It only took a few days for Boudewjin Pelt to develop the software tools that digital artists like Jeff Zugale, co-author of the Webcomic Not Invented Here, now call “indispensable.” The tools, which Pelt posted online for free in 2004, gave digital artists the ability to color their artwork with just a few clicks of the mouse. “I use them literally every day!” says Jeph Jacques, the cartoonist behind Questionable Content, a popular Webcomic. “They automate an otherwise time-consuming process, which frees me up to spend more time on the other aspects of my artwork—a huge benefit.” Zugale says “I'm pretty sure just about everyone in print comics uses them…. All the Marvel and DC colorists use them, and probably anyone else doing color digitally.”
Pelt’s innovations, simple in nature, have changed the way digital artists work. Two tools, called Multifill and Flatten, also referred to as the BPelt plugins, drastically simplify color “flatting,” a step in which artists fill line art with large blocks of color before adding more detail—all done in the ubiquitous digital-art suite called Photoshop. This part of the job can be extremely time-consuming for colorists if done using conventional Photoshop tools, such as brushes. “I'd estimate they save me 45 minutes of work on each comic strip I make, which is pretty significant,” says Jacques.
The colors infused by the tools aren’t meant to be esthetically pleasing, but with a few clicks, artists can easily make the colors what they want.
Having recently bought the latest version of Flatten for my own attempts at digital art (previous versions of the plugins are available online for free), I started wondering about the person who created these plugins. Pelt gladly filled me in.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
There isn’t much information about you out there. Can you tell me how you got started in digital art?
I’m a 44 year-old iPhone software developer from the Netherlands. I started writing software at the age of 14. Even though I was studying molecular science in university, I just kept doing more and more coding. After my studies, I got a programming job and I have been making software ever since.
How did the idea for the BPelt plugins, Multifill and Flatten, come about?
The idea actually came from someone doing comic coloring work. He found my Web site, where I had written that I had experience making Photoshop plugins, so he decided to contact me. He thought that there must be a better way to flatten comics and I agreed. That was the summer of 2004.
Why did you make them available for free when you first published them?
I worked on the plugins for about three months, but then I got a permanent job at a company in Amsterdam developing software for mobile phones. By then, I just didn’t have time to add some kind of copy protection or serial-number checking system, so I just put them up on my Web site for free instead.
That’s very generous of you. Given that you weren’t making money from the plugins until the latest version was released for sale, do you still feel a responsibility to keep the older ones updated?
Yes, I do. Maybe once a year, someone would find an issue with the plugins and I would work on getting them up to speed. Those people were usually artists who are trying to do things a bit differently. Now, I only update the paid versions since the old versions are getting quite old. They still work well though.
Why did you decide to start asking people to pay for the newest version of Flatten?
I finally had the time to set that up, I guess. And now that Photoshop is moving to the cloud, I will have to pay to subscribe to both the Windows and Mac versions. That will be very expensive, so I had to find a way to pay for that as well.
Do you use the plugins yourself? Are you an artist?
I’m not an artist. I’m just really into software development and I like to play around in Photoshop.
Do you ever stop to consider your role in producing some of the world’s most popular comics?
Not really. I don’t really know what my role is. I know a lot of people have downloaded the free versions and some people write about them in their blogs too. I got some nice feedback when I first published them, and occasionally I get a nice Christmas card, but that’s about it.