Virtual reality were the buzz words for 2016, and after interviewing a number of leading creative directors and designers for our design trends of 2017 feature, it seems the excitement surrounding VR is set to continue.

Although many agencies are still experimenting with the immersive opportunities of VR, such as The Mill’s 6x9 project for The Guardian and Level Ex’s surgical simulator, there’s already a great focus on the opportunities of VR for artists and designers.

Last year saw Google pave the way with the launch of its much-hyped Tilt Brush for the HTC Vive. A simpler version, PaintLab, was quick to follow. But beyond the novelty of painting into thin air, The National Theatre in London experimented with using VR for set design and concept development. Story Studio’s Quill was created to propel illustration filmmaking. Oculus has tapped into character art with its VR 3D modelling experience, Medium, and even Mozilla is jumping in by creating a basic web-based painting tool. 

We take a look at these VR painting and modelling tools a little further so you know exactly what’s on offer right now. Although the tools alone are not expensive to purchase, buying a headset and controllers will set you back quite a bit if you don’t already own them. We plan to update this feature, so please let us know of any VR painting tools that you are using.

For more information on pricing and performance of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift headsets, check out the reviews below by our sister site Tech Advisor. 

VR painting & modelling tools using the HTC Vive

Google Tilt Brush

There was a lot of hype around the release of Google’s Tilt Brush app for the HTC Vive in April last year (through Valve’s Steam platform). Artists, painters, cartoonists, dancers and designers were commissioned by Google for their Artist in Residence program. It's worth checking out the impressive designs posted on their Virtual Arts Experiments blog. We ourselves asked illustrator Alex Moore to give it a go and see if it lived up to the hype.

We also discovered how the Tilt Brush could be used for than just painting - but for designing sets like we saw at The National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling Studio in London.

For £22.99, Tilt Brush allows professional artists or amateurs to paint in 3D space inside a VR world, using a variety of brushes (such as ink, smoke, snow and fire) to create artwork that you can interact with, walk around in, and share as room-scale VR masterpieces or animated GIFs.

Mozilla A-Painter

A-Painter isn’t a VR app, but rather Mozilla’s web-based interpretation of Tilt Brush. The Mozilla VR team (MozVR) explain on a blog post that A-Painter is an example of how artists can paint using VR online across platforms with no software installations. However, you will still need an HTC Vive headset and controllers, and a Windows operating system to use A-Painter to its full potential.

To use A-Painter, make sure you have a WebVR-enabled browser (with Gamepad Extensions enabled in) before visiting the website. If you don’t have a HTC Vive headset, you can still view other artists’ creations using a mouse and keyboard, or even your mobile. 

Artists are limited to painting 3D illustrations with a choice of over 30 brushes. Paint on top of other people’s drawings, or import images and OBJ models from your desktop to the browser. Artists can save and load local binary files of their illustrations. 

The benefits of this web browser VR experience are the ability to create a custom brush (although this involves coding) and viewing 3D drawings without a headset.

A-Painter is a little nerdy, and perhaps more for those who have a basic understanding of coding, or who wish to play around with a simple VR painting tool without having to purchase an app. It’s part of a range of web-based VR content by the Mozilla VR team available for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. 

LAB4242 PaintLab VR

As well as Tilt Brush, you can download this VR painting and sculpting experience using the HTC Vive headset and motion controllers from Steam. Using PaintLab, artists can sculpt 3D creations either from scratch or use an existing model like the Volkswagen van, create graffiti art, and play around with height, size and placement of organic designs using a range of brushes. 

PaintLab is created by VR development company LAB4242 which is based in The Netherlands. The tool was released in April 2016, and although its interface is a little more basic than Tilt Brush or Quill, it’s received mostly positive reviews. Best of all - it’s free. 

VR painting & modelling tools using the Oculus Rift

Story Studio Quill

Quill by Story Studio is designed for the Oculus Rift and with a focus on illustration filmmaking in VR. It offers a single user the ability to paint and sketch on an infinite scale using a range of tools and different brushes using the Oculus Touch controllers. Quill can be used for concepting, character and art development, as well as entire VR narratives. 

The beta version was released for free in November last year alongside the release of Touch. On the Oculus blog, the VR company explains how Quill was created for the creative needs for writer and director Saschka Unseld and art director Wesley Allsbrook for their work on illustration film Dear Angelica. Wesley used Quill to paint every scene of Dear Angelica by hand. The film screened at the Sundance Film Festival as the first animated experience created entirely in VR.

Quill offers the ability to work in watercolour, pencil, oil painting and comic format among others. Artists can experiment with brush shapes and brush strokes which are sensitive to fine pressure from the Touch controllers. Flip through layers to tell a story, and manipulate reference images and sound files. To export work, users can choose from high-res screenshots, 360 photos and animated GIFs or videos with 360 video support. 

Oculus Quill (beta) is now offered as a Rift Experience for £22.99. 

Oculus Medium

Oculus Medium may be more appealing to character artists or those aspiring to be one.

The VR tool – launched in December last year - lets a single user sculpt, model, paint and create objects in a VR environment using the Oculus Touch controllers alongside the Oculus Rift.

Users can choose from 300 prefabricated stamps to help build complex structures, or export high-res mashes for 3D modelling and printing. Prefabricated stamps include anatomy, letters, numbers, primitive shapes and a variety of widgets. Oculus now hosts a community site where artists can save and share sculptures and their work.

Oculus Medium is still fairly new, so there’s a few limiting factors. For example, users can’t yet blend colours, imported models have to be fairly simple, and models cannot be animated as of yet. 

Although creating models may seem daunting to those who’ve never done it before, let alone grasping the idea inside a VR platform, Oculus encourages anyone to try Medium. There are guidelines and a help forum available, and an in-depth tutorial on offer when first using Medium.

Oculus Medium is now available as a Rift experience for £22.99.