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A comprehensive third-party upgrade for Adobe Illustrator.

These days most users are happy with the idea of extending the power available through Adobe Photoshop through the use of plug-ins - but many don't realize that they can extend Adobe Illustrator in just the same way. In fact with Illustrator itself seeing something of a renaissance recently, this is an area that is booming. Most of the new breed of vector plug-ins, such as the Sapphire packs tend to offer niche functionality and are clearly add-ons, but Vector Studio is very different. It aims to provide core power and to become a seamless part of your Illustrator working environment.

This tight integration is immediately apparent in the range of seven Morph Brushes available directly from Illustrator's own toolbox. The most regularly useful of these will be the Sculpt tool, which lets you push and pull objects into new shapes, while the Exhale and Inhale tools apply bloat and pucker effects and the Swirl tool adds rotation distortions. The three remaining brushes, Scallop, Wrinkle and Crystalize, all work by adding complexity to the object's path. In each case the exact effect of the tool can be controlled with the floating Morph Brushes palette.

The interactive Morph Brushes and Envelope Meshes offer excellent control over image distortion.

The other Vector Studio plug-ins are also accessed through floating palettes indistinguishable from Adobe's own. The first of these, Envelope Mesh, is also concerned with object distortion, and pads out Illustrator's own underpowered Free Distort command. To apply an envelope distortion all you need to do is select an object and click on one of the available presets, such as the heart or fluttering flag.

The selection of just eight presets seems mean until you realize that you can create your own. When an envelope has been applied, you can edit its surrounding control points onscreen just as you would with any other object and then, when you are happy with your effect, you can add it to the list of presets for future use. Even more powerful is the ability to create envelope meshes where you drag on the control points of a grid to control the interior of the distortion as well as its edges.

The next floating palette is the oddly-named Selection Hat which provides a means for storing and restoring named selections. If you have spent time laboriously building up a selection of objects, nodes or gradient mesh points, you can quickly hit the New command and add the current selection to the palette's list. If you then want to work with that selection again you can simply click on the item in the list and the selection is restored - an absolute godsend. In addition, at the top of the palette, are ten buttons designed to help with selection tasks such as selecting all other objects on the same layer and hiding all objects above the current object.

The Gradient Factory palette is designed to make recolouring gradients easier by quickly providing a collection of alternative gradients to choose between. All you need to do is load an existing gradient into the palette with the Sample command and then specify the degree to which the gradient can be recoloured in terms of red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, black, hue, saturation and brightness. Vector Studio automatically creates the number of variations that you specify as ready-made swatches, and all you have to do is click on the one that appeals.

For more striking fill effects, Vector Studio offers its Gradient Texture palette. This provides a selection of twenty attractive natural and psychedelic patterned textures. Each fill is ultimately rendered as a bitmap but these aren't pre-fixed so that you can create an infinite range of patterns by modifying the parameters in the palette while the colours of the effect can be controlled by editing the pattern's associated gradient. Best of all is the fact that you can always change bitmap resolution so that you can work with a low resolution version and then create a high resolution pattern for final output.

The Gradient Texture and Gradient Factory filters open up new formatting possibilities.

A similar live, non-destructive bitmap rendering system underpins the last and most impressive of the Vector Studio palettes, the GlassWorks filter. This effectively turns any selected object into a floating lens which applies a bitmap filter to all underlying objects. The palette offers seventeen default effects based on the main Photoshop filters provided with Illustrator, such as ocean ripple, splatter and water paper, with more available as loadable libraries. Advanced users can also add their own effects as actions though this doesn't make up for the lack of immediate editability.

The GlassWorks filter lets you apply bitmap effects as non-destructive lenses.

The GlassWork filter's ability to non-destructively combine the precision of Illustrator's vector handling with the creativity of bitmap handling enables some really stunning artistic effects. And in a way that's Vector Studio's problem. The creative potential of the GlassWorks palette is so strong that Adobe is almost guaranteed to be working on a similar lens-style feature for Illustrator 10 - and the same is likely to be true of all the functionality in Vector Studio. While Adobe will never add the complex, niche functionality of the Sapphire plug-ins, it can't afford to ignore the core power of Vector Studio.

The average Illustrator user then can hold off in the expectation that Adobe will eventually add its own distortion tools, envelope meshes, selection storage, gradient textures and filter lenses. For the advanced Illustrator user, however, Vector Studio provides all this new power today.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

February 2001


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