Noctivagous' Desktop Drawing Machine

Noctivagous is a company set up for the purpose of making a new type of specialized drawing tool, known as a "drawing machine" in the field of graphic arts. This project is implemented on the computer with software and would otherwise be called a vector illustration program.

Our project intends to act as a second-generation vector-drawing program— what comes after the industry staple, Adobe Illustrator. Because the program is made on a different basis and programs the computer in a more interactive way than what Illustrator does today, we explain it from the perspective of a drawing machine.

A drawing machine is a system of mechanics that allows a person to make lines and combinations of lines that the hand cannot do in a consistent fashion.


Example drawing machine (pintograph) with mechanical workings. (Fran McConville, Dennis Maxwell)

The computer could be said to act as a drawing machine, but usually a drawing machine refers to a physical setup— one that does not have electronics. An example is the harmonograph, which consists of pendulums that move in conjunction with each other to make curvilinear figures. There is also the drawing machine with which people are familiar, the Etch-A-Sketch. Both of these devices use mechanical operations to allow a person to sketch or produce drawings the hand does not normally do.


Examples of drawing machines. Etch-A-Sketch (left), a harmonograph drawing machine (right).

Our project has made a drawing machine that gives an artist the ability to control its output and allows for a mode of drawing that freehand work cannot easily do. What's more, it does this through software, through the format of a vector-drawing program, as mentioned above. It fills in the shortcomings of a machine like an Etch-A-Sketch, which is limited to only a few moves, while retaining the capabilities of such a machine. It is not the same as Adobe Illustrator because of the way it makes the computer act more like a physical drawing machine— one that normally would have tactile controls.

Rather than construct a totally mechanical device, such as the Etch-A-Sketch, which would require a mechanical system, this is accomplished by re-using the hardware of keyboard and trackpad, configuring the two in such a way that they work in tandem to direct the desktop computer and make it feel mechanically-driven.

The desktop computer is programmed to behave like a physical drawing machine because of how the keyboard and trackpad are made to interact with each other. A person feels as if mechanically interacting with a piece of paper.

These images are not made of point-and-click lines (the mode of Illustrator). They are the result of something being drawn in real-time, which means that the person is doing fluid drawing in a mechanical fashion. The desktop computer behaves as a sort of modified Etch-A-Sketch (without the knobs and instead with the keyboard and trackpad).

Below is a sketch that took less than 15 minutes, which is an incredibly fast period of time given what the drawing looks like (zoomed out).

We change the color palette to traditional pencil and paper (another drawing done under 15 minutes).




Another Type of Drawing Machine

A spirograph is a drawing machine in which a grooved wheel is embedded inside another wheel to produce a precise, curved drawing. A person places the tip of a pencil into the spirograph's inner wheel and then moves it in a circular motion to make a drawing.

The result is a complex set of curves that would be unfeasible to draw by hand. The spirograph is an intriguing device for this reason: with a mechanical setup, a drawing can be made that goes beyond what ordinary tools and methods of drawing can regularly do.

The major limitation of the spirograph is that it provides no controls in relation to its output. There is no easy way to know what will emerge from using it and there is also no way to take what the spirograph does and make something of sophisticated artistic value. This situation applies to other types of drawing machines as well. They make interesting outcomes, but provide no effective control over their process of drawing. Mentioned earlier, the harmonograph operates by way of pendulums to control the movement of a drawing implement.


A harmonograph drawing machine (left). Example drawing (right).

The principle of a drawing machine has potential. If a drawing machine is devised that allows for dexterous control over its drawing outcome, the device can form the basis for a truly useful tool, one that a person actively uses in the studio. This is what we have done— we have built a truly useful machine for drawing that provides an actual set of effective controls, to produce natural drawings for everyday purposes.

Our machine accomplishes this by using straight lines as its method of drawing, having the person place them consecutively, in a flow, so as to draw on the paper. The controls of the machine adjust the placement of the line being drawn and when many lines are put together an entire drawing is made. Key to what makes this a useful setup is that the feel of using it is very much like natural drawing, to the extent that a person can forget that he or she is not drawing by freehand.

This device could be constructed as a mechanical system, with moving parts, but instead we have digitally re-wired the computer's hardware input to act in a physical way: the keyboard and trackpad work as the physical controls of a machine, the computer screen acts as the moving page. The mouse pointer no longer serves as a pointer for clicking, but instead serves as physical input. The keyboard and trackpad serve a mechanical role, in other words. On top of this, indicator lights that would exist on a mechanical system are also placed in the computer window. The hardware of the computer becomes re-oriented physically in order to make drawing any type of linear figure a fluid process.

The keyboard and trackpad are actually the center of what makes this setup work and they are the starting point for what it does. Other parts of the system a person expects will be available, such as importing digital images, placing text, and changing palettes quickly, are integrated as well. The computer is the ideal machine medium for the job.

Our drawing tool can draw straight lines so quickly that it permits traditional architectural drafting to take place in real-time, something unknown before. Many noted works of contemporary architecture are a trivial thing to sketch using this machine.