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Roundup of Creative Graphics Software

Tom Arah goes in search of the most creative graphical application.

Recently I finished my 200th review. I’m glad to say that I’ve enjoyed getting to grips with just about all of them, but there are a few packages which stand out from all the others. They are the graphics applications that really get the creative juices flowing and help take their users into entirely new and often unexpected creative territory. So which are these select packages? And which is the most creative of them all?

Adobe Photoshop

Inevitably I have to start with Photoshop because it so dominates the entire field of photo-editing. What gives the program its edge is its incredible pixel processing power. When you get down to it Photoshop is a number-cruncher extraordinaire, capable of juggling those pixels’ colour values like no other. Originally this meant bringing out the best in existing photographs via the main image adjustment commands and the local retouching tools. Gradually though it dawned on users and developers alike that colour correction commands can also be used creatively to turn your photos into something entirely new.

Even better for this are Photoshop’s filter commands which simply take the existing pixel values as their starting point and then run with them. Adobe’s stroke of genius here was its original decision to open up Photoshop to plug-in filters which unleashed a tidal wave of third-party creativity. Moreover, by incorporating the previously separate Aldus Gallery Effects collection, Photoshop was able to provide a good selection of this new power built-in. And Adobe is still finding new ways to leverage this creative explosion as shown by Photoshop CS’s introduction of the Filter Gallery which lets you combine filters to create totally new effects.

Pixel processing is fundamental but still I’d say that the real secret of Photoshop’s creativity came with version 3’s introduction of layers. Using layers it’s possible to originate seamless photo-montages incorporating material from multiple sources. And by varying each layer’s opacity and blend mode you can create non-realistic but strikingly beautiful compositions just as easily.

Photoshop’s creativity comes from its pixel processing and layer handling.

And layers aren’t restricted to just handling pixels. Over the years Adobe has added non-destructive Adjustment Layers for applying colour corrections, Shape layers for handling vector paths, and Layer Effects to apply effects such as bevels and pattern fills to those shape layers. And again with Photoshop CS, Adobe has continued innovating with its Layer Comps palette which lets you take snapshots of your current layer settings including position, visibility and styling so that you are totally liberated to creatively experiment with your compositions.

Adobe Illustrator

Layers are the secret of Photoshop’s amazing creativity, but at times they can still prove downright awkward. Say you want to include a simple circle in your composition; storing this as a grid of pixel values is inefficient in handling terms and, worse, if you decide to scale it up, the quality deteriorates. Of course this is where efficient, resizable and always pin-sharp vectors come in as Photoshop acknowledges with its vector-based shape layers. But Photoshop’s handling of shape layers is clumsy and many times it makes much more sense to handle the elements of your composition as selectable objects.

This is the approach that vector drawing packages take, most notably Photoshop’s natural companion, Adobe Illustrator. Because all elements are handled as vector objects rather than pixel layers, it’s child’s play to align objects, group them for easier handling, join them to create new shapes, even blend them together. It’s also possible to redefine each object’s control points to entirely change its shape, and reset its fill and outline formatting to totally change its appearance. Suddenly working with the bitmap-based Photoshop seems crude and slow by comparison.

Vector handling certainly opens up much greater control and with it new creative options and freedom, but it’s very easy for the end results to end up looking computerized and clinical. Illustrator’s great strength is that it recognizes this danger and has come up with some brilliantly creative solutions. To begin with, alongside all the usual shape tools, it adds some unexpected variations such as its Paintbrush tool. This lets you create Calligraphic and Scatter effects and even Art Brush strokes where multiple vector shapes are stretched out along the length of the path to mimic an artist’s brush.

Even more effectively, Illustrator breaks out of the formatting straitjacket that restricts most rival drawing packages. For starters, alongside the usual flat and gradient fills, you can create completely customized gradient meshes. You can even load bitmap patterns to use as fills though this isn’t exactly encouraged as it affects the scalability of the end artwork when exported. Instead Illustrator encourages the use of its Appearance palette which lets you add multiple fills and strokes to a single object. This, along with Illustrator’s advanced vector-based transparency handling, means that you can combine flat colours, gradients and even patterns to create unique effects.

Illustrator breaks out of the typical vector drawing straightjacket.

That’s only the beginning. Illustrator also lets you apply a host of effects to your objects or to their individual fill and stroke layers. These include a range of vector effects that, for example, let you offset an object’s outline and then distort and roughen it. Even more creative is the option to apply a wide selection of Photoshop’s in-built filters so that you can give your vector work an artistic edge. These filters are bitmap-based which is what gives them so much impact but within the Illustrator environment they have a huge advantage – they are non-destructive so they can always be retrospectively fine-tuned or removed. Even better, all effects and fills and strokes can be saved as a style and then instantly applied to other objects in future.

Corel Painter

Once you begin to understand its approach, Illustrator opens up enormous creative vector and even bitmap power – but it’s hardly intuitive or hands-on. There’s a huge difference between setting up an Art Brush effect in Illustrator for example and the freedom of simply selecting one of Photoshop’s many artistic brush presets and beginning to paint.

Even Photoshop’s brushes can’t be compared to the real thing however - unlike those in Corel Painter. Like Photoshop, Painter is a bitmap-based program but where Photoshop concentrates on photo-editing and composition, Painter focuses on artistic origination. As such the centre of the program is its huge range of natural media brushes each designed to mimic their real world counterpart right down to the smallest detail.

Corel Painter comes closest to replicating traditional artistic media.

The level of control involved is extraordinary so that the way that each brush lays down its colour values is the result of the interaction of dozens of parameters. The watercolour effect, for example, depends on factors such as how the pigment interacts with the paper grain and existing colours, how it diffuses and evaporates, even the wind direction and force! In the past this complexity was foregrounded and a major obstacle to creativity but in the recent Painter 8 release, Corel finally moved these inner working into the background where they belong and so allowed the end user to just get on with painting. The result is a creative joy.

Creature House Expression

Painter’s brushes are a revelation, and these days the program also includes considerable photo-editing power and even Photoshop-style layer-based composition in its feature checklist. It even offers basic shape handling, but again there’s no comparison with a dedicated vector application. The ideal would be to somehow offer the creative end results of hands-on painting with the creative control that only vector applications can offer.

That’s exactly what Creature House’s Expression promises. Expression is a vector drawing program with a difference. While it offers the staple tools for adding basic shapes, its central tool is the Brush tool. This uses “skeletal stroke” technology to drape vector shapes along the length of the path that you draw. The end results look very much like real brush strokes – though clearly not in the same league as Painter’s - but because they are vector-based they can always be edited to change their path or appearance. In other words you get the creative freedom of painting along with the creative control to retrospectively fine-tune your strokes to produce exactly the effect you are after.

Expression provides artistic brushes with vector control.

In many ways the system is very similar to Illustrator’s Art Brushes, but as well as being the first to offer such capabilities, Expression takes the idea much further. To begin with Expression offers a host of artistic and special effect brushes ready to go. It also offers far more control both during stroke set-up, when you can control which elements stretch and which repeat, and after the stroke has been applied, when you can interactively change the stroke’s width, skew and colour. And crucially, since version 2, Expression also offers a range of bitmap-based artistic strokes that are handled in the same non-destructive vector way.

Macromedia Fireworks

Each of the applications we’ve looked at so far - Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter and Expression – provide both bitmap and vector-based handling, but in each case one approach dominates over the other. Both vectors and pixels offer so much creatively however that the obvious way to maximize creative power is to cater for both equally. It’s this totally integrated approach that made Macromedia Fireworks so ground-breaking when it first appeared back in 1998 as it provided vector-based shape and path tools alongside bitmap-based brush and retouching tools.

In other words it’s up to you to decide whether you want to paint or draw. If the former, simply select the Brush tool, choose from a range of brush styles in the Properties panel and begin painting. If the latter, select the Vector Path tool, choose between exactly the same set of brush styles and begin drawing. The end results look identical but with the bitmap stroke you can use the retouching tools and edit right down to the individual pixel level while with the vector path you can instantly change the colour or brush style of your stroke or even redraw its path.

As well as its separate vector and bitmap tools, Fireworks goes even further to integrate the two. To begin with, you are encouraged to draw your vector shapes and then to give them a tiling bitmap fill so that you can draw a brick wall, for example, that really looks like it’s made of bricks rather than the typical unrealistic vector-based cross-hatching. You can then apply bitmap-based filters even to your vector objects and Fireworks both provides a range of in-built effects, including colour corrections, bevels, blurs, shadows and glows, and also supports third-party Photoshop-compatible plug-in filters. Crucially, as with Illustrator, all these bitmap-based effects are applied non-destructively so that you can edit your fill or stroke and all applied effects update automatically! Alternatively, you can rasterize your selection and then turn to the bitmap tools to dodge, burn, blur, sharpen and so on.

Fireworks provides the best of both vector and bitmap approaches.

This merging of vector and bitmap handling unleashes huge creative power, but it does come at a price. The underlying framework of your artwork might be vector-based but because of its bitmap-based fills, line styles and effects there’s very little point trying to save it to a scalable vector format (though Fireworks does offer AI and SWF output). More than this, the processing involved in Fireworks’ juggling of all those bitmap fills and effects is enormous and places an effective limit on the size of projects. That’s why Fireworks was always conceived of as a Web graphics editor producing eye-catching screen-sized GIFs and JPEGs rather than artworks destined for print.

Deneba Canvas

However once you’ve experienced the creative freedom of swapping seamlessly between vector drawing and bitmap painting it’s very difficult to go back. So can the Fireworks’ principles work outside the web arena? The answer is a definite yes as Deneba showed with its Canvas application. Unlike its main vector drawing rivals - Illustrator, CorelDRAW and FreeHand - Canvas never made the same distinction between vector drawing and pixel painting and built in a range of surprisingly powerful bitmap tools right from the start. Being able to edit placed bitmaps, or rasterised vector objects, or simply to begin painting is hugely liberating within such a powerful drawing environment.

Canvas doesn’t only provide bitmap tools. It was also one of the pioneers of the use of non-destructive pixel-based effects with its SpriteLayers, used to manage transparency and blend modes for your vector objects, and SpriteEffects technology, used to apply bitmap filters, including third-party plug-ins. SpriteEffects in particular are great for adding effects such as noise and motion blur which help otherwise clearly-computerised drawings spring to life. And Canvas is unique in that these effects can either be applied directly to objects or as a lens.

Canvas is a professional vector package with plenty of bitmap-based power.

Canvas’s vector power is undeniable and its bitmap power is impressive too if you are prepared both to dig down to find it and to come to terms with the less-than-intuitive implementation. However I have to say I’ve been disappointed with recent releases which have failed to capitalize on this superb creative platform. Instead ACD Systems, Canvas’s new developer, seems determined to concentrate on the program’s technical drawing capabilities and pitch the application at engineers, scientists and geographers rather than creative designers.

Mediachance Real-DRAW Pro

My final choice for the creative hall of fame is perhaps the most surprising and certainly the least-known. In fact I only became aware of Real-DRAW when readers started asking me to take a look at it. Even then I resisted as the program isn’t just shareware, it’s the work of just one man, Roman Voska. What he has managed to achieve though is breathtaking.

As its name suggests, Real-DRAW is a drawing application with a full range of vector shape tools and easy object-based organization. Where the program comes to life is in its bitmap-based formatting. Using the wide range of formatting palettes you can quickly create amazing effects blending colours, textures and graduated transparencies with bevels, drop shadows, glows and even bump maps and 3D lighting. You can then save these as styles to instantly apply to other objects in future.

Even more extraordinary are Real-DRAW’s direct bitmap capabilities. Select the Paint New Bitmap tool and a Brushes palette appears with a range of artistic brushes including airbrushes cloning tools and even image hoses with which you can begin painting. Alternatively, select the Paint On Object mode and your object opens as a ready-masked bitmap in its own window onto which you can begin painting. Or select the Paint On Transparency mode and you can interactively paint a fade effect onto your vector objects

Real-DRAW Pro is packed full of creative invention.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the ability to “package” your objects. This effectively locks your group of objects and converts it into a bitmap to which you can then non-destructively apply any formatting effects or one of the range of bitmap filters that Real-DRAW provides. Double-click on the package and your vector objects open in a new window for editing; close it and all formatting and effects are reapplied!


And the winner is…

In many ways Real-DRAW Pro puts the other applications to shame for its own creativity and the creativity it enables in its users. And at just $55 it certainly offers the best value. However it’s too much to ask for one program to offer everything you might need creatively and it’s here that Real-DRAW’s maverick and inherently standalone nature work against it.

When you begin to think in terms of larger workflows, then the Adobe combination of Photoshop and Illustrator becomes hard to beat. Especially as Adobe has put so much into making the two programs work hand-in-hand. Working together still isn’t the same as true integration however, and for sheer creative inspiration I want to be able to turn to advanced vector and bitmap handling as the situation demands.

Ultimately then, after much soul-searching, my choice for the single most creatively exciting application goes to… Macromedia Fireworks. It’s probably a surprising decision as Fireworks is so strongly associated with web graphics that it’s easy to forget its amazing general purpose vector/bitmap core. However in its last MX 2004 release, Macromedia completely reworked the program’s engine to ensure that Fireworks is now much happier working with larger images destined for print. And in fact many of the program’s web features such as symbol-based handling can also be put to excellent creative use - frames for example can be used like Photoshop’s Layer Comps for storing image variations.

What finally swings it for Fireworks isn’t just that it internally integrates vector and bitmap handling so successfully but that it also integrates with external solutions to act as a central creative hub. When it comes to importing bitmaps, for example, Fireworks automatically masks TIFFs with alpha channels and converts PSD layers to objects. And for vector graphics it not only imports EPS, AI, CDR and FH files but offers direct cut-and-paste support for most drawing apps most notably Illustrator and Fireworks’ natural partner, FreeHand. And when it comes to output, while Fireworks might be optimized for outputting GIFs and JPEGs, it can also output to the crucial AI and PSD standards for further processing in Photoshop and Illustrator/FreeHand. Or Painter or Expression or Canvas for that matter.

And that’s the real point. Fireworks wins my vote for the single-most creative application, but of course it can’t do everything. And ultimately I wouldn’t want to be without any of these creative power houses.

Tom Arah

April 2004

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