Meet the Artists Who’ve Dedicated Themselves to MS Paint
A small group of artists made the free art tool their medium of choice, for one of them it’s even become a career.
Image: James Murray
The internet collectively stood aghast in July when Microsoft announced it was discontinuing inclusion of Microsoft Paint as standard in Windows. Some vague wording suggested that Paint was being axed entirely, and a wave of outcry ensued. The push-back was so loud, Microsoft issued a second statement, clarifying that although it was no longer updating Paint, its latest version would be available for free on the Windows app store.
Since releasing with the first version of Windows in 1985, MS Paint has become synonymous with Windows machines. It's part of the furniture when using a PC, like an old rocking chair that gets passed from generation to generation. Even if it's only ever used by kids or as a distraction, it's reliable, promising a simple but effective artistic palette with which to kill some time. For some, however, the tool is more than a frivolous way to endure a particularly lifeless office meeting. Some have managed to use the program for its intended purpose—to make art, and they've gotten rather good at it.
One such artist is James Murray, who goes by "Jim’ll Paint It," a wildly popular illustrator whose work with MS Paint has garnered him almost 700,000 followers Facebook. Murray specializes in painting characters and historical figures in bizarre, often hilarious situations based on audience request. There's the Muppets re-enacting the chest-buster scene from Ridley Scott's Alien, or 'Dad's Army of Darkness', a mashup of classic British sitcom Dad's Army and Sam Raimi's cult horror Army of Darkness.
“I was just drawing pictures for my immediate friends to kill time. I found asking for requests was just another way of switching off and relaxing and just doing something creative without having to chip away at the same part of the brain engaged with doing professional design work,” Murray told me via email. “It started going a bit crazy when I put a few of them on Tumblr.”
Working with the Adobe suites for his day-job, Murray was initially drawn to Paint because it was so simple. He could scratch the itch of wanting to illustrate without being bombarded with options for every line and colour. Gradually he started to appreciate the straight-forward nature of the program, figuring out what it's capable of while humoring silly requests from friends. Before too long, he was creating images that weren't just funny in their concept but genuinely impressive too, showcasing a wide colour-palette and intricate line-work few would believe came from MS Paint.
“It does simplicity better,” Murray said. “The older versions are so simple that they strip away distractions, temptations and safety nets and force you to make bold choices that you might not be able to undo.”
Another Paint-alum is artist Patrick Hines. An illustrator based out of Boston, Hines uses MS Paint almost exclusively to create his work. His creations, some original, others recreations of scenes from books and movies like Harry Potter and Star Wars, demonstrate a mastery of Paint on a similar level to Murray's, though with only a mere tiny sum of the social media traction. Still, he's managed nearly 200,000 views on art-based sharing site DeviantArt and isn't far below Murray when one Googles “MS Paint artist”.
“I started using it [MS-Paint] sometime around 2003, 2004,” Hines told me in a Skype interview. “I was working over-nights as a security guard in a Boston nursing home. I was at a reception desk for most of the night and I didn't have anything to do. It was either Microsoft Paint or Freecell and Minesweeper and I stink at those games and I'm not a big of Solitaire, so it was either Paint or a slow descent into insanity!”
Initially, Hines used the program to pass the time, fiddling with it to try and replicate techniques he used as a regular artist. He always assumed he'd graduate to more intensive software like Photoshop, but that never happened. He got comfortable, and after a few years he found he'd ostensibly shifted mediums, with Paint becoming his primary mode of creation.
Like Murray, it's the limitation that really captivated Hines, challenging him to figure out a solution to an idea he had. As he puts it, the limitations force him to get creative and plan out a picture different than if he was using a different program. It's only when you really scrutinize the shading and composition do you begin to notice a roughness that betrays Paint's limited capabilities; uneven colour gradients and bumpy lining that betray a program being pushed almost beyond its means. But it's that same messiness that Hines enjoys about the work.
“In another program it'd be seamless and when you move in it'd just be blurred pixels whereas with Paint you can actually see the lines of the gradient, and that's what I like about it,” Hines said. “I definitely enjoy pushing the limits of the program, what it can do.”
The two use older versions of the Paint, Murray running the Windows XP standard version via emulator while Hines keeps access to various iterations on hand for different parts of his process. Both lament that newer releases moving towards being a free, off-brand alternative to the Adobe suites has lessened the creative value of the program.
“The Line tool now is like a tool you'd find in Illustrator or Photoshop and it just, it has no business being in Paint because it just makes it needlessly complex,” Hines told me. “On the other hand, the great thing about the current version of Paint is that its colour palette is much easier to use. You can just select the colour with the little eye-dropper and it takes you right back to whatever the shade that was.”
The plainness of Paint, its mundanity, is itself its greatest strength, allowing those without the ability to use more complicated programmes to become digital artists. For Hal Lasko, another MS-Painter, the straightforwardness is what allowed him get to grips with the tool at all. After a long career as a typographer, his grandson introduced him to Paint, where he quickly became enamored and began creating his pieces. Lasko passed away in 2014, but is survived by a short documentary released that same year, The Pixel Painter.
“I knew I had to introduce him to Microsoft Paint, and once I did, he just took off with it,” Ryan Lasko, Hal's grandson, says in the film. “It wasn't until years later we realized how important this thing was to him.”
Lasko would get his pictures printed to be framed and shown off and, like Hines, valued seeing the squares in the finished work. Despite being in his 90s, Hal found great pleasure in taking the time necessary to draw results out of Paint. “If it takes two years, I can spend it,” He explains about his process in the short. “I got a lot of patience, that's what you really need anyways.”
Patience is the presiding virtue if one strives to get beyond simple shapes in Paint. A recreation of the poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Hines took four-to-six weeks, which is his general time-range per completed image. His procedure follows a similar breakdown to Hal's where he takes individual parts, does them each separately then brings them together to form the final product. Except in Hines' case, he also works across the aforementioned multiple versions of Paint, using an older, late-'90s release for his line-art, and a more current one for colouring. Murray's pictures will take 2-3 days straight work, with a little more if anything is more complex than expected.
The increasing interest in MS Paint-related artistry has had both positive and negative effects. For Murray, there's a glut of cynics who refuse to believe his work comes from Paint, despite him makings videos to the contrary. Most enjoy his images for what they are, though, and he credits his request system as the secret to what's really made him take far.
“Social media is still relatively new and a project like this which encourages so much two way engagement is bound to spread wider than a more traditional one sided creator/consumer relationship,” He speculated. “But I think there's definitely a contingent of nerds who really buzz off seeing Paint being pushed to its limits and I have a lot of time for them.”
Murray's success and the wider discussion on Paint as a tool has rubbed off on Hines, too. He's been getting more commission work, such as the poster he was asked to do for the recent sequel to popular touch-screen puzzle game Monument Valley 2, and spoke of a busy calendar for the foreseeable future. I asked he and Murray if they'd any advice for anyone inspired by the tool's recent near-death experience to take it up—they were less than encouraging.
“Honestly don't know if I could, with a clear conscience, recommend it,” Said Murray. “It's slow work that needs a huge amount of patience and the consumer or client will need to be aware of its limitations.”
"Make sure you have a series of very boring desk jobs," Hines said. “That's really all I can say.”