Week 2: Husain's VR diary – Learning to become a regular Picasso

Eat your heart out, Michelangelo

Last week, I began my VR diary series, which is going to document my adventures in virtual reality beyond gaming. Every week, I'll be looking to see if I can replicate, or even enhance, the less thrilling details of life with its virtual reality equivalent.

I'm looking to see how far VR has come, and to prove that VR isn't just a medium for us to entertain ourselves with games and 360 videos of people jumping off mountains. It can be productive, too.

And what could be more productive than creating a work of art? You're filling an empty canvas with something, whether it be a recreation of something real or something completely from your imagination. You're turning nothing into something.

Catch up: Week 1 – How I'm going to live in VR

Last summer, I attended HTC's Vive X demo day and stumbled across a company called Limitless. It was founded by veterans from Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, and in my discussions with them they expressed a desire to lower the skill barrier for art and animation.

Drawing is hard. It can look absurdly simple, and even calming, but then you actually try it and find out you lack the imagination and hand-eye coordination to pull off much more than a stick figure. That conversation with the people from Limitless stuck with me, and made me eager to see if I could use VR to improve my artistic talent.

I would have loved to start with Limitless, a piece of software that quickly let me animate a few seconds of footage, but the company has since been purchased by Lytro. So I turned to what most people turn to in times of sadness: Facebook.

Specifically, Facebook Spaces. When my colleague Sophie tried out Facebook Spaces, I was intrigued by the idea of being able to draw things in VR while your friends were watching you. Like being a regular Bob Ross, or those caricature artists you see on the sidewalks of especially touristy sections of major cities. How could I resist making happy trees for people?

Excited, I proudly called for requests during my broadcast, only to get one: "Draw me like one of your French girls". I did the best I could, drawing my friend as a red outline of a person lying down, but I was also embarrassed by my now-public lack of artistic skill. I was not an artist, I was an amateur. Not even a Leonardo DiCaprio, let alone a da Vinci.

An open canvas

Week 2: Husain's VR diary - Learning to become a regular Picasso

I decided to change gears and take things more slowly. Google's Tilt Brush is a popular bit of software for demoing VR, so I figured if a program is good enough to introduce people to a whole new technology medium, it's good enough to turn me into a Michelangelo.

VR offers a large canvas that you can play around in; you don't have to limit yourself to a single piece of paper. So guess what I did? I limited myself. I drew out a simple rectangle and kept myself within its confines. I wanted to attempt a portrait, but I didn't want to go for realism. One, because there's no way I'm that talented, and two, because it would allow me to better experiment.

So I drew out a quick sketch of a shape that roughly looked like a person, with a horizon behind them. Once I did that, I worried about colouring things in until I realized I could simply fill the colour behind my portrait figure. What I had forgotten was that in VR, you have a 3D plane to create in. I could simply layer the sections of the painting on top of each other. The portrait first, the background next and the colours behind that. It automatically creates a sense of depth. Voila, my first digital painting was born. I called it The Virtu Lisa (see above).

Week 2: Husain's VR diary - Learning to become a regular Picasso
Sno Clause

I had done it, and the sensation of accomplishment sparked inspiration for a blizzard of digital paintings. A beach scene I like to call The Crab's Delight followed, and then I decided to throw off the shackles of self-imposed limitations and go wild. The next period of my artistic life is my most fertile.

Out of the truest depths of my soul comes Sno Clause (no W, this is my art), a happy snowman wearing a Santa hat. Then, using the moon environment in Tilt Brush, I created a purple moonbase weapon sparkling with electricity. This was not a work I was proud of. I felt, once again, like an amateur. I searched my soul and decided to go again.

Everything clicked. I finally understood what VR art was capable of, how to use the space available and how to utilise the tools Tilt Brush provided. So I decided to just let my hands go, to just let my feelings draw what they wanted. Out came Anxiety, which is an abstract person (it's the one at the top of this article). You can see their basic person-like shape, but on the inside you can see the storm of emotions, which threatens to extinguish that pure, green optimism at the centre of their heart.

Hitting the blocks

Week 2: Husain's VR diary - Learning to become a regular Picasso

Once my magnum opus was done, I needed to push myself further. So I turned to Google's Blocks, and I decided that the next step was to create 3D objects I could later animate. Compared to Tilt Brush, this was a far more difficult task. While the interfaces of both this and Tilt Brush are similar, learning how to put objects together to build an object was far more difficult and far less fun.

Any optimism and confidence I had built up totally dissipated. I had no clue how to create my own objects and characters, so I looked at the shapes available – the standard set of geometric objects – and decided that robots were the way to go. I built my first robot and then I realized he looked like C-3PO. The background I was using at the time was desert themed and inspiration struck.

I built my best version of R2-D2, and then I built a sandcrawler and tried to position them the best I could, but nothing looked right. It wasn't up to my new standards, so I decided to move on from Blocks to something else: Quill, an animation app from Facebook.

If Blocks was difficult to learn, Quill was almost impossible. I spent nearly 15 minutes figuring out that I could draw directly in the tutorial screen. It took me nearly an hour of trying to figure out the control scheme, which was far more like high-end photo or animation software than I expected.

Week 2: Husain's VR diary - Learning to become a regular Picasso

After trying to create a character – unsuccessfully – I decided to look at some of the examples in the app's gallery. "How the heck do people use this thing?" I wondered. The examples mostly didn't help, as they just reinforced how little talent I had. Until I saw a scene of a fisherman in a boat on a lake. I noticed there were little fireflies buzzing around, and some swaying grass. Maybe, I thought, I could do something small like that.

I quickly opened up a new file and got to work. I created a green mound first, then drew up some long strands of grass. I created a new image layer and threw yellow dots onto that. I then used Quills' animation tools to move the fireflies around, so it looked like they were darting about. I pressed play and found that things were actually moving quite nicely. I was happy with my work, so I decided to add something else: a beetle.

The finished scene has a beetle moving deeper into the long grass as the light bugs swirl on above. It's not revolutionary, but I haven't animated anything like that since I was a kid – and that, too, was in 2D, not 3D.

Can VR help you become an artist? Yes, it can. What I learned is that it's not quite your artistic skill that makes you an artist, but your ability to express yourself. Tilt Brush especially gave me the confidence that I could express what I wanted to in virtual reality, and it resulted in a couple of pieces I'm happy with.

When Limitless showed me that its software – and VR as a whole – could lower the skill barrier and help people become artists, I had originally thought it would help more people pump out work that could appear in the next Toy Story or similar. Never did I consider that VR could instead just make it easier for people to express themselves, no matter what their art actually ends up looking like.

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