Friday, January 2, 2009

Why would anyone want to be an open source artist?

Open Source Artist? What are you talking about?

Over the years I've worked as an art director, graphic and web designer. I also have experience in web development and am a serious photographer. My passion is digital art. I love expressing myself creatively through the creation of photo-manipulations and digital painting. Like most digital artists and designers I love and have always used the standard set of tools; the Adobe Creative Suite.

I have always been a die-hard loyalist when it comes to Adobe products. We love these products and though they are sometimes criticized by people in the open source community, these people usually don't use them at the same level we do. We are designers and we know what we need. Serious artists and designers who are accustomed to a product like AdobePhotoshop often look an open source product like the GIMP and scoff because, in all honesty, it doesn't have the capabilities we're used to. But could we be too dependant on the tools we're used too? Could we develop different techniques and grow creatively if we forced ourselves to use different tools? Though I've always been a proponent of the open source software community from a philosophical viewpoint, I've never been able to envision myself using open source software to do the same things I do professionally in my art and at the workplace. Something changed causing me to call this into question.

For the last two years, after work, I've been teaching English as a second language to first generation immigrants at a community center in Chicago. I also designed and built a website for the community center. I've been training employees and volunteers to update it through the content management system. Apart from the work I do there, I have seen that the community center offers a computer program and a youth program. I've thought about getting more involved with these programs, after all I'm very qualified to do so, however, I ask my self; What's the use in teaching people something they can't use?

Computers are only as useful as what you can use them for. If you use a computer to search the web, it is only useful as a web browser. Though I've thought about sharing my knowledge of digital art and design with people at the community center, I realize that if they were able to buy a computer, they would not be able to afford the set of tools required to make digital art. In all honesty, these luxuries are not viable for my students' community center nor even for their community for that matter. Though there is interest in these things, how could I possibly rationalize teaching them knowing that they would never be used? Furthermore, how could the community center ever afford to fund these things when it is more worried about covering operational costs? Having thought about these issues I have realized that my knowledge of art and design is irrelevant. As technology becomes more available to people world wide and as more people have access to computers across the globe I ask myself, what good is software that nobody can afford to use?

With these questions in mind I have decided to conduct an experiment. Can an admitted Photoshop junkie, professional designer, photographer, and artist entirely quit using all the tools of the trade and switch to an entirely open source environment? More importantly, can a career graphics professional switch to an open source environment? Obviously graphics can be created on alinux computer, however can professional design and art be created? In short, I know the answer is yes and this is obviously not the first time something like this has been done. A quick survey of the web will demonstrate that some very talented artists and photographers use open source solutions:

A quick glance at the above work tells me that really great work can be done using open source software, however documentation from these people issparse . While surveying the web I have mostly found opinions from tenacious open source advocates who happen to be design hobbyists or from professional designers who have just happened to open a program like the GIMP to poke around for 10 minutes. Most of the information on this subject falls under one of these two scenarios. In the first scenario I will read a post in some thread from an anti-adobe open source fanatic who will say something like, "the GIMP is better thanPhotoshop. It can do anything Photoshop can do." Ugh...what? Are you kidding me? This is obviously not the case and any graphics professional well tell you that. In the second scenario, I will read a post in some thread from a professional graphic designer who opened the GIMP and messed around with it quickly, only to find it's not the same asPhotoshop . In this scenario hatred for open source software is immediate even though no serious work was attempted and no real time was committed. People in this category typically don't believe they could ever could create good graphics with a program like the GIMP. Ugh...what? Seriously? Why not?

It is difficult to find a side by side comparison of open source software written by someone who can straddle this divide. People are usually for it or against it. Even people who use both programs typically don't compare work they've done between the two. I intend to show my old work done in Photoshop side by side with new work created in open source programs like the GIMP. I will write about my experiences, trials and tribulations. I will devote a large amount of time using nothing but open source software asking myself all along, if this is viable for a graphics professional. Can I create the same quality of work with open source software? What are the pros? What are the cons? Can I develop new, different, or better techniques with open source software? Can I find a way around problems like lack of PMS color support and lack of adjustment layers? My only rule, the software I use must be free, no exceptions. I will judge my results based on the quality of work that I produce and I will publish my results here. Let's see what happens.