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About My Part in the Creation of the Plasma 6.1 Wallpaper "Reef"

Friday, 28 June 2024 | Felix Ernst


(German version of this article: https://wordsmith.social/felixernst/mein-anteil-an-der-erstellung-des-hintergrundbildes-von-plasma-6-1-reef)

Plasma 5

A short recap: In Plasma 5 we predominantly had wallpapers with geometric features. They showed digital representations of nature or were completely abstract, which I never really liked. Perhaps that was trendy for a while, or maybe technical Linux users enjoy such wallpapers, which are quite obviously made using a computer. However, these days, we do not only offer the best package of security, privacy, usability, and power for tech enthusiasts, but for everyone. Therefore, it is in my opinion important that our wallpapers represent not just what we stand for but also what we want to enable. In the best case, we enthuse a broad public this way. We should move on from the purely technical towards what is human and incorporate the creative, inventive, or artistic, which will always be absent from machines. A down-to-earth example of this are wallpapers that look like they could be painted on a simple piece of paper.

Plasma 6.0

For the MegaRelease and Plasma 6.0 KDE arranged a competition for the next wallpaper. There was a jury, and even though I had no part in any of this, I was in full agreement with the jury about the winning image “Scarlet Tree”: As far as I know, the winning artist never made a public appearance and the only thing I know of them is their pseudonym “axo1otl”, under which the wallpaper was published. As far as I know, the communication with them was handled by Niccolò Venerandi.

Plasma 6.1

From then on, the release of Plasma 6.1 was inching closer. One could ask: Do we really need a new wallpaper for every new version?

Ask our Promo Team and they will say: Yes, of course!

The reason for this is that we want to show images of the new Plasma version, but not every new Plasma version includes changes to the default user interface. That would be quite annoying if we moved around buttons or changed the design two times a year!

But when we change the wallpaper, it becomes obvious: This is a new version. That wallpaper then moreso represents all the changes that happened below the surface.

Additionally. a new pretty image obviously also brings some colour and variety into the users' lives, if they haven't already switched their wallpaper themselves.

The plan was to keep the wallpaper for Plasma 6.1 in a similar style as the Plasma 6.0 one. The same artist “axo1otl” painted another picture for us. Unfortunately, we only got to see it somewhat late:

The Visual Design Group was not enthralled by it. The image is quite full, and therefore some of us thought that it was not suitable as a wallpaper. This reluctance was strong enough that people started discussing what we could use as a wallpaper instead, even though we did not have much time to make a decision.

I thought the image was good enough, but I was in a minority with that opinion. However, there was no quick way to find a popular replacement either. Some suggestions went back to our old geometric abstract style from Plasma 5 times.

Additionally, the picture was a bit too pretty to simply drop it. So there were attempts to edit the “Reef” wallpaper in a way that might fit our purpose.

Editings

Niccolò used blur: Oliver Beard from Wales moved some of the elements of the painting out of the frame, so the whole wallpaper would become more calm, like a backdrop: This was considered a step in the right direction.

Niccolò then combined both strategies: While watching these experiments, I noticed that the possibilities for adaptations were very restricted because nobody dared to personally add anything to the picture. That is why the reefs only grew in size in the images. Nobody made them smaller because it would mean creating empty space which would then need to be filled e.g. by adding new sand.

I already saw a future before us in which the time constraints would force us to publish such a hastily-constructed adaptation that hides or obscures many nice details of the original artwork. All that because we would not know how to help ourselves.

I did not want that to happen. I felt like I might and should perhaps be able to help here.

The thing is, I tend to work on the Dolphin file manager and regularly dive into the depths of its source code, so I know a thing or two about underwater landscapes. After all, I have been to two Dolphin meetings in the Mediterranean Sea in the last two years: At Barcelona and at Thessaloniki.

So I started editing the painting myself:

My plan was to make room so the image would seem more serene. Viewers should no longer feel like they are in the middle of a lively coral reef and more like they are wandering through the open sea. By moving the right reef to a new middleground and shrinking the castle, the depths and distances in the image grew. After some initial positive feedback, I added more and more of the missing elements.

Some contributors in the Visual Design Group did not like that the path at the bottom of the image did not lead to the castle anymore. To others, the path was generally an undesirable element which should be removed. I bent the visible end of it towards the castle:

The waves in the upper half of the images also needed to be completed. There were big holes where the two castle towers used to be.

The image above was the result of me working until 4 a.m. I only concluded once I considered the image good enough that I could honestly advocate for it to be a Plasma wallpaper. I hoped that my nightly work would ensure that we had a passable wallpaper ready in time for the Plasma 6.1 release.

When I awoke the next “morning,” I addressed feedback from the group. More people had voiced the opinion that they did not like the path. I had originally kept it because I tried my best to preserve as much of the original vision and technique of “axo1otl” as possible given my other changes.

Granted, the goal of this exercise was to make the wallpaper more calming. Removing elements goes hand in hand with that. It turned out that, for some, the path did not look like it was even leading to the castle. Others did not imagine themselves as wanderers on the path when they viewed the image.

So I removed it and also used that opportunity to improve the sand at the bottom edge of the screen so it would be closer in style to the sand I did not paint.

Finally, everyone was somewhat content with this. It might not be one of our best wallpapers of all time, but considering the time constraints it did not make a lot of sense to discuss this further.

However, we wanted to ensure that the original artist “axo1otl” was fine with the changes. The image would be published under their pseudonym after all.

The image was sent to them, and within one or two days they made a few final adjustments:

And what can I say? I like the changes. Better shadows and the drawing style of the water and sand I added were adjusted so one could no longer tell that they were painted by a different person. For this, some gradual colour transitions were replaced by discretely coloured steps.

So everything was fine and well, except the path reappeared. More generally, it seemed to me like the image was not based on my final version but on the one before that.

I might not know what happened there, but for me this was fine. Not everyone liked that the path reappeared, but considering that this is a rather minor detail, there was hardly any criticism.

Release

And then we released Plasma 6.1. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the new wallpaper did not make it into the release! I will not elaborate on this topic, but I obviously was not happy to read that.

Furthermore, I noticed that the wallpaper that we nevertheless offered as a separate download was not the version “axo1otl” had sent us. It was my latest version. I hope “axo1otl” is not upset about that, but as far as I know, they will not create a new wallpaper for Plasma 6.2.

I have now created another version of the wallpaper based on “axo1otl”'s final version. The picture is identical to their version, aside from me removing the path. If you do not like the path, I would say that this is the best version for you. However, there are slight compression artefacts:

Plasma 6.2

For the next Plasma version our Promo Team wants a new wallpaper. There are already efforts to ensure that we will hopefully do a better job this time around.

I have suggested the creation of a new permanent category in KDE's forum in https://invent.kde.org/teams/vdg/issues/-/issues/52#note_972957 . I would want it to be a place for everyone to upload their self-made wallpapers. Maybe there are hobby artists out there who would enjoy doing that. I hope that some of the images would be great and well-suited as wallpapers for future Plasma versions to the benefit of us and everyone.