Drawing with computers

From the 1940s beginning of the computer age scientists were finding uses for electronic displays, even though such things barely existed, and by the 1960s computer aided drawing systems had been demonstrated.  Architects and a few artists were early adopters but the huge price tags – computer time was paid for by the second back then – and limited functionality meant that development was slow.

Graphical computer games appeared in the early 1970s, the images on view in games such as Pong or Space Invaders were generated by the computer from programmers input.  Game consoles were very successful and the potential earning drove innovators in the USA just at the moment when the microchip industry was beginning.  By the end of the decade arcade games were commonplace while film industries became hungry customers, especially Lucas Films and Disney.  Most film animation was still done by hand drawing on paper or acetate but computers then played an increasing part in the process.

Aerospace and other industries were now adapting to computer-aided design (CAD) and this trend continued through the ’80s and ’90s, accelerating as computer power increased.

Personal computers were limited by lack of processing power and memory, with a few notable exceptions such as the Commodore Amiga.  These and other machines such as the Atari were marketed for games and were very successful, many are still traded.

Graphics were often drawn by hand as well as generated by the computer programme.  Affordable scanners helped with this.  Machines such as the Amiga were superior to the IBM/Microsoft variety but big commercial enterprises such as insurance or banking preferred the IBM name tag, leaving the far smaller graphics market to Apple.

Drawing with a (computer) mouse is not a natural or even a particularly pleasant experience and although light pens had been developed in the 1950’s they never really caught on.  Draughtsmen and women were using CAD drawing boards in the 1980’s, these have largely disappeared, yet many drawings are still done by hand on draughting tables.  Drawing board sized touch screens have yet to reach price levels most of us are comfortable with, although that is changing.

In more recent years the laptop touch screen and graphics tablets have become more affordable, the Wacom brand is widely used for animation, for instance.  Home PC’s and laptops are now powerful enough to make these things work properly, once again this is driven by the demand for ever-more realistic gaming.  This has all made drawing or designing at home or on the move become much friendlier, with a special pen or stylus, a mouse or even just a finger.  And a wide range of bitmap and vector drawing apps are available, many are free or very low priced.

Here at Bristol, UK we have a leading animation film maker, Aardman Animations, famous for Wallace and Gromit and much more.  They date back to 1972 – there is a history on their website – but their technique for many years was based on hand modelled characters and did not involve computer graphics, although it certainly does now. 

At the commercial end of things apps such as AutoCad cost £££ thousands and are used across the world for design of just about everything.  Far cheaper or even free (donations welcome) CAD apps such as FreeCAD and Inkscape are available.  But perhaps the best drawing tools, especially hardware, are still to come.

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