5 gadgets that make you seem artistic

Consider yourself a budding creative genius? Create something great with these tools.

"Everyone is an artist." Those are the words of the controversial German artist Joseph Beuys, and I happen to agree with him.

The statement is especially true in our modern age of techno toys. With off-the-shelf hardware and software breaking the world down into so many ones and zeroes, it's getting a lot easier to experiment with things that used to be expensive or time-consuming (digital photography eliminates the money and time required for film and processing, for instance), or to unleash brand-new creative ideas (hello, Pikapika).

If you're itching to create sublime, meaningful works of art--or at least something with a good beat you can dance to--consider the following five gadgets. Oh, and one disclaimer: Remember that no tool automatically makes you a good artist. Don't blame me if none of these items get you into MoMA.

1. Wanna See My Etchings?

It's been said that everyone has a few thousand bad drawings in them, and that the key to becoming a good artist is to get those out of your system as fast as possible.

I know from first-hand experience that working through all that awful art can make your house a fire hazard--and while paper is cheap, buying a steady supply of pens, pencils, paints, and other materials quickly adds up. Wacom's graphic tablets handily eliminate both problems.

Wacom tablets range from the budget-friendly Bamboo series (starting at US$79) to the more checkbook-breaking but drool-inducing Cintiq line (which tops out at US$2499).

They all operate on the same basic principle: Drawing with a stylus on the tablet translates directly to your pointer's movements on the screen, providing the most natural way to draw on a computer. (How natural? There's a working eraser on the end of the stylus that functions just the way you'd expect.) The stylus is pressure-sensitive, which can lead to thicker or thinner lines as you press down--or it can do whatever you customize it to do, depending on your software.

2. Move It Like Wallace and Gromit

Stop-motion animation is the art of animating using real-world objects instead of drawings. People often refer to it as claymation, but as fans of Robot Chicken and Oedipus the Movie know, anything and everything can be fair game for stop motion, from your collection of Smurfs to fresh produce.

The principle is easy: Take a picture of something, move it a little, take another picture, repeat. Play the still frames back, and your object comes to life. (Just for fun, you can use people instead of objects--the technique is called pixillation--as in the film Neighbours.)

That's the idea, anyway. If you're just starting out (or if you're doing ambitious Taras Bulba-like scenes), you quickly discover how hard it is to keep track of exactly how you moved something in the previous frame.

Nikon to the rescue: Many of the company's budget-friendly Coolpix digital cameras, as well as its feature-laden (but pricier, at US$749 with lens) D60 digital SLR, have a little-heralded stop-motion feature. Once activated, the camera overlays faint versions of the previous images on your LCD preview, allowing you to line up your next shot accurately.

Once you're done shooting your masterpiece, the camera will automatically assemble the images into a QuickTime file, but if you prefer more control over editing your shots, you can use the US$29 QuickTime Pro for the task.

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3. Don't Try This at Home

Are you looking to make the next indie action flick on the cheap? (Hey, don't laugh--Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, the prequel to Desperado, was made for US$7000.) Camcorders are inexpensive, but dunk one in water for your scuba-diving fight scene, and you'll be hitting eBay for a replacement. Ditto if you try to remake the French Connection car chase with skateboards, or shoot during a dust storm at Burning Man. Face it: The most exciting films are the most punishing on the equipment used to shoot them.

Much of the problem can be traced to the cameras' many moving parts and fragile recording media--but for a spate of low-cost, flash-based camcorders, it's a nonissue. Two Sanyo cameras, the US$419 Xacti CA6 and the US$399 Xacti E1, are splashproof and waterproof, respectively. (The E1 can survive for an hour at depths up to 5 feet.) Both cameras record on SD Card.

Panasonic's similar line of SD Card-based cameras includes the water-resistant US$249 SDR-S10P1 and the US$399 SDR-SW20, which is waterproof, shockproof, and dustproof. And unlike the Xactis, both are capable of shooting wide-screen video.

All of these cameras shoot only standard-definition video.

Let the extreme cinematography begin!

4. Rhapsody in Blue

Ever seen the 1983 cult animated film Rock & Rule? Set in a post-apocalyptic, unnamed future, it's filled with technology both old and new. Toward the end, rock god Mok Swagger performs a song with an instrument that he plays by waving his hands in the air over glowing tubes. Fortunately, we didn't have to go through a nuclear war to get the same gadget in real life. Two of the results of ToyQuest's partnership with the Blue Man Group are the US$79 Percussion Tubes and the US$69 Keyboard Experience.

Loaded with a handful of preprogrammed Blue Man Group drum sounds, the descriptively named Percussion Tubes are an array of eight motion-sensitive tubes that you can play--and that includes altering volume and tempo--by waving your hands in the air above them. You could just use the included drumsticks, but where's the fun in that?

The Keyboard Experience has two fewer tubes but includes a 37-key synthesizer. Both toys sport an input for an MP3 player (for playing over your favorite tracks), a recording mode, and an audio-out jack.

5. The Only Scratch You Want on Your iPhone

In the early 1980s, I had everything I needed to be a DJ: two turntables, a microphone, and a massive collection of records. The only problem was that the turntables (and most of the records) were my father's; if I had actually performed any kind of scratching with either, I wouldn't have lived to see my 14th birthday.

Wannabe turntablists have had several, um, scratch-free options in the digital era, including CD turntables and an assortment of software DJ tools. MixMeister is one of the companies that makes DJ software, but MixMeister Scratch--soon available as a free download--is quite possible the only truly portable scratching tool you'll find.

MixMeister Scratch runs on the iPhone or the iPod Touch. Just play a song from your collection, pick a scratch type, and spin your mix right on the screen. It's quite possibly the only DJ-ing you can do during a train ride.