A few years ago, a friend who does free-lance technical writing told me I absolutely had to see a new program called the Arts & Letters Graphics Composer.
The program was designed to allow artists and non-artists (like me) to create signs, fliers, charts and illustrations using a set of basic drawing tools and an impressive collection of clip art.
When I say I'm a non-artist, I mean it. I can't draw a straight line to save my life. But with the Arts & Letters Composer I could turn out some spiffy-looking documents without much effort.
Until last spring, that is, when Microsoft came out with Version 3 of Windows, the graphical user environment under which Arts & Letters runs.
Unfortunately, the Composer wouldn't run under the new Windows, so for a year, I was left scrounging for quick artwork, waiting for Computer Support Corporation, Arts & Letters' publisher, to catch up.
Now, much to my delight, CSC has released Composer 3.0, which not only runs under Windows 3 but packs a whole lot more power and speed into the same friendly framework.
Like its predecessor, Composer is a subset of the company's high-powered Arts & Letters Graphics Editor program. The Editor, like Corel Draw and other high-end drawing programs, is really for illustrators and other graphic artists.
But it's plenty for me, and should do just fine for any business or professional user who has to produce quick, professional artwork but doesn't have much time.
The Arts & Letters Composer is a vector-based drawing program. This means that when you draw an object on your screen such as a box, the program actually stores a set of instructions for drawing the box.
This makes it easy to scale images up and down without producing the jagged edges associated with "paint" programs that produce images by manipulating actual dots on your screen and transferring them to the printer.
The down side of vector-based programs is that they don't give you quite as much control over the details of your images, which have a more cartoon-like quality than the images produced by paint programs.
Generally, paint programs are best for dealing with scanned photographs and similar images, while vector-based programs are excellent for creating line art illustrations, architectural illustrations and the like. Vector drawing programs are also great for people who can't draw.
At the heart of the Graphics Composer is a set of 5,000 different clip art images (more than twice as many as in the original version). If you need a picture of a telephone, you have 10 to choose from. An airplane? Everything from a Sopwith Camel to an F-16.
Some of the drawings are simple icons, others are complex illustrations of people, animals, urban and rural scenes, buildings, factories and sports figures. Some are serious; others come right out of the funny pages.
If you're into flow charts or corporate presentations, there are all kinds of boxes, arrows, lines, circles, borders and stars. There's also an entire collection of world maps, including large metropolitan areas with counties.
Once you've chosen an image, you can move it, resize it, stretch it, squash it, rotate it or duplicate it. You can even tell the program to automatically copy an object up to 99 times, stretched out along a path you select.
You can fill any object with an enormous variety of fills and colors, including gradient fills that produce subtle shading effects.
The more complex drawings can be broken into pieces. You can give each piece its own color and shading and then reassemble the package.
To augment the clip art, Composer adds basic line and polygon drawing capabilities. You won't find bezier curves or other fancy tools, which are reserved for the pricier Editor program.
The Composer's color capabilities, largely of use to professionals, are impressive, allowing four-color separations using either CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) or RGB (red, blue, green) protocols.
The manual includes a color-matching chart for its 18 built-in pallettes, and you can define your own colors and give them names for quick access.
Alas, since Windows does not yet drive color printers, separations are the only way to take advantage of the program's color capability.
Composer's text capabilities are equally impressive. The package comes with 45 different text and decorative
typefaces in a variety of weights. Unlike earlier versions, this one can also access the fonts installed by Windows.
The Composer's fonts are completely scalable (you can choose any size), and you can apply the same color, fill and line-width effects to text that you apply to illustrations. You can rotate and fTC slant type, although you can't bind it to an object such as a curve or circle.
Version 3 comes with two manuals and a set of tutorial drawings to complement the instructions. The first manual describes the program's tools and functions clearly and concisely, while the second shows all 5,000 drawings, which are referenced by number and indexed.
CSC has improved the Composer's on-screen performance. While redrawing a screen with multiple objects can take a while, you can work on one part of a drawing while the rest is redrawn in the background.
Unfortunately, printing is still slow, but I have yet to find a Windows program that makes my printer snap to attention.
All things considered, Arts & Letters Graphics Composer is an excellent revision of a fine program. At $395, it's not exactly a bargain-basement tool, but if you need to make you or your business look good in a hurry, it may be well worth the investment.
Arts & Letters
Arts & Letters Graphics Composer 3.0, $395, is a powerful drawing program for signs, illustrations, charts and reports that includes a collection of more than 5,000 pieces of clip art.
Requirements: An IBM-compatible computer with an 80286 or 80386 processor and Microsoft Windows.
Publisher: Computer Support Corp., 15926 Midway Road, Dallas, Texas, 75244.