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An overwhelming range of creative extensions for Photoshop, Illustrator and other graphics applications – and all at excellent prices.

Graphic artists are always looking for an edge to help make their work stand out but it’s difficult when the vast majority of users are all using the same main applications – most notably the Adobe giants Photoshop and Illustrator. In fact there are numerous ways that you can extend, customize and turbo-charge each of these creative powerhouses as demonstrates. Even better, it proves that gaining that competitive creative edge needn’t be an expensive business.

Photoshop Filters

Of course the single most popular creative application, Adobe Photoshop, was always designed to be extensible – in fact its longstanding support for third-party filters is one of the major reasons that the program is so dominant (though nowadays users of just about every other bitmap supporting application – Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, Painter, PhotoImpact, Canvas, CorelDRAW and so on - can benefit from the plug-ins in the same way). It’s not surprising therefore that you can find a range of Photoshop filters at, though the sheer number, over 200 (and at a cost of just $48 for the lot) might be a bit of a shock!

So where do you begin? This is the big problem with such a large collection and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Thankfully the effects have been broken down into smaller themed sets (17 at the time of writing) such as Gradients/Patterns, Color/Noise, Blends/Blurs and so on (these volumes can also be bought separately for $18 each). However there’s no clear unifying identity to each set – gradient based effects, for example, are found across eight of the categories - or even to each filter - it’s impossible for example to know what a filter called Gradient AA is going to do or the difference between the Overlay Blend 1 and Overlay Blend 2 filters.

The only option is to just launch each dialog and try it out. And when you do you’re in for another shock. To begin with, while each filter shares a consistent look and feel, it’s very unorthodox with the OK and Cancel buttons in the top right corner and a red to black gradient background to the dialog which makes it difficult to read some of the parameter names. That’s less crucial than you might think as, even when you can read the names, it’s often unclear what effect the setting will have. And with each filter offering multiple obscure parameters all interacting mysteriously with each other and with the original image, and no online assistance to explain what’s going on, it would be easy to throw your hands up at this stage and give up.

However that would be a mistake. While you’re never going to feel in control of these filters that doesn’t mean that they can’t produce impressive results. The solution is to put yourself in the hands of the effect and just experiment. And to help you in this process, each filter provides a range of presets from a dropdown list at the bottom of the dialog (numbered as each is impossible to describe) and to which you can also save your own. Alternatively you can use the various buttons to the right of the dialog – Xtreme, Colour, Tweak and Blend - to randomly change settings. It’s a surprisingly clever system as by simply hitting each button a few times in turn you can hone in on a desired effect (though it would be a great help if you could step back through your changes). The bottom line is that, with just a few clicks, you can take your image in entirely new and often surprisingly beautiful directions.

Illustrator Filters

The use of filters to extend Photoshop is relatively well-known, but the ability to extend Illustrator in a similar way is much less appreciated. If anything though the collection of vector plug-ins ($90) is even more impressive than the bitmap collection. To begin with, each of the 14 sets (again available separately for prices ranging from $10 to $21) has a much clearer focus with separate volumes for handling spirals, gradients and meshes, perspective grids, layer-based animations and so on.

Again the first impression on loading each filter tends to be daunting as the sheer number of often technical parameters can be intimidating - especially as a small change to one can have a drastic effect on the end result. Again though stick at it and you’ll be rewarded – especially in the easier to use “Essential” versions of the filters rather than the full-on “Classic”. Here thanks to the provision of presets and the inclusion of Xtreme, Tweak, Jitter and Boost commands to help in initial experimentation and then honing in on an effect, you can soon get some sort of grip on the power on offer – especially as one of the huge advantages that Illustrator plug-ins offer is a live and near-instant preview directly on the page.

Illustrator add-ons have another major advantage – they aren’t limited to traditional dialog-based filters and so can be more tightly integrated into the program. This is especially apparent with the GraphicXtras range of tool-based plug-ins that add new options directly to Illustrator’s toolbox. Particularly impressive are the Symbol Paint tool which lets you interactively paint on symbols that you’ve previously set up and especially the Vector Wand tool which lets you paint on effects such as scaling, rotation, recolouring and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Adobe included a similar tool as a major part of a future Illustrator upgrade - here you can get your hands on it ahead of the pack and for just $12!

Other Resources

The GraphicXtras vector filters are an excellent way of gaining some advanced drawing power (and don’t forget that Illustrator can also benefit from the Photoshop filters), but there are also much simpler ways of extending the program and your creativity. Also available on the site are collections of Illustrator Brushes and Styles that you can install and load directly into Illustrator as needed. Of course there’s no programming involved in this so theoretically there’s nothing to stop you from creating your own brush and style libraries but, at just $12 for over 500 styles and $30 for over 5000 brushes ready-to-go, you’d be mad to try and do it yourself. After all just how much is your time worth?

And of course exactly the same principle can be applied to Photoshop and in spades. As such you’ll find collections of Custom Shapes, Brushes (over 10,000!), Styles/Layer Effects, Patterns ,Gradients and even Displacement Maps for prices ranging from $19 to $30. And in the same spirit there are low cost collections of Patterns, Textures and Image Hose Nozzles for use in Paint Shop Pro and Painter, Symbols for Flash, Fireworks and FreeHand, Brushes for Expression and BMP-based Patterns, TIFF-based Textures and JPEG-based Frames for use in any graphic application.

All told there’s a phenomenal amount of additional creative power on offer – even more extraordinary when you realize that it’s all the work of one man, Andrew Buckle. Inevitably though this does lead to down sides. Andrew is clearly a busy man and as a result the documentation is sparse (the filters are often almost impossible to describe in any case) and there are plenty of rough edges (to give just two examples there are no installation EXEs so you have to install everything yourself, and, for the moment at least, all filters are PC-only with the Mac versions “due shortly”). The plus side of course is the price.

If you’re looking for polished, easy-to-use high-end plug-ins then you’d be better off looking at options such as KPT and DreamSuite for Photoshop and FilterIT and Vector Studio for Illustrator. However, if you are already an experienced user, are ready to put in a bit of effort yourself and can cope with the odd rough edge, is absolutely bursting with new creative power.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

September 2004

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