Vermillion Interview: Making Realistic Oil Painting Accessible Using VR

Oil painting simulator Vermillion, available on PC VR and soon on Oculus Quest, is about as close to oil painting in real life as you’re going to get in VR. At least for now, anyway.

But this new unassuming simulator app for VR headsets is doing something interesting — people who were previously uninterested in the machinations of oil painting are picking up the virtual brush and giving Vermillion a try.

The app, developed solely by Thomas van den Berge, is all about wet-on-wet oil painting. Unlike other fast drying painting methods like acrylics, oil paints take a long time to dry, meaning that paint can be blended together on canvas. Different brushes create different effects, and texture can be built up, giving the painting a 3D element.

This meant that van den Berge had a lot of real-life effects, techniques and interactions to accurately reproduce and build from scratch into a VR application. However, the end result is an oil painting simulator that has enough depth that even actual oil painters are giving it a try and seeing great success. It has the same ephemeral, painting-in-the-moment feeling as real life oil painting, but without many of the barriers to entry associated with real life craft.

In Vermillion, all you need is your headset and PC — you don’t need a lot of space or equipment (the latter of which can add up cost-wise), nor do you need to devote a large chunk of time to doing something in one go. There’s also no clean up.

As a result, people are using the app to experiment with oil painting — a medium that, without VR, they don’t have the means, accessibility or equipment to try. Not only that, but the skills are seemingly transferable – while there might be slight differences in the technique, the basic principles of successful oil painting remain vaguely the same, regardless of if you’re using a real easel or a virtual one.

In the 20-minute interview embedded below, we sat down with Vermillion developer Thomas ven den Berge to talk about how he developed the app, the success he’s seen so far and plans for the future. We’ve also transcribed the entire interview below, for those who would prefer to read through instead of watching.

How Did You Start Vermillion And Why?

Harry: Hi everybody, it’s Harry from UploadVR here and today I’m here with Thomas van den Berge who is the developer behind Vermillion, which is a VR app for just PC VR at the moment, right? There’s no other platforms.

Thomas: Yeah. At the moment it’s just PC VR.

Harry: Yeah. So it’s on PC VR now, coming to Quest in the future. It’s basically an oil painting app for VR. It’s fairly realistic — it’s all wet-on-wet oil painting for any artists watching — but before we get into Vermilion, I wanted to talk a bit about you. What’s your history as a VR dev? How did you get into VR? Have you done non-VR development before? How did you get into this stuff?

Thomas: Yeah, so after my studies, I did an internship at a creative media company who built applications for museums and for brands. We got the Oculus DK2 in like 2016 just to make a couple of applications, for like, I think it was like a train company in Europe. I instantly fell in love using the DK2, and seeing the potential of the technology. And since then, I’ve been trying to get more into it.

After five years of working there, I switched to a company here in the Netherlands, where I’m working solely with the whole institute and the Quest, building them interactive applications for a ship builder. I’ve never stopped, in my spare time, working with VR.

Harry: All of this is in your spare time? All the Vermilion stuff is spare time?

Thomas: Yeah.

Harry: Yeah, wow. Very nice. And so I guess my next question is, why the painting aspect? Are you an artist yourself? Do you have a history of painting in real life? Because it seems very realistic.

Thomas: Yeah, a bit of a funny story… I mean, I’m not a painter at all. I can barely draw a stick figure. But I just kind of rolled into the application. Last year, we were planning to do a six month trip around the world, my girlfriend and I, but it got cut short of course, because COVID hit. I was back home and I was looking for side projects and then I made a VR prototype of painting with Bob Ross and shared on LinkedIn, went a little bit viral.

And then I thought like, okay, maybe there’s something here and I just never stopped. I just kept working on it. Yeah.

Translating Oil Painting Techniques Into A VR Application

Harry: I’m not particularly a painter myself. My mum does a lot of oil painting, so I have seen her do it and know a lot about it and not a lot, but a decent amount. It has a lot of the real life elements that you would expect, like you can mix colors on the palette, on the canvas as well, cause it’s wet on wet oil painting.

How much research into like real painting did you have to do to get the feel right, for people who are painters?

Thomas: Yeah. So, I got all the painting equipment myself so I could play around with it and see how it feels, because I think with VR and making good VR applications, it really gives the opportunity to mimic real life in a certain way, but it needs to be as close as possible.

So I watched a lot of oil painting tutorials on YouTube really closely, seeing how the paint behaves, seeing how it mixes. And then during the beta testing phase, I worked together closely with oil painters, like a real-life oil painters, even professional painters and digital artists as well.

So I sorta feel like I combined the best of both worlds. Like I’m getting the feedback from oil painters, like, okay, the brush should feel like this, it should be stiffer or less stiff. The paint should be mixing like this. You know, you should have dry brushing on the canvas. And then the digital artists would be like, okay, I need to be able to change the canvas size on the fly because then it’s easier to block in large sections. Or, you know, need to have undo in there, this kind of stuff. So yeah, I think it was really the close cooperation with people who know about the subject matter and giving really good feedback, which allowed me to make Vermillion into the application it is now.

Balancing Digital Cheats With Realistic Simulation

Harry: And that’s one of the other things that I wanted to talk about, because what I find really interesting is that it’s got those simulation aspects that make it really close to real painting, but it does have some of those digital art things in it. Like you can undo stuff. You can even on the palette, if you stuff up a color, you can take that back or reset the palette. There’s limited layer support as well, which I didn’t realize until I’d done a few paintings in there and I found that in the menu.

How did you choose where to draw the line? Because it is a realistic simulation of oil painting, but there are a few like cheats, if you will, for VR. How did you choose the level at which you put in the kind of digital cheats?

Thomas: So I think at it’s core, Vermilion is about wet-on-wet painting. So I tried to be like sticking as close to the real thing as possible.

So the layers are in there as an option, but you can also just layer paint as you would do in real life, which is like thick over thin paintings — start with a thin coat, and then if you put thick paint over the top of it, it won’t mix. But there were a few things, which would make sense to like let go of the limits of real life and allow it to be a digital medium.

Undo was like a big one, where I immediately thought from the start, OK, I need to have something like this in there. Mostly because I was making videos myself, video recordings of myself trying to do like a paint along. I would be making mess ups all the time. And I was like, okay, this is costing me so much time, going back to a previous version or just trying to cover up what I did. This would be so much easier with an undo button.

And I think same with layers. And also on the palette, you will often accidentally mess up your color because you had something else on your brush and you’d be going back to the palette and be like, oh no, it just ruined my perfect toucan orange with some blue I had leftover.

So these things kind of came naturally, either from myself or from the beta testing community. Yeah, so try to be close to the real thing as possible, but the quality of life things like resizing the canvas and undo… It had to be in there, just to reduce the amount of frustration.

That was like a big thing I wanted, to be easy to pick up and play even for someone who has never painted before and then very forgiving by having the undo in there, for instance. Yeah.

Why Oil Painting As Opposed To Other Forms? And What Does ‘Wet-On-Wet’ Actually Mean?

Harry: Yeah. Well, it’s super interesting, because I’ve seen my mum do a lot of oil on oil painting… or wet on wet painting, I should say. I haven’t, I’ve done a little bit, especially back in school quite a number of years ago now, but not anything recently. But using this, it makes me almost want to do it in real life. And it feels like a way to test it out and kind of understand how it works and what I would need to be able to do it in real life. It’s like a testing ground. And then of course there’s the added benefit of no mess or, or nothing like that.

For those people who have never done any painting before — can you explain what ‘wet-on-wet’ painting means? We keep saying, you know, ‘it’s wet on wet’. What does that mean to someone who has no understanding of art or why that’s important or how that affects the painting?

Thomas: So, maybe first things first is with oil painting, the paint stays wet for… some people say even up to 10 years before it’s fully dry, but it takes days before it’s dry. So if you’re doing a painting in one session, like a lot of painters do — it’s also called alla prima like ‘in the first go’ — it means that you’re always working with wet paint.

So, with like something else like acrylics, it dries pretty quickly and you can do layers. So you start with a base coat and then you just go over top and your new color, which you’re doing over the top, will just not mix. It will be like a new layer. But with oil paints, because they stay wet, if you’re adding more paint over top of it, it will be mixing with what was already there. It also allows you to always keep moving the paint around.

So, you could do like reflections or pulling up grass, just because it’s always still flexible. You can always take a brush and make changes to what’s already on the canvas. Nothing is ever set in stone. And it has a very good benefit by allowing you to easily blend colors so they can make very subtle shades very easily.

If you’re doing a digital program like Photoshop, I want to do a soft skin fade. You would have to be constantly picking new colors and going over it with different tools. But with painting, it happens by itself, right? So you put on the base color, then you go over to the new color and it just picks up what’s already there and slowly becomes this gradient, just by itself and makes it very easy to get these smooth gradients. It also makes it harder for people who just want to do layering stuff. Who just want to be like, okay, blue sky, brown tree, and then like, oh no, my brown tree starting to become blue.

So that’s why the layers are in there, for one. For two, it’s also a lesson about how to work with the medium. Normally you’d have to leave the space blank where you’re filling in your new layer. But, yeah, so that’s what it’s about. Wet-on-wet painting? It never dries.

Harry: Yeah. Did you choose to focus on oils? What drew you to oil specifically, over like acrylic?

Thomas: Yeah. It just seemed like the most interesting medium to me, because if you’re using a quick drying medium, like acrylics, I think you’re losing a bit of like the magic of the painting, which you would have with the oil painting stuff, because it very quickly just becomes like, okay, put on this color, put down another color over top and you would have a hard time making something like a painting, which would often look like just like something like very digital. So I think that’s why it drew me to oil painting just because it’s a lot more like a natural medium. And yeah, it just seemed more interesting.

Harry: Yeah. And on that note too, one thing that I noticed, which is really interesting and detailed, is that you can do lots of like quick brushes with it, with a thick brush and you get that kind of… I’ve forgotten the technical term again for it, but it’s the little texture on the canvas. It becomes like 3D. It’s not just 2D, it’s got like a 3D element to it as well. Was that something that you put in after feedback from the oil painters you were working with? Or when did that kind of come into it?

Thomas: Yeah, so it’s called impasto, which is like this very thick texture. It’s also just a very oil painting thing to have.

It started out with looking closely at these tutorials for oil painting and seeing when you’re putting down paint, you have to put down a very thick paint layer over top of a thin one to avoid it mixing. And you can really see the texture. And then when they’re pressing down on the brush to see like, okay, it’s like craziest little like valley in the paint.

I was like, okay, this looks very nice, and something I want to simulate as well in Vermillion. And then with the latest update, I’ve improved it even more, so it can get like really thick texture onto the canvas. And it allows you to create like a different style and different effects, which again, you would have a very hard time doing in traditional digital mediums, but here in VR, it just feels very natural with like ok put a lot of paint on there and then soft pressure on the canvas. Okay, you’re putting it on really thick paint, and if you’re like pressing it more, you can really like push it down again, and you can create interesting texture onto the canvas in this way.

Future Features and Content

Harry: Even today, I was amazed. I played around with the app again for like an hour or two today and it still surprised me. I was brushing and then I realized I wasn’t  connecting properly and there was little like gaps in [the paint]. And also then I was getting the big brushes and trying to quickly cover ground — I was noticing the more I pressed in, I was getting more of the texture.

It’s a really interesting and detailed touch. Is there anything that you couldn’t put into the app that exists in real life?

Thomas: Well, one of the things that you have in real oil painting, it’s called mediums. And it’s just another liquid, like another oil, [that] you’re adding to the paint to change its viscosity. So normally, straight from the tube, it’s super thick and you’re always mixing it with lindseed oil, just like a different oil to make it more flexible.

And then you have different kinds. Some of it makes it dry quicker or make it more like easily to spread on canvas. But it would make it a bit too complicated for the application, especially for beginners, because then it’s like, okay, I have paint and I have to mix it with something else in there. And then what does it even do? So it’s something I chose not to put in there just because it’s an extra layer of complexity.

Instead by default, the paint always acts like it has some amount of medium in there, like not straight from the tube. That was something I chose to simplify. Yeah.

Harry: Do you have any features, maybe like that or any other things, that you’re looking to add in the future? Or are you looking to add other modes of painting, like acrylic paints or anything like that? Have you got any future content planned?

Thomas: So, I will be focusing definitely on the oil painting aspect at first, because there’s still more things to explore there. One thing, which I definitely want to do, is just adding the paint tubes because it would be fun to play around with, squeezing them seems like a very cool interaction to do in VR.

And maybe another thing, which is like the most requested feature by now, which is kind of funny when you’re making an oil painting app, is just having graphite pencils, because many people want to sketch out what they going to be painting first. They have a thing from real life, where you’re always going to start with a sketch.

Something like this could be coming as well, but I’m not sure I will be adding other kinds of paint. I think I will be just sticking to oil

Harry: That’s an interesting point because today I had an image up on [Vermillion’s in-built] web browser and I was kind of like, hmm, I want to vaguely sketch this. And because I hadn’t been adjusted to oil paint, I used black. And then when I was later going back over it, I was like, oh, now I’ve got to find a way to mix this together and keep mixing to go over it, which was an interesting lesson. It’s funny that I can learn those lessons just like I would in real oil painting. I think that’s a testament to how in depth it goes.

Current Platforms and Oculus Quest Release

Harry: So it’s on PC VR now. It’s on Steam. Any other platform, or is it just Steam?

Thomas: So currently it’s Steam. I was hoping to do a cross platform release, Oculus and Viveport simultaneously, which sadly did not work out. So, I’m working hard with the people at the FRL to get onto the Rift store as soon as possible. It’s a little bit more complicated on the Rift store, but it should hopefully be sorted soon. So that should be dropping in the coming days or weeks.

[Editor’s note: Vermillion has since launched on the Oculus Store for Rift]

It might also be coming to Viveport, we’re also trying to work with HTC because there’s some issues with the Cosmos controller.

And then yeah, afterwards is going to be coming to Quest. That’s going to be the next big milestone, optimizing everything so it works at least on Quest 2, hopefully also on the first one, and be coming to the App Lab, hopefully in the coming months. That’s like the big priority right now, just to make it accessible to as many people as possible because so many people only have the Quest or just prefer being untethered. It’s going to be a big one.

Harry: Yeah. It’s coming to App Lab? Not the official Quest store? It will be on App Lab?

Thomas: Yeah, it’s going to App Lab first and then it’s also going to the Quest store later.

Harry: Ah, okay, cool. The other thing I was going to ask with the Quest is… As you said, even the paintings themselves when you’re doing them are quite detailed. Do you expect to have to make any changes visually or anything to get it to run on Quest?

Thomas: I already have a first version running on the Quest, which has pretty much full feature parity, but it’s not yet running at full framerate. So I’ll have to be looking at like, okay, how much can I optimize? And otherwise, what features do I have to scale down to get it running properly on the Quest as well. So I’m aiming at full feature parity, and hopefully it’ll work out.

Harry: Yeah. I remember we were talking over email and you contacted me and said, oh, it’s coming on Quest now. Was that something that you always planned or was it this just like, I’m going to make this, put it out for PC, and then, you know, you saw interest on a Quest version, so you kind of pivoted to that? Or had you always been thinking about Quest anyway?

Thomas: The first prototype was I think at the end of 2019, and I didn’t even have a Quest. Just chipping away at the application on my original Vive. So it’s like very old school and yeah, I think I just figured, okay, I’ll just start with PC VR because that’s what I have. But I always planned like, okay, I should have a Quest port at some point, because the interest is a lot larger than what’s possible on PC VR.

But yeah, I stuck with a PC VR version first and I’ll have to try to get it running as good as possible on the Quest as well.

Harry: And are you happy with how the PC VR releases has gone? What’s the feedback been like?

Thomas: Yeah. So the feedback has been pretty great. So far all of the steam reviews have been positive, and people are like just like you were saying, okay, this gives me an option to play around with painting. Many people are, for the first time, creating their paintings and they are saying, OK I have zero interest in painting, I have zero artistic talent, but somehow this is really drawing it out for me and I’m just having so much fun painting with Bob Ross or… Someone was like, okay, I painted my own puppy and my mom was super proud of me or something.

It is just really funny to see this this feedback coming in, these reviews coming in. People just being active on the Discord channel and they’re sharing their art. Everyday, there’s like new paintings coming in and people giving each other feedback. And, yeah, it’s been a great experience, seeing so many people have an artistic side. I think the threshold was always too high to do it in real life. And I think that VR really offers the possibility to do so without the risk of messing up, like the fear of messing up. There’s no judging, just having fun, it feels good. Yeah, people are having a good time. So yeah.

Exporting and Printing Paintings, Taking Them Into Other VR Experiences

Harry: It’s the same thing with me. It’s not something that I’m opposed to doing, but it’s also like, you know, everything in the app, to get in real life… As you said, there’s a threshold… I need something to put the canvas on. I’m probably not going to want to get an easel… I need brushes… Which types of brushes? I need paints. And then as you said before, with oils, you’re going to need to mix it and all that kind of stuff. And then there’s the mess. You need a space to be able to do it…

So it’s really cool. It reminds me of Kingspray on Quest. That was something that I tried and I didn’t get into that as much, and I don’t know how realistic that is compared to actual graffiti art, but it was like interesting to do that and kind of have a go with the cans, which I would never probably have thought about doing in real life. It just makes it way, way, way more accessible

And it must be fun for you because you get to see everything that everyone makes in [Vermillion] too. I’m sure people are sending you these amazing creations.

Thomas: Yeah, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. Every morning I wake up and I check the Discord channel and there’s this whole list of new paintings. I’m so amazed every time, like what people are creating. I’m like, is that even made in Vermillion? I’m like zooming in and like oh that’s crazy, yeah. A lot better than I could ever achieve myself. And it’s just really a joy to see people creating stuff with my application.

Harry: Now the other thing I was going to mention before, we were talking about the impasto and the 3D texture… I can’t remember where I read it or in what capacity, but you were either planning, or have already added support, for you to be able to bring these paintings as 3D models, right. So you can take them into like, VR Chat or another app, and have the texture in there. Is that right?

Thomas: Yeah. So that’s coming very soon to have like, a GLTF export of the model. I already have the export of the maps themselves, so you can have a texture in there. Just also need to do the actual model, so you have the proper canvas.

But yeah, that will be dropping as an update soon, and then you will be able to take your paintings into other VR applications. I think it will be very exciting for people to be able to share their artworks in VR and be like, OK look at this piece here on the wall, I’ve painted this. It would be like a whole new aspect to it because right now it’s confined to one application, but once you can take it out and share it with other applications, with social applications, I think opens up like a whole new aspect to it.

So I’m looking forward to seeing people’s works in other applications, yeah.

Harry: Yeah, and outside of VR, you can export the painting as is, right? You can get, I think it’s up to 8K, is that right?

Thomas: Yeah, one of the painters of this toucan here, also did another piece, another bird portrait, it just so happens. And he actually printed it on a pretty big canvas print, and now it’s hanging on his wall. And it looks really convincing and it’s pretty amazing to see. He was like, yeah, it’s feels so unreal to see this thing in real life, which I’ve only made in VR.

Harry: Yeah. Well, that’s fantastic. That’s pretty much everything I had to ask. Is there anything you want to say to the users who are already using Vermilion or anyone that’s interested? Is there anything you want to put out there before we finish up?

Thomas: Yeah, I think mostly just don’t be afraid of thinking that you can’t paint. There are so many people already on the Discord, on the Steam community who are like, okay, I’ve never painted before, but this is so much fun to do. Don’t hold back. Don’t be like, ah, I’m not sure, I can’t even draw. Why would I even start painting?

There’s a lot of features in the application, like allowing you to trace images or just painting along with tutorials and yeah, I think just having fun with the application. So yeah, don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t limit yourself in thinking what you can’t do. Discover your artistic side.

Vermillion is available now on Steam and Oculus Store for Rift, with a Quest launch coming next year.

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