthy is the Blender retopo-paint tool, although it had some weird orientation issues with the created polygons (speaking of 1995-ish problems:) it was exactly how I always imagined a retopo tool and never dared to ask: you simply paint a wireframe onto a highres mesh. Simple as that. Great stuff, really.

On the modelling application-front there were two apps standing out: Wings 3D and K-3D. Unfortunately I didn't have enough time to toy around in order to properly comment on

them here right now. Both seem to be quite capable and especially K-3D is on my list for further investigation since I smell a lot of future potential.

Last but not least I have to talk about Inkscape. I never expected to use a vector drawing application again after I abandoned Illustrator somewhat ten years ago and continued to fake all my 2D vector stuff with

whatever major 3D app I was using... Inkscape brought me back to 2D vector illustration. It features a nice freehand brush that auto-corrects stroke jitter and low sampling rates (unlike Photoshop). With that freehand/calligraphic brush you have instant clean comic style. On top of that you can blur any object to gain some really cool effects (see my second example... it doesnt look exactly like a vector drawing anymore, does it?). The GUI is nice and clean with just a few minor flaws and the latest beta features some kickass new tools that I haven't seen anywhere before in a 2D painting app (vector and pixelbased), most notably the new tweak brush with its pinch/push/etc modes (equally to Mudbox or Zbrush) is something I never want to miss again. Of course, it's not all bells and whistles: Inkscape has some pretty annoying workflow aspects, too... but overall it's a good match between left-brained technical vector drawing and the stroke-driven chaotic-intuitive workflow most artists like myself inherit.


I have no doubt that Linux and open source in general offer a solid future for us artists... be it as a pure operating system running commercial applications (native or through Wine), or with the constantly improving and partially groundbreaking free alternatives such as Blender and Inkscape...

Text and illustrations by giZMo/farbrausch