Quantel and Art Education
Quantel made products for creatives, and they played a significant role in both their introduction and continued development. Richard Taylor, Quantel’s Chairman, stated a year after the Paintbox’s 1981 introduction at NAB, New York “...it is designed for graphic designers and artists who have never, ever been anywhere near a computer”.
Artist Martin Holbrook, hired by Quantel before the Paintbox was launched, was instrumental in creating the user friendly interface which digitally replicated on a screen what would be familiar to anyone who used a traditional artist or graphic design studio in 1981. As Richard Taylor had stated, it was important that using a Paintbox required no computer knowledge or programming skill. Holbrook can be seen in many of the early Paintbox demonstration/training videos describing what was years ahead of the competition. He also assisted Sidney Nolan and David Hockney on the BBC Painting With Light series and in the late 1980’s, set up his own video post production and digital graphic studio in London called “Harmer Holbrook”.
Quantel knew from the beginning that the only way to demonstrate the capabilities of the Paintbox was to encourage the most creative people to operate them and amaze the public with what they saw appear on their TV screens in music videos, commercials and even News and Weather graphics. Paintbox was exclusive, incredibly expensive and innovative but faced a problem because it was also inaccessible to those creatives who dreamed of becoming highly prized artist operators. Quantel needed to find ways of opening access to the Paintbox in order to keep pace with the number of machines it was selling across the world.
The career path of learning the cutting edge equipment by becoming a demonstrator for Quantel, then being paid a fortune working for post production studios and maybe even ending up a VFX company owner was a common one. Quantel introduced a Bursary Programme, whereby they would select young students and artists from a competition they posted around the UK's art colleges. Winners would be paid to learn the equipment while at the Newbury HQ for 6 months to a year, with the expectation that they would be offered lucrative salaries by those who bought expensive Quantel systems and needed someone who knew exactly how to use them. A Paintbox was ultimately a very expensive money-making business machine, albeit one that saved time and created profits in the creative industry, so purchasers ideally needed to start paying off their huge financial investment by having them ready to start earning money the day they were delivered. Training artists and designers took time, so to have someone already familiar with the technology meant that, not only could income begin the moment it arrived, but the ex-Quantel Bursary Programme artist could also train the other employees in the design department or post production studio how to use the new technology.
Good examples of creatives whose successful careers were launched by the Bursary Programme include: Meetal Gokul
Thomas Urbye https://thelooklondon.com/about/who-we-are/
Paintbox Donations to Art Colleges
In 1984/5, Quantel donated three Paintboxes to be shared between at least nine art colleges across Britain. Despite the high pay (freelance Paintbox artists could command $500 per hour in London in the 1980’s) there was still a shortage of people who could use the Paintbox because it was so hard to get access to learn how to use one. Apart from Quantel’s Bursary Programme, broadcast design studios who owned a Paintbox would only allow (usually union) employees to use them. Post production studios needed to keep their Paintboxes running for clients as long as they could, leaving at best some free downtime in the middle of the night when the machine could be used by outside artists, or for low-budget video projects.
Despite high sales demand and each selling for six figure amounts, Quantel donated three brand new Paintboxes and a set of these broadcast-quality peripherals and a service contract to at least nine British art colleges:
plus a Barco Broadcast Video Monitor
JVC KY-2700 video camera for capturing footage and artwork
Sony VP-2030 U-Matic tape recorder for saving video
Quantel 8 inch floppy drive for saving single images digitally
Matrix 3000 film recorder to output single images to 35mm film
This expensive set of high end equipment was moved every 6 months between Blackpool, Stockport and Preston Art Colleges in the North of England.
This same kit was supplied to be rotated once a year between four Scottish art colleges in Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Steven Partridge, who set up the Television Workshop at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee describes how the arrival of the free Paintbox revolutionized digital art and graphics education there in 1984
The other Paintbox was donated to be shared between Bournemouth and specialist TV and Film college, Ravensbourne. It was still being used as late as 1998 by Ravensbourne students to create videos…
Quantel’s payback would be that instead of just a small number hand-selected potential new artists being trained on the Paintbox at their HQ in Newbury, a large number of students from different disciplines than pure graphic design, such as fine art, photography, animation and technical illustration, would now get free access to this previously unavailable cutting edge creative tool. Quantel were always amazed with the different ways that different people used the Paintbox. There was a manual describing how each of the Paintbox features worked but there were always many ways to achieve the same final result, depending on the preference of the person using it. It really was as flexible as a physical artist's or graphic designer's studio (but faster and without any materials to buy or mess to clean up), and now students from many specialist areas could use it in the way they wanted.
Ravensbourne was and is a more broadcast graphics, FX and animation college, so provided more artists and designers to the profession.
A typical example is Andy Keys, who learned the Paintbox while a student at Ravensbourne from 1989-1992, then immediately hired after graduating to become a
demo artist by Quantel, was then hired as Creative Director of Motion FX and now runs Keystudio Motion Graphics
David Sewell is another Ravensbourne/Quantel alumni
But Quantel never dictated who or how their donations were to be used and the Paintbox allowed Fine Artist students, such as these at Dundee, to create strikingly beautiful but uncommercial Digital Art, such as:
Luminous Portrait by Judith Goddard
The Ravens by Leonie MacMillan, 1992
Adrian Wilson was a photography student at Blackpool College when the Paintbox arrived in 1985 and used it, not for video, animation, painting or graphics but as a tool to manipulate photography. Five years before Photoshop 1.0 was released, a random student in the North of England unknowingly became the first photographer to specialize in what we now refer to as “photoshopped” images thanks to Quantel’s donation
Quantel definitely got a good return from their expensive educational investment gamble. Those students who had been given a free springboard into a glamorous and well-paid career, which could take them anywhere in the world they chose to go, inevitably became the most enthusiastic promoters of the Paintbox and encouraged their employers into investing in Quantel's ever widening product range.
Iain Macdonald, describes how he came to be a Senior Graphic Designer at the BBC and a Paintbox fan for life, after he worked on one while a student at Edinbugh College of Art in 1986, "I was introduced to the Head of Graphic Design at BBC Television Centre, and because I'd had experience I think, working on a Quantel Paintbox at art college; which was the first broadcast quality digital painting system; and BBC was just transitioning from cardboard graphics to electronic ones, I was at the right place at the right time, with the right skills. It was my dream job. I couldn't believe it, that I'd actually hit the jackpot, within three months of graduating."
Digital History Discarded
Stephen Partridge describes how the Paintbox was gone by 1994 at Dundee, superseded by desktop based digital paint and editing systems.
We have not heard if and when Ravensbourne/Bournemouth disposed of their Paintbox.
The Paintbox and peripherals shared between NorthWest England colleges sat unused in the Blackpool College equipment store until 2020, when it was sent for recycling after workmen painting the room stole all the cables for their copper value, rendering it seemingly useless.
A Surviving Legacy
There is an immeasurable amount of creativity that resulted from Quantel's educational altruism, which can still be seen in so many astounding creative career trajectories, amazing vfx showreels which document the foundations of our digital world and a wealth of digital imagry many don't even realize was created on a Paintbox.
In the early 2020’s Blackpool College ordered their Original Quantel Paintbox, film recorder and peripheral hardware plus the manuals, brochures and around 100 of the original 8 inch mid 80's Paintbox floppies to be sent to recycling and landfill.
Adrian Wilson, the former Blackpool student, Adrian Wilson saved the floppies and paperwork, carefully hand-delivering them to vintage tech and software specialist Phil Pemberton. Against all odds of success, Phil worked out a way to read and decode the original Quantel proprietary data on the nearly forty year old floppies and extract most of the images.
Those 80 images turned out to be a unique digital treasure trove, showing a cross section of work from Blackpool, Preston and Stockport College students. Reflecting the different art departments that were eager to see what the Paintbox could create, there is a wide range of work, from cels to make animations and freehand art, to pure graphic design and commercial advertising images.
A group of images clearly show the transition from traditional “technical illustration” to a basic kind of “Computer Aided Design” by combining analog and digital elements in images which bridge the old and new creative eras. Students have used the video camera to input drawings, then used the Paintbox to highlight particular areas using digital painting.
There were curiously also three images created by Gordon Dixon, a faculty member of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Manchester Polytechnic, that include reference to a grant from the SERC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_Engineering_Research_Council
The Institute of Advanced Studies would publish a book by Dixon in 1993 titled The Digital Paint Box
Astonishingly, there were also three images, probably the earliest surviving original data Paintbox artwork, created by Quantel’s Martin Holbrook, which were intended to show new users the just-launched Paintbox’s freehand drawing capabilities. The images all appear in a Paintbox promo/demo video from, at the latest,1982, in which Holbrook describes painting the Spitfire in “twenty to twenty-five minutes”... https://youtu.be/tC7juKQ71JE?t=2093
The images and the floppies will hopefully be donated to the Computer Arts Society and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s digital art archive.