Microsoft Paint’s Influence on Artists Is Bigger Than You Might Think
On July 24th, the vintage graphics editing software Microsoft Paint found itself tossed unceremoniously on the chopping block. The program, a staple of the Windows operating system for 32 years, had been quietly added to a list of applications slated for removal. (Taking its place was Microsoft’s latest image-making tool, 3D Paint.)
The internet responded quickly and resoundingly: We want MS Paint back.
And Microsoft listened. The next day, the company announced that the program wasn’t gone for good—instead, it would be offered in the Windows Store, free for anyone feeling a tinge of ’90s nostalgia.
Clearly, MS Paint has captured the hearts and minds of the American public—bedroom meme-makers and fine artists alike. But why?
At face value, the program isn't particularly impressive. As Patrick Davison surmised in the Journal of Visual Culture, “If innovation and technical elegance were the only standards of a medium’s historical or cultural merit, there would not be much to say about MS Paint.”
But, as artist Jeffrey Alan Scudder notes, its lack of sophistication is precisely the reason MS Paint has developed such a following. “The crude but easily identifiable aesthetic is pretty easy to abide by when just messing about,” says Scudder, who has also led digital painting courses at UCLA and Parsons. “It’s no big deal to surf around in MS Paint and make a picture that looks like it was made in MS Paint. The products of the tool have a very strong identity that leads back to the source.”
Today, MS Paint actually serves as an umbrella term for a series of different programs that were developed by Microsoft over several decades. The first, Windows Paint, was released to the public in 1985 as a part of the Windows 1.0 operating system. Apple had unveiled its own graphics editing software, MacPaint, with much fanfare a year earlier; Windows Paint was intended to serve as a direct competitor.
Both programs were steeped in the terminology of the time. By the 1980s, the difference between “drawing” and “painting” computer programs had been firmly established—the former utilized vectors to create perfectly crisp geometric shapes, while the latter used blocks of color (called “rasters”) that could be switched on or off and resulted in blocky, pixelated edges.
Their user bases split accordingly. Drawing programs were used by professionals, like architects and graphic designers. Paint programs, on the other hand, were the tools of amateurs—including a 13-year-old Austin Lee. Now an artist based in New York, Lee says his family owned a computer for most of his childhood. As a teenager in the ’90s, he and his friends would invent bands and then illustrate them with programs like MS Paint. It wasn’t until age 16 or 17 that Lee picked up a real paintbrush.
For Trudy Benson, a New York-based painter, digital painting software likewise played an early and integral role in her artistic development. Her father, a programmer, always had a few computers lying around the house. As early as elementary school, she was experimenting with both MacPaint and MS Paint in a way that was entirely distinct from her other artistic endeavours. “When I was drawing on actual paper, or making little paintings as a kid, I would always draw people and things,” she recalls. “But on the computer I was making abstract drawings, playing with the toolbox’s different marks.”
Years later, Benson began her MFA at Pratt Institute as a figurative painter. When she began toying with abstraction during her first year, her mind kept returning to the early sketches she’d made on MS Paint. Soon, she was making work that imitated those digital lines and marks—the exception being that they were now rendered in thick swathes of oil paint on canvas.
Today, Benson’s work has evolved to incorporate collage elements that are less explicitly tied to MS Paint. But the influence of digital painting programs remains. “I still use a lot of layers, and there's still that sense of a shallow depth,” she says. “There's still a really graphic quality.”
Similarly, Lee’s paintings incorporate the erratic lines and technicolor hues of MS Paint and other similar programs. He often draws on a tablet or in Photoshop when first visualizing a work, before physically translating them in the studio.
“That's become almost a primary way of thinking,” Lee says. “Even if I'm making a painting with real paint, my brain will go to a color slider first. Certain colors I can't actually make so I have to fake it by color relationships. For me, digital is a default mode.”
Scudder acknowledged this development on a broader scale, noting that digital tools have “fundamentally changed our understanding of drawing and painting by shifting the focus towards process and the abstract representation of pictures using information as opposed to material.” In his classes, he encourages students to develop their own programs rather than focusing on the commercially available software—the first time, he says, a digital painting course has done so.
Of course, young contemporary artists are not the only ones who use MS Paint. Nonagenarian Hal Lasko delighted the internet with his astonishingly complex digital paintings, while David O’Reilly achieved a measure of cult YouTube status for his Octocat Adventures. Scudder says one of his favorite MS Paint users is SHADOWBEARMUSEUM. “I’ve never seen anyone use the tool quite like that before,” he says, “but it’s just one star out of many in this universe that is the MS Paint user base.”
That following—both inside and outside the art world—was facilitated by the program’s simplicity. “I think the advantage it has over a lot of other drawing tools is that it's so easy to use,” says Benson. And unlike programs such as Photoshop, which have become increasingly complex from update to update, MS Paint remained practically static between 1995 and 2007.
Perhaps more significant than its simplicity, however, was its ubiquity. For 32 years, MS Paint was packaged into each new update to the Windows operating system. Unlike MacPaint, which cost $195 when it was first released, MS Paint was free to anyone who purchased a computer from Microsoft.
“It's so accessible the way it is. It's barebones, but you can actually use it to do incredible things,” says Benson. “I think that's the best thing about it.”