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An Ode to Deluxe Paint

The Kaleidoscopic Magical Motion Machine

Late 2023

Beginnings

When first seeing an Amiga 500 computer, it wasn't the games but a copy of the painting program Deluxe Paint II that really got me hooked. Since then, computers and visual art have forever been linked in my mind. Apart from dreaming of an Amiga of my own, my boyhood interest in technical marvels was never about fighter jets or fast cars, but graphics workstations from SGI, Amiga 4000s with Video Toaster cards, Paintbox machines, 24-bit framebuffers, and similar unattainable hardware.

But the Amiga was where it began, and by now I'm sure it's where it will end for me as well. Deluxe Paint was probably the first productivity application I ever laid eyes on and, since I still use it today, certainly the one I've been using the longest.

As far as software goes, it's made a huge impact on my life. I know for a fact I'm not alone in that - although many people may not even be aware of it. Deluxe Paint, or DPaint as it's affectionately known, started its life as an internal tool for graphics production at Electronic Arts (EA), a company which is today perhaps best known for sports simulation games. Commodore had supplied EA with Amiga prototypes before the machine's launch, and I think it's safe to assume the developers and artists there were immediately impressed by its abilities. In a time when EGA graphics was considered state of the art, having 32 freely definable colors from a palette of 4,096 must have felt like infinite freedom. To make games deserving of the platform good graphics was needed, and that of course required a good graphics editor as well.


King Tut by Avril Harrison
Once the EA artists had started using the program and it had gone through a few cycles of refinement, they realized it was a product in its own right. The first version launched along with the Amiga 1000 in 1985 - incidentally, the same year as MS Paint's precursor PC Paint was released. At this point, artist Avril Harrison was employed at Electronic Arts and used DPaint to create a rendition of Tutankhamun's gold mask. The picture became part of the DPaint brand and, just like the program itself, synonymous with the graphics capabilities of the Amiga.

Eventually, Harrison left EA and started working for LucasArts (now Lucasfilm Games). Apart from her artistic talent, I'm sure DPaint proficiency was a marketable skill: In the late 1980's and early 1990's, most graphics for 16- and 32-bit computer games were made using Deluxe Paint. LucasArts was mainly a PC/MS-DOS shop, but DPaint had been ported to this platform in 1988.

Pretty much every Amiga game ever? Deluxe Paint. Monkey Island? Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis? Deluxe Paint, of course. Doom? Yup, Deluxe Paint. Quake? Yes, even that in some capacity, according to John Carmack. In fact, DPaint was the industry standard for pixel graphics creation well into the early days of the Sony Playstation.

You may not, like me, have spent hours and hours of your limitless childhood time in Deluxe Paint. Yet, if you're an old school DOS, Amiga or even console gamer, it will have helped create some of your fondest gaming memories - even if you've never reflected upon it.

The things we got with software of yore

I'm not a retro computer collector and the few boxed Amiga software titles I've owned over the years have been lost by way of accidents, bad breakups, nihilistic landlords and regrettable forgetfulness. Except DPaint. Somehow, I've always managed to keep my own boxed copy stored safely, almost as pristine now as it was when I bought it in 1992. It's as important to me as my Amiga computers themselves: an Amiga without Deluxe Paint is hardly an Amiga at all.

For fans of unboxing videos, the package includes:

These days, thick program manuals are often made light of. We talk about things like discoverability and even how complexity must be hidden from users. I believe that sufficiently powerful software will contain irreducible complexity, which can be taught through a proper manual. It's not that DPaint isn't intuitive - all the basic drawing functions are immediately available from a toolbar on the right hand side of the screen - but to fully understand and utilize its many powerful features, the manual is required reading.


Deluxe Paint in EGA mode in DOSBox. Even though I've only used the DOS version for a short time 20 odd years ago, I still managed to doodle something for the screenshot. All the necessary keyboard shortcuts and functions I've learned on the Amiga version were there.

It's probably worth noting a few things the package doesn't contain, such as spyware, telemetry, in-program advertising, DLC, in-app purchases or a SaaS subscription model.

What it does include that's not immediately obvious, is consistency. Deluxe Paint was a cash cow for EA, not least because Commodore happily bundled it with their Amigas, and the last version was released in 1995 - a full year after Commodore's bankruptcy. While each version brought slight improvements in both functionality and looks, the basic user interface - including keyboard shortcuts - remained the same across five major versions, ten years and three platforms - Amiga, DOS and the Apple II GS. (There's an Atari version too, but it changed the whole GUI around and is not usually mentioned in polite conversation.)

If you learned the program on one platform, you could pick it up on another in an afternoon. Along with the consistent workflow, this meant that a graphics artist could feel at home at basically any development studio for a decade, without having to learn new tools every six or twelve months. This also meant that artists could invest time in learning every nook and cranny of the program and then focus on creating art. Thus, the program became widely popular, sold in droves and made EA a lot of money. Something for contemporary software publishers to consider.

Monkey Business

Mark Ferrari, graphics artists on games like Maniac Mansion, Loom and Monkey Island (along with the previously mentioned Avril Harrison), has said that some of the most fun he's ever had creatively was battling with the limitations of the EGA palette in Deluxe Paint while working at LucasArts.

It's worth mentioning that during the creation of Monkey Island, a piece of Deluxe Paint terminology found its way into the mind of many a gamer. Guybrush Threepwood, the story's protagonist, got part of his name from a feature in DPaint called brushes. A brush is an arbitrarily sized cutout from a bigger image, which can be stamped down anywhere on the painting area. Since it was a guy and saved as a brush, the file was named guybrush - and the name stuck. Some recounts of this story claims the file was named "guy.brush", which is wrong: DOS used 8 character filenames with a three letter extension. The correct, full file name would have been "guybrush.lbm". The LBM extension is short for ILBM, which in turn stands for InterLeaved BitMap. ILBM is the image format stored in Electronic Art's own IFF - Interchange File Format, a container format which, among other things, was also used for PCM sound samples.

Pixel pushing

What made Deluxe Paint so great, then? One thing that made it an industry standard for video game art is what it's not: It's not a program for 24-bit true color photo editing.

Deluxe Paint is a tool of its time. It is constructed for the sole purpose of creating low resolution, low color graphics for a specific use case (video games) and particular display hardware (thick old cathode ray tubes). 16-bit home computers and game consoles could usually display somewhere between 16 and 256 colors on screen simultaneously, in a resolution of roughly 320x200 pixels, depending on the machine. To combat such primitive hardware restrictions, the artist had to work with the inherent fuzziness of CRT screens to emulate higher resolutions and more colors. This was achieved using techniques such as dithering - color blending by creating pixel rasters, and anti-aliasing - edge smoothing using intermediate color values.

These, and other similar pixel art techniques, were almost always done by hand. Such work requires good a pixel painter, and Deluxe Paint was (and still is, in my opinion) one of the best.


Examples of dithering and anti-aliasing.

Nifty features

The best way of explaining something is showing it, which I'll make an attempt at here. I'm going to be focusing on Deluxe Paint IV (version 4) for Amiga, which was the de facto state of the art program for Amiga game artists between its release in 1991 and, well, now. It got an upgrade in order to handle the improved capabilities of the AGA chipset in Commodore's A1200 and A4000 models, but otherwise remained much the same.

If you want to try DPaint out yourself, beware that setting up an Amiga emulator requires copyrighted ROM files and can be a bit cumbersome if you're not familiar with the platform. The DOS version provides the same basic painting features and is easy to run through DOSBox. Binaries can be found through a simple web search and the first Amiga version has even been open sourced.

Bang! Zoom!

A good zoom function is crucial for precision pixel control. DPaint IV offers several zoom levels (around 20) and a split screen view so that you can simultaneously see the currently zoomed area in normal 1:1 mode.


Pixel artists spend vast amounts of time in the zoom mode.

Brushes

As previously mentioned, a brush is an arbitrarily sized cutout of a larger image. Brushes can be stamped down anywhere on an image and color index zero is transparent, meaning a brush can have arbitrary shapes. Brushes can be flipped, stretched, rotated and resized freely. They can also be saved and loaded separately from the main image. Brushes use the palette from the main image. If needed, their colors can be remapped to match their original values as close as possible. Brushes can also be used as fill patterns or as monochrome shapes for any of the paint modes described below.

Using the perspective function, the position of a horizon can be established. A brush can then be arbitrarily transformed and pasting the brush at any position on the screen will automatically apply the correct perspective to it. This can also be used in combination with the fill tool, useful for creating things like floors and walls from a single tiling brush.


An example of the (incredible) perspective function.

One brush can also be morphed into another over a given number of frames. Morphing was a very popular effect at the time, used for example in the music video for Michael Jackson's hit song Black or White. DPaint's morphing is admittedly rather rudimentary, but nevertheless fun and interesting to play around with in conjunction with its animation features.

Palette editing and ranges

The DPaint palette editor not only allows you to define the value of each color index. It also lets you swap colors, create gradients by "spreading" one color to another over a selected number of indices and mix colors freely à la oil painting.

Resulting color ramps can then be used to create color ranges. These ranges can be used for gradient fills, resulting in smooth, gradual fades between two colors, and for color cycling - but more on that later.

Paint modes

The default paint mode in DPaint is matte, meaning normal painting with the currently selected colors. There are always two colors selected: foreground and background. The left mouse button paints with the foreground, the right with the background. The smooth mode blurs already existing pixels together, smear smudges and smears existing pixels around (great for turning gradient fills into clouds). Shade will turn existing pixels into a darker shade, which is specifically meant for the Amiga's EHB, or Extra Half-Brite mode. This mode allows for 32 user definable colors and adds another 32, which are copies of the first 32 but with half the, er, brightness. There's also a built-in antialias function, but it's both slow and rather bad, which means it's rarely used. There's also a cycle mode, which will cycle through the colors of a selected color range while painting.

Paint tools

Apart from freehand drawing and things like straight lines, curves, circles, boxes and free-form polygons, DPaint offers an airbrush mode and a symmetry mode. The airbrush mode is pretty far from what's offered in modern paint packages and mostly "splatters" the painted area with pixels in erratic patterns. If used correctly and sparingly, it's still useful for creating various textures. The symmetry mode copies the painted pixels to other, predefined positions on screen to create, well, symmetric patterns. Many paint modes and tools can be combined freely to produce interesting effects.


The result of freehand drawing using the symmetry tool combined with the cycle mode.

Color cycling

Color cycling is a powerful and interesting effect that's only meaningful in graphics modes using indexed palettes. It gets its name from cycling colors through the selected palette indices. The affected indices are defined in a color range. Each color is moved one index up, until reaching the last index, when it loops around to the first index in the range. This can be used to create visual effects and simple animation. A basic example is snowfall, but skilled artists can make an image come alive with things like waterfalls, waves, fog and lightning. Mark Ferrari probably took DPaint color cycling as far as it could go, and some incredible examples of his work can be found here, ported to function in modern web browsers. All of the images are using nothing but indexed 256 color palettes and cycling - there are no animation frames.

Color cycling is a personal favorite. I love experimenting with it, both for creating traditional animations and more abstract effects. One way this can be achieved is by interlacing every other pixel of different wave patterns, such as in the video below.


Click the image above to view the video.

Spare page

When painting, you can at any time press J to jump to the spare page - an extra painting area that retains the palette, dimensions and resolution of the original one. This is especially useful when combined with brushes. Portions of the original image can be cut out, pasted onto the spare page and fiddled around with. They can then be pasted back onto the original image by simply (j)umping back again. Using the spare page in DPaint is sometimes crucial, since the program only has one measly level of undo.

HAM

HAM - Hold-and-Modify, is a graphics mode in which an Amiga can display all of its 4,096 colors on screen at once - with a few caveats, such as certain color bleeding and ghosting effects. This is basically a 12-bit truecolor mode and support for it was introduced in DPaint IV. In all honesty, it's not very useful in a pixel painter program. The fun quirks and benefits of an indexed palette no longer apply and pixel-level precision is hard to achieve due to the aforementioned artifacts of the HAM mode.

Stencil

A stencil is something that only works well in indexed palette modes. When defining a stencil, certain palette indices are masked from editing, which means you can paint all you want as usual, but if painting on a masked color, it remains unaffected. It's extremely useful for all kinds of editing and tweaking.


I'd like to try out a different color gradient inside the headline spelling out "The Graphician". This can be done by for example replacing all the different values one by one using the fill tool, but that's cumbersome and time consuming.


Instead, I've constructed a brush containing the new gradient. But simply pasting it down across the text won't do: the entire headline would be overwritten.


By constructing a stencil that masks out the relevant colors and leaves only the three original gradient colors free for editing...


...the brush can be pasted without affecting the surrounding pixels. Thank you, stencil!

Animation

Cel animation features were introduced in DPaint III on the Amiga. On the PC, Electronic Arts for some reason decided to release a completely separate package called "DeluxePaint Animation", which included all of the DPaint features plus animation, but only worked in VGA's 256 color chunky 320x200 mode.

Getting started with animation is easy and intuitive. It's simply a matter of selecting the number of frames your animation should include (memory permitting of course), and get to work.

While the animation mode can and has been used extensively to create full screen animations, it's also highly useful when creating small, animated sprites.

To help with this, DPaint offers a light table function, letting you see the outline from the previous frame "behind" the current one, just as with a traditional light table used in analog cel animation.


The animation editing mode with light table and an animation control panel enabled. Here, the first frame of the animation is visible and the last frame is "shining through". Note the color palette: this is the Extra Half-Brite mode described above.

Another feature is animbrushes, which are animated brushes. An animbrush is created by cutting a brush just like normal, but then specifying the number of frames it should include. This brush can then be painted with as a normal brush, but for each paste, it cycles one frame ahead. The main animation frames can follow along. After having created for example a small walk cycle animation, this can then be picked up as an animbrush and moved along the screen, one frame at a time, by painting as one would normally do with a brush.


An example of a (very simple) ball bounce animbrush.

Apart from color cycling, animation is one of the features in DPaint I enjoy goofing around with the most.


An example of a simple five frame animation, playing in "ping-pong" fashion: looping back and forth through all the frames. Click the image above to view the video.

The joy of great software

As far as Amiga software from 1991 goes, DPaint IV is stable, bug free and polished, but it does have some quirks and idiosyncrasies. There's only one level of undo, for example, and even that buffer is cleared without warning when performing certain operations. You have to remember to hide the toolbars when using the flood fill, or it won't fill the area behind the toolbar. And, since AmigaOS has no memory protection, the whole computer sometimes just crashes because some program decides to write in memory that should rightfully belong to DPaint.

These are extremely minor complaints. DPaint has given me hours of joy and keeps delivering. When I think about having creative fun with computers, DPaint is what immediately comes to mind. Copious amounts of great art has been and is being created using it, almost four decades after its initial release.

A heartfelt thanks is in order to everyone involved in creating it. Thanks!