Google Tilt Brush is a breathtaking example of VR technology that you can try at home with an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. It makes one enormous step-change to something you’ve been doing since before you could talk: drawing. And as soon as you use it, you’ll realise you can’t ever go back to pencil and paper.
This is a story of varying philosophical depths. It’s a story about cutting-edge technology. A story about re-thinking the physical connection you have with the universe. Re-evaluating how you interact with our four dimensions. About discovering new ways to intuitively create beauty.
It’s also a story about creating crude virtual drawings of penises, and feeling proud of the achievement.
Unlearn what you know (and what you didn’t know you knew)
It’s an odd quirk of our society that we’re encouraged to make decisions as teenagers designed to shape our whole lives. This writer’s teenage self, for instance, made a Very Determined Decision to focus squarely on visual arts – and has done pretty much anything but pick up a paintbrush in the years since.
But who could criticise a dumb teen (me, again) for thinking that devoting life to drawing, painting, and cutting out bits of cardboard and gluing them back together would be anything other than endless fun?
The brain is not really meant to understand three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional plane.
Drawing, like music, is a creative endeavour that we can all become absorbed in. And you really can draw better than you think, even if you’ve not done it in earnest since you put down the Crayolas - you just haven't tried the most natural form of drawing yet.
So if your love of drawing withered in frustration years ago, it’s not your fault: the brain is not really meant to understand three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional plane. Instead, we’ve learnt to understand what a drawing of a box looks like and to associate this with its real 3D cousin.
This means that drawing objects isn’t just about making something look good or “correct” - a whole separate set of mental calculations need to be learnt. This is where drawing becomes frustrating (and why abstract art is a more forgiving starting point for wannabe artists).
So – if the complication of drawing in 2D was taken away, could you rediscover your childlike love for drawing? Because that’s exactly what Google Tilt Brush is designed to do - and achieves with mind-boggling aplomb.
Illustration by Edoardo Amoruso
Drawing is dead: we’re all virtual sculptors now
Slip on the headset. Look down at your left hand, select a brush, a colour and an effect from your palette - and then with your right hand, start painting. The lines appear in the air, dazzling and brilliant. You whoop with joy. It’s as easy as falling off a bike.
VR drawing isn’t just wild fun – for people who have considered themselves “non-artists” for years, it’s a sudden quashing of limitations.
According to Google’s blurb, Tilt Brush allows you to, “paint life-size three-dimensional brush strokes, stars, light, and even fire” – except remarkably, that’s underselling it somewhat. It’s actually even more amazing than the hyperbole: and once you’re inside, you’ll understand immediately.
VR drawing isn’t just wild fun – for people who have considered themselves “non-artists” for years, it’s a sudden quashing of limitations. You’re not painting “a scene”, you are creating the scene: you build the space, not join the dots.
The feeling is miraculous: both in terms of the technology involved, and the sensation of your own shortcomings being torn away. Paint what you like; paint how you like; it all makes sense. You’ll not want to leave the world you create.
After spending just a few minutes’ painting, I began to plan the excuses I would tell people as I mentally cleared my diary to spend huge, luxurious swathes of time painting, thinking, and simply looking at my own alt-reality.
Do you remember the first time?
What does it feel like? Well, it feels amazing. It also feels liberating, magical, sensual – insert your own puffery here: it’ll be applicable.
Perhaps the most miraculous thing about Tilt Brush is how it hot-wires your creative ability to a degree that your harshest critic (which, if you didn’t know, is also you! Congratulations - you’re now a real tortured artist.) will raise eyebrows and mutter, “hey, not bad at all.”
It’s partly because the controls are unbelievably forgiving and intuitive, but also because you are no longer doing what every artist has spent forever doing: squashing three dimensions into two. We exist in three physical dimensions, we think in three physical dimensions, and now we create spontaneously into this space.
I’d made something that felt tangible, and something that made me feel weirdly powerful.
On my first go, I swooped around, joyfully glooping big splodges of flat colour into a shape – then tiptoeing around the corner to peek at it from the side, and then quickly building another facet.
And then I’d stop to just look and think about what I’d managed to make: something that felt tangible, and something that made me feel weirdly powerful.
Bonus revelation: if, like me, you have the mentality of a schoolboy, you’ll also pretty soon draw a crude phallic shape, and guffaw at the audacity of how something so utterly stupid hovers in three dimensions in front of you; pink brushstrokes, shimmering, still, plastic.
This hurr-hurr idiocy is, weirdly, confirmation of the creative possibilities that exist, way beyond simply drawing. You can crouch and look at the crudely-drawn phallus from a whole new angle. You can skip around the crudely-drawn phallus and admire it from afar. You can step inside the crudely-drawn phallus. You can add even cruder detail to the crudely-drawn phallus.
Then you can shamefully erase the crudely-drawn phallus when you realise how Picasso would have crawled over broken glass to have a go at drawing with Tilt Brush, and you’ve just drawn a dick with it.
Your ego, simmered to the point of zen.
Staring at your own work is part and parcel of the essential narcissism that is being an artist, and Tilt Brush allows for a greater – yet purer – introspection.
In the ancient world of old-fashioned painting, I spent hours adjusting brushstrokes: dabbing on, scraping off. We were taught to turn the drawing board to face the wall, leave it for a few days, work on something else, then check back in - and any changes that needed making would be apparent on first glance. (It was always the nose of the subject of your portrait that was wildly out of proportion, unchangeable without altering everything around it, of course.)
But in virtual painting, you can rewind and replay from infinite angles, and reveal the quirks of your drawing immediately. And each time, the feeling of guilt that accompanies the joy in marvelling in your own work ebbs away.
Do you look ridiculous painting in virtual space? Yes. But who cares?
Watching your work play back and create itself is a bit like watching the flightpath a loved one via an airline tracking app: you know exactly where the colourful line is going, but occasionally a sudden deviation catches you by surprise - and it feels hugely, personally important.
Do you look ridiculous painting in virtual space? Yes. But who cares? If wildly swiping at thin air, sporting facial expressions that flicker between “slack-jawed concentration” and “rictus grin” are the price to pay, so be it.
Because Google Tilt Brush isn’t just fun, or surprisingly easy, or exhilarating - plucking colours and shapes out of thin air feels like a form of magic - and it turns out everyone is a natural performer.