Computers: 'Magic slate' gives artist a free hand: Emma Bagnall test draws a new paint program and finds work with pen and tablet child's play: Review - Fractal design painter painting software

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The Independent Online
A computer boffin, irritated by my complete lack of technical knowledge, once told me crossly that I would not use a pen without knowing how to fill it, so why couldn't I learn how an Apple Mac worked? An obvious response is that a pen is a darn sight simpler mechanism to master than a neurotic bundle of silicon chips. This being so, it is amazing how much research and time it has taken to develop a computer which can mimic the humble pen or paintbrush.

With Design Painter, Letraset claims to have cracked it. At first, the program can dazzle you with its incredible array of colours and tools. It is difficult not to feel like a five-year-old on the first day of school, faced with different papers, pens, crayons, paints and chalks. I wanted to run to teacher and bawl 'But what shall I draw?'

Even when you have selected your 'surface' and 'medium', there are even more choices to be made. You have settled on a subtle Ivory Paper? But do you want Basic Paper, Cotton Paper, Regular Fine. If you have decided to paint, will it be Watercolour, Airbrush or Oils? What about the size of the brush, the width of the stroke?

Decisions which are made instinctively and executed easily when using 'real' media become laboured when one is faced with this numbing array of choices. Suddenly you have to analyse your own creative processes - although quite where Coarse Smeary Mover or Grainy Wet Buildup fit into mine, I do not know.

Practically speaking, the 'pen and tablet' are easier to control than the mouse. You can accustom them to your own writing or drawing pressure. However, the pen does slip about quite a bit and although each medium is impressively imitated on the monitor, you always feel as if you are using a magic slate.

A straw poll in the office voted faEvourably, although one person found the pen 'a bit fat' and thTHER write errore double-click button on the side was thought to be useless, if not annoying - it is too easy to press it by mistake. But how does the program stand up when substituted for the real thing?

My usual style is pen and ink, quite linear. I selected a fine nib and drew something. It looked effective, although I missed the scritchy- scratchy noise and sensation of a real nibbed pen - should you desire the authentic messy look, there is a Blot-pen option. To make it easier to do cross-hatching - shading in an area with lots of criss-crossing lines - there is a magnifying tool that enlarges the portion you are working on.

It was rather liberating, sitting there making marks, knowing that I could 'undo' whatever I did and would not have to start afresh each time I made a mistake. I added a watercolour wash, then further 'soaked' this with water. This is clever and quite convincing. You can also use a 'bleach' to drain the colour from an area and there are different eraser options.

I next drew something from life - my jacket and scarf slung over a chair. Starting with coloured pencil I drew the jacket in a loose sketchy style. No problems there - it had the right feel and look. I used a more impressionistic style for the scarf with felt pens, bleach and chalk.

It was great fun being able to mix all those media and 'mixing' colours is a doddle. You select a colour from the palette and the entire range of shades available from that colour appear. By moving the pen around you can find the exact shade you require. I was working on a machine that gave me a choice of 256 colours. Had I been using a more powerful machine, I could have had up to 16.5 million to choose from.

So much for fun. How did Painter compare with other programs I use in my work, such as Adobe's Illustrator, an industry-standard art program, and Photoshop, which is used for editing and cleaning up images such as photographs.

It is much freer than Illustrator and less controlled. For this reason it is especially suitable for free-hand graphics or maps. The ability to vary line weights within a single stroke is a key factor in this.

In comparison with Photoshop, Painter won out when it came to constructing a montage of images and to retouching. A drawback of Photoshop is not being able to reselect an image after you have left it to work on another area. With Painter you can deselect and then reselect any part to your heart's content. This means you can bring images to the 'front' of the screen, or bury them at the back under a stack of other images. You can also move them around or duplicate them.

Retouching pictures is better, too. The pen and tablet give you more control, and the 'airbrush' is more delicate, so you are able to build up an area gradually. Also, commands are easier to undo. Letraset is aiming this program at the professional market and I see no reasons why it should not be successful. The software is cheap enough for any illustrator with the hardware.

However, it is not a something you would carry to the artroom, you need a better monitor than on current portables, so I do not see it replacing the humble tin box of watercolours just yet. But you never know. In a few years time, come and see me in a drawing class - I will be the one with the grey plastic tablet, using airbrush in the style of Van Gogh.

Emma Bagnall is a designer on the Independent.

VITAL STATISTICS

System: Apple Macintosh.

(PC version also available).

Requirements:

Hardware: Mac LC series or above;

2.5 megabytes of main memory.

Publisher: Letraset, 195-203 Waterloo Road, London SE1 8XJ; tel 071 928 3411; fax 071 401 2427.

Availability: From publisher, retailers, mail order.

Price:

List: pounds 390.69 (inc VAT).

Street: pounds 263.00 (inc VAT).

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