Computers: Sketches lack taste of life: Touch and sound add to the pleasure of drawing. Iona Brown is disappointed by computer sketching: Review: Fractal Design Sketcher Drawing Software

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The Independent Online
Imay be old-fashioned, but what I really like about using charcoal and paper is that it is tactile. You can build up a really nice head of eraser shavings; you can layer strokes of gritty black and then change your mind and smudge them all together with your finger. You can practically taste the stuff when things are really going well.

The whole point about drawing, as far as I am concerned, is the delicious sensation of rubbing your nose in it. Computer-generated images just ain't the same. So Design Sketcher, however clever, was disappointing.

I am a semi-serious amateur who has drawn from life on and off since school. Models are hard to come by: I used to creep up on my husband as he lounged expansively in the living room, or try to draw him in bed on Sunday mornings. Occasionally I chased the cats around the house and tried to zap them with sleepy thoughts, but more often than not the sound of the pencil scraping over the paper woke them up.

So nowadays I tend to confine myself to the art students who pose for pounds 3 an hour at my life class behind Manchester's Piccadilly railway station. The point is, that although this 'greyscale' paint programme is a damned clever box of tricks, for someone like me, it just is not a satisfying way of translating what you see on to paper, canvas or whatever.

The working environment is all wrong, for a start. There is no sound, no smell and nothing to feel. Also if it is supposed to be a program for people like me who are not computer freaks, I do not think it is too much to ask for accurate installation instructions.

I ended up having to install Sketcher three times and even had to reinstall my Windows operating system from my hard disk, thus losing several drafts of letters and the set-up which had come with the new PC that I was trying out.

The second time, I made sure the drawing board - a hard plastic tablet about one and a half foot square - was properly connected and then reinstalled Sketcher from Windows as instructed. But on each occasion, when I restarted Windows, the mouse would not operate.

In the end, I rang Letraset's technical support team in London. The answer was extraordinarily simple - all you have to do is make sure the drawing tablet, which has a power switch on the side, is switched on when you fire up Windows. Apparently the 'drivers' for the mouse and the cordless pen - the little programs that are needed to connect them to the system - are contained as software in the drawing board, so if it is not switched on, the computer cannot find them. There is no mention of this anywhere in any of the manuals.

I was so hacked off by the time Sketcher was correctly installed that I did not feel remotely arty and promptly switched it off again. But if digitised drawing does turn you on, Sketcher, the black and white version of Letraset's Painter, is relatively simple to use and the clever way some of the drawing tools replicate the action of, say, water on ink is truly impressive. The charcoal really does smudge, the shading pencils really shade and the chalk really does show the surface grain underneath it - anything from rice paper to woven canvas.

The manual is designed as a replica of a sketch pad - spiral bound, expensive cream watercolour paper, arty pen-and- ink picture on the front - which is a nice piece of marketing.

I had ambitious ideas about lugging my PC up seven flights of stairs to my life class, but frankly the notion was ridiculous. The whole set-up weighs a ton, and is not the slightest bit portable. Apart from the sheer impracticality of unplugging monitor, main processor, printer, keyboard and drawing tablet, loading the lot into the car and then setting it up at the other end, you need to use the keyboard as well as the tablet. This means that unless you have a desk that is at least 5ft deep, you either have to perch the tablet on your knee, or place it to one side of the keyboard, which gives you acute backache.

Because it is a greyscale program, it does not need the massive amounts of main memory and hard disk space that colour programs need. It has also got some sophisticated editing options, like flipping or rotating the image. If you can lay your hands on a scanner, which 'digitises' images rather like a fax, turning hard copy images into computer readable data, you could do much more.

The cordless pressure-sensitive 'pen' that came with the drawing board was easy to use - a bit like a roller-ball pen, but you have to use more pressure. It took a while to get the hang of it and it ran out of batteries after one afternoon.

The drawing tablet has a clear perspex cover under which you can place original material, which you can then 'trace' and edit, producing enhanced images. But the trouble is that they just did not look real to me. The charcoal drawing I traced came back at me looking like pen and wash and the clumsy tonal distinctions in the drawing tools made it look as if my subject had a bad case of sunburn, rather than bringing out the planes of the face.

As for freehand drawing, my efforts looked like something from the primary school around the corner. I found it was impossible to get the necessary degree of control.

System: PC-compatible/Dos.

(Apple Mac version also available).

Requirements:

Hardware: 386/486 processor; 4

megabytes of main memory;

colour or greyscales VGA monitor.

Software: Windows 3.0/3.1.

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 125.14 (inc VAT).

Street: pounds 93 (inc VAT).

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