Painter of light: my awkward adventures in virtual reality art

I swear it looks better in VR


One of my favorite William Gibson short stories is called "The Winter Market," and it's about psychic art. The protagonist is the oneiric version of a film editor, handling the potent, nihilistic dreams of a dying prodigy. Midway through, there's a phrase that I've been thinking about a lot in the context of virtual reality:

It was like she was born to the form, even though the technology that made that form possible hadn't even existed when she was born. You see something like that and you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in.

Tilt Brush, the painting tool that's become a mainstay of HTC Vive demos, does not tap psychic waveforms. But the tool, along with other virtual reality art programs like Quill and Medium, does open up a new set of possibilities for art. Somebody is going to truly master Tilt Brush, and when they do, the three-dimensional sculpture-paintings they produce are going to be very different from what we currently think of as art — the way that prints are different from oil paintings, or maybe even the way hand-drawn animation is different from illustration.

I am not even close to that person, and I don't know exactly what that art form will look like. But I've been getting to play around with Tilt Brush this weekend, and as we've noted before, it's a lot of fun even for complete amateurs. Here are a few of the things I've learned along the way.

Tilt Brush

The most notable feature of Tilt Brush is its idiosyncratic selection of painting materials, which include ink, oil paint, duct tape, taffy, snow, and fire. But the default brush is "light," which despite its Thomas Kinkade-esque connotations is actually thin strings of neon. Light is Tilt Brush's equivalent of a pencil, producing even strokes that lend themselves to line drawing. The piece above is noteworthy because on paper, I am pretty much incapable of effectively rendering perspective. In Tilt Brush, I just walked around and drew a rough cube and triangular prism in three dimensions, which turns out to be significantly easier.

Tilt Brush

The limits of treating Tilt Brush as a 3D modeling system is that most of your audience will currently see the results in two dimensions. My idea here was to build a tiny city with neon skyscrapers in the center, row houses along the edges, and a subway system running underneath the whole thing. This is still the way I'm most interested in seeing people use VR art programs: as a canvas to draw intricate little environments that people could actually walk through and explore like the panels of a graphic novel. Oculus' tool Quill is a bit more suited to fine detail, and Story Studio is in fact doing something like this for its third major project, Dear Angelica. But a sufficiently talented artist could manage it with Tilt Brush too.

Not only am I not sufficiently talented, I'm showing you my project in a way that flattens its downtown cluster into a huge mess of lines, because I designed it for someone walking around the environment, not looking from a fixed 2D perspective. I swear it looks better in the Vive. Then again, everything does.

Tilt Brush

The other thing that doesn't show up in screenshots of Tilt Brush is animation. A lot of the brushes are more like video game particle effects: fire strokes burn, stars sparkle, "ember" strokes send sparks into the sky. I worked about half a dozen animated brushes into this painting, another attempt at a coherent environment.

My limited artistic ability doomed the human race

The concept shifted quite a bit over the course of painting it, but here's the rough idea: an apocalyptic war has destroyed the aboveground world, leaving only fields of forest and skyscrapers that are perpetually burning, mostly because the fire effect looks pretty great. But underneath is an Eden hidden in a fallout shelter located over an underground river, lined with a hydroponic garden of sparkling plants — a combination of light, stars, and the "leaf" brush. Inside Tilt Brush, the lines in the river are also animated, so it's clearly rushing downstream. The tiny mountain in the center was originally supposed to hold the last vestiges of humanity, but I couldn't get a figure to turn out right from this camera perspective. So effectively, my limited artistic ability doomed the human race. Sorry.

Tilt Brush
I was a little discouraged after my foray into landscape art, so I went for the easiest win I could think of: things that would look good on a terrible goth rock album cover. And if you're willing to scale back your ambitions significantly, Tilt Brush will do a lot of the aesthetic heavy lifting for you. The piece may be tacky as a whole, but each of the component parts here — the painted cross, leaf garland, mixed media background, and pink fire — looks fairly competent. This is what sets Tilt Brush apart from other VR art tools I've tried: it has an incredibly low skill floor.
Tilt Brush

Just as I was running out of things that looked good inside an inky void, I remembered that Tilt Brush has a lot of different environments to choose from, and one of them is a clothing dummy. Making outfits is slightly cumbersome, because it's hard to keep your brush strokes from accidentally slipping inside the mannequin; the program doesn't treat it like a solid object, just an overlay. But the mirror tool — which reflects whatever you're drawing along an axis of your choosing — really comes into its own here. Tilt Brush isn't the place to render realistic clothing, but I could see it being a good starting point for concept art.

The environment ultimately doesn't change what you can create, but it can help stimulate new ideas. There's a pedestal, for example, if you want to think in terms of sculpture rather than painting. In fact, a couple of the environments outright seem like coloring books. There's a snowman to decorate, for example. And along with stars and nebulae, the "space" environment gives you a 3D Moon as a backdrop.

By the time I got to space, I didn't have the energy to make a whole new planet, or even a spaceship. So I picked the first simple idea that came to mind. It's not the most creative sign-off, or a brave new step in virtual reality art, but it doesn't look half bad.

Tilt Brush