Seven Projects to Stretch Your Digital Wings: Part One

I love September. There’s a back-to-school crispness in the air that always gets me jazzed to learn something new, even though I’ve been out of school for 15 years. Maybe you feel it too. And with a long holiday weekend coming up, perhaps you’ve got a few hours free to experiment with a new tool or craft—something that will help you express a bit of your own creativity. The question is, where to begin?

Well, if you’re like me and you’ve got a weakness for gadgets, software, and Web tools, you may find something of interest in the following list of easy digital projects. This is just a smattering of the options popping up every day for people who want to use new media to explore the world around them and express and share their own ideas. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative type, I urge you to give these new tools a try. Everyone has something unique, valuable, and personal to say about their life experiences, and in many ways, the new digital technologies make it easier than ever to say it.

In this week’s column, I cover three projects in the areas of visual art and Web publishing; I’ll outline four more ideas involving different media next week. [Update 9/18/09: Actually, this turned into a three-part column. Be sure to check out part two and part three.] Some of these items involve technologies I haven’t written about before, and others are things I’ve introduced in past columns. Most of them require a bit of basic equipment, such as an Internet-connected computer, a digital camera, or smartphone—but the Web-based tools that I list are all free.

Pick one and have fun! I encourage you to post your results online and share a link in the comment section here. And if you have your own favorite tools for digital self-expression, let us know about them.

1. Make a Digital Painting with Brushes

There are plenty of powerful programs for creating computer art, like Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Painter. Creative professionals often put these programs to work using high-end gadgets like Wacom’s Intuos pen tablets and Cintiq pen displays. But using inexpensive software from the iTunes App Store, anybody with an iPhone or iPod Touch can try their hand, literally, at painting digitally.

My favorite iPhone painting app is Brushes, a $4.99 program created by independent developer Steve Sprang. It sprang to fame this summer when The New Yorker published a Brushes painting by New York artist Jorge Colombo on its cover. The program is extremely easy to use—you just point and draw with your finger—but its features, like a color picker, a transparency adjuster, zooming, layers, and undo buttons, make it surprisingly flexible.

I’m amazed by some of the art Brushes users have created: they’ve used the software to evoke styles ranging from hard-edged, Mondrian-style modernism to a misty softness that reminds me of Japanese scroll paintings. (You can see more than 7,000 Brushes paintings uploaded by more than 1,400 Flickr members here.) But the program is also great for plain old doodling.

And there’s an extremely cool feature that allows you to share not just your finished Brushes paintings, but animations documenting your work, brushstroke by brushstroke. You just log into the app’s built in Web server from your Mac’s browser, copy the special “.brushes” file, then open it using the free Brushes program for the Macintosh. Here’s a video showing how I made my first Brushes painting—it’s amateurish, obviously, but I had fun with it.

2. Start Lifestreaming with Friendfeed or Posterous

Blogging is so 2006. All the cool kids, like Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital, have moved on to lifestreaming. Definitions of lifestreaming vary, but I’d say it comes down to having a central online clearinghouse for everything you … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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