Photoshop Peripherals | CG Painting

Dan Fessler is an artist and independent game developer currently working on Chasm. He writes about art, technology, and game dev. You can follow him on twitter @DanFessler

A couple weeks ago, as I was painting in Photoshop, I realized how much time I wasted doing the most mundane of things. Specifically how often I'm playing with various brush sliders rather than painting on the canvas. It occurred to me that it would be the most awesome thing ever if someone had made a USB controller specifically with Photoshop in mind; something that would have physical knobs or sliders that would effect brush size, opacity, and hardness on the fly so one could continually paint with their other hand. I went searching for such a device.

After a few days it became apparent that no such thing existed. I was pretty shocked. I can't imagine that I'm the only CG artist who has thought of this before. I guess input-device companies are too busy making the same redundant crap they always have, just with an ever growing number of LED lights to make us feel more like we're studly men in a nightclub rather than geeks in our mother's basement. In any case, I needed an alternate solution

This time I went searching for any piece of hardware that generally resembled what I was looking for, and hopefully I'd be able to Jerry-rig it to Photoshop. I was imagining a simple board with maybe 4 parallel vertical sliders, but the only thing I could find that even came close were MIDI mixing boards. Not only could I not map them to Photoshop shortcut keys, but they are all WAY TOO BULKY. I swear, there is not a single mixing board out there without 50 billion dials, knobs, and sliders. I just wanted something simple.

You'd think there would be a huge market for general purpose programmable USB input devices; Programmable in the sense it could be mapped to keystrokes. Just a simple programmable slider board - or maybe a simple set of knobs. I know PLENTY of computer professionals that could find a good use for things like this. If any of you out there is thinking, "That's a great idea for a business!" PLEASE DO! For the love of Pete, please do!

I finally found one. Its Griffin's PowerMate USB knob. Its not exactly what I was looking for, but it was programmable, and it would work for what I needed. I ordered two and they just arrived in the mail today :)

Initially setting it up was a breeze. Their software for it was amazingly easy to use. Each knob has 6 different functions you can assign to it; rotate left, rotate right, press-rotate left, press-rotate right, press, press and hold. Not only can you set different macros for each function, but you can also set different profiles for each program you use them with. Very cool.

On the first knob, I mapped brush-size to the rotation (using the [ and ] shortcuts) and mapped the brush-hardness to the press-ratation (using the { and } shortcuts). On the second knob I mapped undo and redo to the press-rotation. Lastly, I wanted the second knob to control the brush opacity, but there are not any photoshop shortcut keys for that - at least not in the same way as brush size and hardness. The 0-9 keys at the top of the keyboard sets the opacity ('4' = 40% opacity, '5' = 50% opacity, etc) and there was no way to map the same function of the PowerMate to multiple buttons through their own software. I needed a 3rd party app for that.

I came across AutoHotKey. This seems to be exactly what I needed. Essentially, AutoHotKey allows you to script macro events. So the plan was to use it to detect the knob rotations as keypresses, then script that to output the proper opacity percents back into Photoshop. It took a while, but it worked like a charm. I had to write my own script for it since none existed. If anyone is interested, let me know and I'll post it up.

The last thing I wanted to do was map the first knob's press function to the Alt key (Shortcut key for eyedropper tool while in brush-mode). You'd think this would be easy, but nothing I tried was working. After a bit of investigating I discovered that the PowerMate's software only supports quick keypresses and NOT press-and-hold like the eyedropper shortcut needed. This really upset me. I use the eyedropper tool a ton. I'm hoping I can find someone to edit the .dll file for me to fix this problem. In the mean-time, I've mapped Alt to one of the function keys on my tablet.

I'll keep you posted, But I will say that I can already see a dramatic increase in my workflow because of this.
Dan Fessler April 17 2009 0 Comments
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