One day in junior high art class, the teacher caught me using a ruler on what was supposed to be a freehand drawing.
"And what are you using that for?" he asked.
I knew I must be doing something wrong. But I was honest.
"I'm trying to draw a straight line."
"You don't need a ruler to draw a straight line," he sneered.
"Maybe you don't need one, but I sure do," I said.
Needless to say, I did not get an "A" in art. Or even a "B" or a "C." In fact, I've never been able to draw anything that remotely resembles a real-life object.
As a result, I've always been fascinated by graphics software that offers hope for the hapless.
The Arts & Letters Apprentice was made for klutzes like me. This $149.95 program (about $100 on the street) makes it a snap to create amazingly good-looking fliers, signs, maps, calendars or whatever. You can also use it to create artwork for export to desktop publishing or high-end word processing programs.
The Apprentice is at the low end of Computer Support Corporation's Arts & Letters line, but it's typical of the friendly, powerful and relatively inexpensive graphics software making its way to the market today.
Until recently, programs like this were aimed mostly at graphics designers or serious desktop publishers who didn't mind spending a bundle for software that gave their documents a professional touch.
But software publishers are starting to realize that there's an audience of business and home users who want quality work but are willing to sacrifice a few sophisticated features for low cost and ease of use.
Like its more expensive brothers, the Arts & Letters Composer and Graphics Editor, the Apprentice runs on IBM-compatible computers using the Microsoft Windows graphics environment.
In the trade, the Apprentice is known as a vector-based graphics program. Instead of recording an image as a pattern of dots, as so-called "paint" programs do, it actually translates your graphic objects into a set of drawing instructions.
This allows images to be scaled up or down without losing quality or creating jagged diagonal lines and curves.
The real secret of the Apprentice is that you don't have to be able to draw to use it. The program comes with a library of 3,000 clip art images (already colored, no less), that you can import, re-size, re-color, stretch or shrink to your heart's content.
Combined with 19 scalable typefaces in a variety of weights, elementary charting capability and a surprisingly powerful set of drawing tools, it provides a friendly environment for creating sophisticated graphics.
Since I first saw an Arts & Letters program a couple of years ago, CSC has dramatically improved its clip art.
The early collection was the stuff corporate yawns are made of (Does anybody really need five pages of flow-chart diagram templates?). But the Apprentice collection includes a wide variety of cartoons and seasonal illustrations, ranging from the serious to the whimsical.
There are birds, beasts, cars, trucks, planes, cityscapes, windmills, computers, Christmas stockings, roller skates, aliens, bank robbers, test tubes, outhouses, cowboys, arrows, stars, couches, trees, mountains, judges -- even a barrel of monkeys. If HTC you need it, you can probably find a picture of it here.
There's a particularly impressive collection of 50 detailed aircraft drawings -- everything from the Wright Brothers flier to the F-15 Strike Eagle. There's also a useful collection of world and U.S. maps (which you can break down by state).
The Apprentice's drawing tools are more than adequate. In fact, there are a few that aren't available on the release of the more expensive Arts & Letters Composer that I've used for a year or so.
For example, there's a free form curve-drawing and editing tool that automatically smoothes out the curves you draw, as well as a Bezier curve editor that artists and engineers understand but I've never been able to get the hang of.
If you're not satisfied with rotating type in any direction, you can bind it to any shape you draw. That means you can set type in a circle or run a street name along a curved highway on a map.
Once you've created or imported an object, you can apply an almost infinite variety of color and fill patterns, including so-called "gradient" fills that artists use to provide three-dimensional shading.
The program does a particularly good job of translating screen colors into black-and-white printer shadings. Other programs I've used tend to turn colors into a muddy mess on my LaserJet.
A new feature allows you to create simple line, bar, area or pie charts by typing your data into a form or importing a spreadsheet file. Once you've created the chart, you can resize it, edit it or move it around to make it part of your presentation. While this hardly rivals the charting capabilities of spreadsheet programs, it's quick and easy.