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Why We’ll Miss MS Paint (But Not Too Much)

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Earlier this week, an engineer somewhere deep in the bowels of the Microsoft Borg anonymously uploaded a set of release notes that he probably hoped no one would read indicating MS Paint would be deprecated in the upcoming Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. Make no mistake, the plan was to kill MS Paint. But a legion of nostalgic fans noticed and took up their phones and shouted en masse, “Not if Twitter has anything to say about it!”

Picasso it ain’t — but it was undeniably fun making “art” like this back in the day.

I can’t for the life of me think of an app that has survived as long as MS Paint, so I perked up my ears to hear how Microsoft would react to the legions of nostalgic MS Paint fans posting rapid-fire, knee-jerk reactions about the death of MS Paint. But less than 24 hours later, before anyone could even organize an online petition, Microsoft caved.

The warden orders a reprieve at the last minute and dispatches an intern to make a graphic.

Phew. Everyone can rest easy and get back to tweeting about the #VMAs. MS Paint won’t be included as a default app in any Microsoft OS going forward, but it will have a special place in software heaven (the Microsoft Store) so anyone who wants it can download it. Not that they actually will. It’s truly remarkable that this ubiquitous piece of software first released in 1985 has survived for 32 years. It has gained a significant foothold in Internet culture. But, it has to be asked… is that a good thing?

MS Paint Is for Babies

It’s surely true that few objectively “good” works of art were ever made with MS Paint, but it holds a special place in the hearts of many, and for good reason. For many people, MS Paint was their first digital art experience. It made people sit up and say, “Wow, you can draw on a computer!” The things people ended up making were admittedly crude — sometimes laughably so — but it showed everyday people that computers weren’t just for words and numbers and spreadsheets. They could be a tool for artistic expression. Indeed, MS Paint became a gateway drug for art for some people, including many who graduated to more sophisticated drawing tools like SketchBook.

While MS Paint did lower the bar for talent (ahem, extremely low), one good thing about the app is that it also lowered the bar of intimidation.

MS Paint could also, of course, be a tool for mischief. How might one draw something phallic on a 36k photo of President Bill Clinton that took almost a whole minute and a half to download? How can I entertain these unruly children in the classroom for 15 minutes while I run to the teacher’s lounge for a smoke? I’m so bored at this temp job that if I play Minesweeper or Solitaire one more time I’ll puke. Oh, look — you can unload infinite buckets of paint with this drawing app I found in the Windows Accessories folder.

Good MS Paint art does exist, like these gorgeous, flat illustrations created by Australian Miranda Lorikeet (@mirandalorikeet).

A Gateway Drug for Art

While MS Paint did lower the bar for talent (ahem, extremely low), one good thing about the app is that it also lowered the bar of intimidation. It was never pretentious or judgmental. Clippy never popped up to say, “It looks like you’re trying (and failing) to draw a rodent’s face.” When the tools you use to create art aren’t very sophisticated, it actually gives you license to be bad — at least until you get good. It’s hard to draw the Mona Lisa accurately with crayons, so people don’t expect a masterpiece. For the really intimidated, which is practically everyone when it comes to creating art for the first time, using MS Paint removes a layer of accountability. Warn people that what you’re about to show them was created in MS Paint, and after an initial snicker they’re probably going to be surprisingly impressed with what you’ve made.

Ultimately, it may be just as well that MS Paint is being left behind. The powerful surge you feel in your brain when you encounter nostalgia diminishes over generations. Sit a third grader down in front of a gleaming Surface Studio and encourage them to get their art on with MS Paint and see how that plays out. You might as well hand a 20-year-old an Etch-a-Sketch and proclaim, “Can you believe we used to draw on these things??” Uh, yeah. I can believe it, but I seriously question your time management skills.

So faretheewell, old app. We spent a lot of time drawing in MS Paint, and we loved it. Before we had a stylus, before we had skill, before we had second thoughts. Back when we didn’t worry if our latest Instagram post would get a lot of likes, when we weren’t afraid to create with abandon, when “Who cares if it’s not perfect?” ruled our days. We probably won’t come visit you on the farm where you’ll be living out your remaining days, but we’ll always have fond memories of drawing elaborate pixel-by-pixel art when we should have been writing a book report on Slaughterhouse-Five. We didn’t save any of the fantasy city skyline drawings we made, but we can still see them in our mind’s eye, proudly pixellated.