Getting artists to code is always a challenge: many assume programming is a “non-artistic” way of working. But code is often the most effective way to imagine live visuals for interaction or performance, allowing you to quickly try different ideas and finely-tune visual effects. There’s been lots of buzz around Processing as a means of doing this for first-time-coder artists, but there’s a dark horse in the race for open source coding for visualists: Flash.

Building Flash art for free: coding in the FlashDevelop editor on Windows isn’t just a money-saver; it’s easier than coding in the sometimes-klunky Adobe Flash 8 IDE.

Yep, that’s right: Flash as a fully open-source tool, minus the hundreds of dollars you usually spend on the Flash app.

Thanks to open source coding tools, you can develop for Flash as the platform — even using ActionScript 3.0 and Flash 9, which are much better in terms of performance and graphics features — without ever touching the commercial Flash application. This is really terrific news for people like me, who fell in love with Flash not for what it’s known for, the timeline and layers and whatnot, but for its ability to process bitmap data and 2D drawing/animation via code. Processing definitely has the edge in 3D (Flash doesn’t have real 3D support) and mathematics performance, but Flash is still competitive when it comes to ease of drawing and 2D drawing performance, and I find Flash’s bitmap processing is easier and faster than Processing’s. Many of the cutting-edge Flash artists have become bilingual, switching between Flash and Processing. I thought this was nuts until I tried it, and then discovered that my coding in both Flash and Processing was steadily getting better, and that the strengths of each neatly overlapped the other’s weaknesses.

I’ve been working with Flash all year via the traditional Flash IDE, but now I’ve just started playing around with FlashDevelop, a Windows-only app that lets you code SWFs directly. If you’ve spent any time with the Flash app for ActionScript programming, you probably got frustrated fast. Getting rid of all those extra features you don’t need and focusing on coding is a big relief. (For me, as a non-programmer, it’s even more important to be able to focus on fast-and-easy coding without distractions.)

FlashDevelop is about as close as I’ve gotten to Processing for Flash; it’s actually easier and more powerful than the barebones editor in Processing. If you’re interested in joining me, here’s where to start: [Official site, in the form of a forum]

How to use ActionScript 3.0 with FlashDevelop [via FlashDevelop forums; note that you’ll also need the free Flash 9 Player from Adobe]

FlashDevelop – article, an excellent overview of the app and how to use it even for unwashed beginners

BIT-101 FlashDevelop templates

BIT-101 on customizing FlashDevelop’s toolbars (check his pretty icons at right — mmm, lickable!)

FlashDevelop on Open Source Flash

So, that covers Windows — what about other platforms? There are other options, too, including various plug-ins for the wildly-popular Eclipse IDE (Linux/Mac/Windows), which is the IDE that Adobe used as the basis of Flex. If you know of preferred alternatives for Linux and Mac, let us know.

The best place to start looking is Open Source Flash, which has an enormous guide to open source tools for working with Flash. (Warning: you could easily get lost in there for days.) Stay tuned to CDMo, because I’ll be working on some new Flash-based projects using these tools and want to keep an ongoing thread on open source Flash artmaking.