An Electronic Art

Remembering Deluxe Paint on the Amiga

Jay Miner, lead architect of the Amiga, attended the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with his prototype personal computer. His team could be proud of their work; the computer they had designed was at least half a decade ahead of the competition. [1] The competition agreed, and in 1984 the computer manufacturer Commodore acquired Amiga Corporation as a means to stay ahead of arch rival Atari. The Commodore Amiga 1000 was launched in 1985 with an event held at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “The Amiga’s graphics are simply outstanding,” Compute!’s Gazette reported of the A1000, “far surpassing the graphics available on any computer sold for less than $10,000.” [2] At a price of $1295, the Amiga 1000 was the world’s first multimedia personal computer.

The launch event featured special guests Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry. The pop star sat for a portrait painted by Warhol using a paint program named GraphiCraft, developed by Island Graphics. [3] Multimedia capabilities were the key selling point of the computer, yet no painting software was bundled with it when it went on sale. It was an early example of Commodore leadership’s unerring ability to squander the technological advantages and strategic opportunities of the Amiga. Upon realising there would be no painting software bundled by Commodore, a video game developer named Electronic Arts decided to port their in-house graphics creation program, Prism, to the platform. [4] Prism became Deluxe Paint and was released in 1985.

Deluxe Paint was the showcase the Amiga deserved, vividly demonstrating the elegantly powerful custom chipset architecture and pre-emptive multitasking operating system. DPaint’s user interface may look superficially similar to the MacPaint program released with the Apple Macintosh in 1984, but there was little in common between the 1-bit toy and the professional tool that supported live painting with a palette of 4096 colours at 320×200 pixels resolution. Not one dot was wasted: the tool icons and paint set were squeezed into a narrow column at the rightmost edge of the screen in order to retain the maximum practicable amount of space for the canvas. Even this minimal user interface could be hidden for a distraction-free painting environment controlled by the keyboard.

Numerous improvements and additions were made to DPaint over the years, often closely tracking new developments in Amiga graphics technology. Deluxe Paint III notably added the ability to produce frame-by-frame animation and to save a selection of animation as a reusable “animbrush”. When the low cost Amiga 500 model was released in the United Kingdom, the savvy U.K. marketing team put together bundles that included DPaint and several games. [5] The popularity of the Amiga 500 in Europe, and the rampant software piracy on the platform, make it likely that several million European owners had access to a copy of DPaint by the early nineties. [6]

In 1992 Commodore released the Amiga 4000 and 1200 models featuring the Advanced Graphics Architecture (AGA) chipset that brought higher resolutions and new indexed colour modes, allowing for a paint set of 256 colours chosen from a 24-bit colour palette. Electronic Arts released Deluxe Paint 4.5 to support these new capabilities. This was the apex of the indexed colour, low-resolution era of computer graphics. A DPaint diskette, whether purchased, bundled, or pirated, had become an essential item in many Amiga owners’ collections. “The best paint program that you could get was DPaint on the Amiga; hands down, on all machines, across all platforms,” recalls Amiga 1000 software engineer R. J. Mical. [7]

A decade of dominance came to an end in 1994 when Photoshop 3 introduced the ability to divide an image into multiple layers, redefining the state of the art. In the same year Commodore’s mismanagement finally resulted in bankruptcy, dashing hopes for a new generation of Amiga graphics technology. In the years since, Photoshop has become a de facto standard and cultural phenomenon, MacPaint is revered for its primitive brilliance, and DPaint has been largely forgotten. It deserves to be remembered as an electronic art pioneer, as a user interface design classic, and most especially as a professional program that also encouraged a generation of novice experimenters to think of their computers as tools for creative expression.