Before Photoshop there was… Quantel Paintbox?

Quantel Paintbox; old 1980s tech
(Image credit: Wikimedia)

Photoshop is the mainstay of everyone's digital art toolkit but before Adobe's app dominated everything there was Quantel Paintbox. You may not have heard of it, but Paintbox had some very famous fans back in the 1980s, and now its coming back, kind of.

Artists such as Keith Haring, Larry Rivers and Jennifer Bartlett all experimented with Quantel Paintbox in the 1980s. Before David Hockeny found iPad art was a satisfying way to sketch anywhere, he was splashing pixels around in Quantel's experimental digital painting tech – not an app as such, Paintbox was a chunky standalone computer.

This forgotten digital art tech is set to make a return, of sorts, as photographer Adrian Wilson has tracked down 20 works of art created on this obscure digital painting tech and will be showing them at the exhibition from the Computer Arts Society called 'How Quantel’s Paintbox Changed Our World', in Leicester this summer.

"At $250,000 to buy, or a minimum of $500 an hour to rent, Paintboxes were the Rolls-Royce of computer graphics, and hard to get access to," Wilson told Artnet News, adding: "It was this amazing new thing that was revolutionary and exciting, and launched loads of careers, mine included."

Even if you're unfamiliar with Quantel Paintbox you can't avoid the impact it had on 1980s pop culture, with MTV becoming a big user to create graphic designs as well as Paintboxes being used to make various music videos of the era, including Boy George’s 'You Are My Heroin,' directed by the famous graphic designer Kiki Picasso.

Quantel spent millions of dollars wooing famous artists, including Richard Hamilton and Sidney Nolan, to use its Paintbox in the hope of getting the tech into the hands of influential creatives. As Wilson told Artnet News, "They knew that as their end user, artists were crucial to their success".

Sadly, Paintbox was destined to become lost to history when Quantel failed to uphold its patent infringement case against Adobe, which then saw Photoshop become the industry mainstay for most digital artists. But the Paintbox legacy is obvious, not just by introducing the world to digital painting but also the tech we all now come to love, from the best drawing tablets to the best iPad stylus pens.

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Ian Dean
Editor, Digital Arts & Design

Ian Dean is Editor, Digital Arts & Design at Creativebloq, and the former editor of many leading magazines. These titles included ImagineFX, 3D World and leading video game title Official PlayStation Magazine. In his early career he wrote for music and film magazines including Uncut and SFX. Ian launched Xbox magazine X360 and edited PlayStation World. For Creative Bloq, Ian combines his experiences to bring the latest news on AI, digital art and video game art and tech, and more to Creative Bloq, and in his spare time he doodles in Procreate, ArtRage, and Rebelle while finding time to play Xbox and PS5. He's also a keen Cricut user and laser cutter fan, and is currently crafting on Glowforge and xTools M1.