Behind the scenes of Fresh Paint on Windows 8

A few weeks ago I got the chance to chat with Ira Snyder, General Manager of Fresh Paint. If you’ve not yet had the chance to try Fresh Paint, the new painting app for Windows 8, it’s available for free in the Windows Store and has over a 4 star rating (out of 5). In short though, it’s a revolutionary paint application that has a level of realism that has to be seen to be believed. I blogged about it back in August but having played with it more, and seen my daughter fall in love with it, I wanted to know some more about the magic behind the application.

Before I dive in to that, I’d like to share some context for why I think Fresh Paint is (and will continue to be) a hit.

Fresh Paint is about tapping into and expressing your creativity. Whether it’s through our online posts, blogs like this one, photos, doodles and sketches, or something else, we all have an inner creative. The Fresh Paint team was curious though about just how many people felt like they were missing a creative outlet, a way to express their ideas, inspirations and thoughts. So we commissioned a global survey designed to find out how many people are looking for ways to express their creativity. The research shows that a large number of people are looking for creative outlets in their lives. The majority of people surveyed wish they had a creative outlet. In the U.S. alone, 87% of people surveyed said they wish they had a creative outlet. Similarly, the majority of people in Italy, Germany, the UK, Australia, Japan and France said the same:

From my own experience with Fresh Paint, it’s a creative outlet that kids in particular love – just last night I had my Surface tablet “stolen” from my lap by my daughter who insisted it was time to paint. The same research noted above found that 96% of U.S. parents wish they had better ways to develop creativity in their kids. Again, respondents in other countries agreed. You can get a sense of why in this video.

[scroll to the end of this post for the full infographic]

With that said, back to my conversation with Ira.

The history of Fresh Paint is that it drew on earlier work from Microsoft Research known as Project Gustav, a project to model behavior of physical oil in a digital manner. But the team wanted to go beyond that to explore how to simulate oil on canvas and how that oil interacted with tools such as a paintbrush. The team built a prototype that critically treated oil as “wet” so that when it was dynamically mixed, a physics model would precisely replicate on the screen what would happen in the real world when you combine oil, a surface and a tool. With that prototype built, the team invited kids from their own families in to the office for what they called “Art Jams” and observed how these creative minds were unleashed on their prototype. “Kids are the best way to test and learn about this stuff,” Ira said.

Not long after these sessions, the team decided it wanted to get some feedback from outside of the Seattle community and sought to seed the app, then codenamed Digital Art, with some of the best experts they could find to get their take on Fresh Paint. Who better than The Museum of Modern Art? Wendy Woon, MoMA’s Deputy Director of Education, and her team were impressed enough with the app that they invited Microsoft to be a part of a new educational activity lab at the museum.

At that point, Ira knew they were heading in the right direction and agreed to Wendy’s request to make Digital Art a part of MoMA’s Material Lab. Encouraged by this and the overwhelmingly positive feedback during the lab, Ira and the team doubled down on building out a prototype and the app was embedded in the Materials Labs at MoMA for over a year. During that time, over 60,000 people created and painted. Ira shared that feedback was “uncomfortably positive,” but that the team also learned a lot during and from the time at the museum. For example, they heard and saw that the original UI wasn’t as intuitive for some museum visitors. So the team made the palette easier to find, enabling a more seamless experience. As more and more people played with the app, the team heard that they wanted to be able to do things like paint on top of paint, say put a sun in the sky they just brushed on their canvas. Ira and team listened and created the app’s “dry” button, bringing smiles along with the spinning fan. The experience and the feedback was not only a testament to the capability even within the prototype—it was the encouragement that was needed to take things further.

The team undertook further studies too – they gave nine families a touch based PC with Digital Art and asked them to use it for one month. The interviews that followed were revealing – for kids between two and eight, finding the “undo” button for them was an ’aha’ moment that gave them a sense of freedom to create, and they created enormous amounts of art. Teenagers on the other hand would come back to the same piece over and over in the quest to create something inspiring enough to share with their friends. Elder generations created work that simply blew the team away – so much so that they printed out some of the creations on canvas with a matte finish and were astonished at how good the art looked. Truly a blending of the physical and digital worlds. Ira remarked that once you get the interface out of the way and let people imagine and create wonderful things start to happen.

With all of this positive feedback, the team embarked on a heads down mission to reimagine Digital Art in to what would become Fresh Paint. With feedback culled from experience at a world class museum, the team rolled up their sleeves, literally, and started enhancing and perfecting the experience. Developers starting playing with paints, experimenting with how real oil paints blended and reacted to the texture of a canvas and adjusting that physics model to model it – they pinned their works to the hallway walls for inspiration. Their intention was to build the best in class touch application for the Windows 8 environment, and judging by the reaction to date, they’ve hit the mark. Fresh Paint is back at MoMA in the Art Lab and mommy bloggers are raving about the interactive experience it provides for kids of all ages. My own daughter is a fan, and just today I spoke with a friend who told me his daughter demanded last weekend that they buy a Windows 8 touch PC. Why? She’s fallen in love with Fresh Paint while playing with it at a Microsoft Store.

If you have a Microsoft Store near you, or any store selling Windows 8 PCs, or a friends with a Windows 8 PC, go take a look at Fresh Paint. Grab a brush, paint on the canvas and then grab another ink and brush through that first stroke. I guarantee you’ll be impressed at the reaction and from there on, it becomes quite addictive. Try out some of the latest features such as the Fun Pack – templates and starter paintings that can be downloaded within the app. Or my favorite feature, the ability to take a photo and use it as you may use tracing paper – you draw on top of the photo and then magically remove it to reveal your masterpiece.

To hear more from the Fresh Paint team, follow them on Twitter but for now, it’s time to go paint!


Fresh Paint infographic – An infographic by the team at Fresh Paint infographic

Embed Fresh Paint infographic on Your Site: Copy and Paste the Code Below