2 top programs for artists, or the would-be


October 05, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

For their imaginative packaging alone, two programs from the Fractal Design Corp., called Painter and Sketcher, would be worth a place on the software shelf. Painter comes in a real paint can, minus the paint, while Sketcher comes in a box reminiscent of the cigar boxes we used to use to hold charcoals, pencils, crayons and sketch pads.

The packaging is just the first of many surprises. Both Painter and Sketcher are powerful tools for creating and modifying computer-based art. Each comes in versions for either Apple Macintosh or Microsoft Windows computers. Painter is for creating color images; Sketcher is for gray-scale images.

Both Painter and Sketcher can amplify a person's innate artistic skills, even skills subtle enough to have escaped detection. The programs are expected to appeal to graphic artists and other publishing professionals. But virtually anyone can have fun with them.

Using filters and some other graphics tricks that seem to border on magic, the programs allow non-artists to take scanned photographs or other digital images and transform them into what looks like charcoals, line sketches, watercolors, oils or other natural mediums.

For those who want instant masterpieces, the "Auto Van Gogh" command overlays the great painter's style of brush strokes on a scanned image. (Just to make a point, the same thing can be done with Seurat.) Want to see how Van Gogh might have seen and painted Uncle Fudd? With just a few clicks of the mouse, the scanned photo is rendered in Van Gogh's signature multicolored brush strokes.

Of course, one can use either Painter or Sketcher to create images and art from scratch, without starting with a scanned image. On that level alone, Painter ($399 Windows, $349 Mac) and Sketcher ($149 for either version) are superior to other paint programs I've used.

The key is the natural-medium nature of the programs, which means, basically, that it is possible to create on the computer screen virtually the same effects achieved by using conventional artist's tools.

Sketcher, for example, has 12 "paper" textures from which to choose, mimicking surfaces from plain paper to canvas. There are even more choices in pencils, chalks, air brushes, pens, felt pens, markers, charcoals and a variety of brush types. It is possible to draw with the charcoal tool on rough paper, and even smudge and feather the lines. It is just like drawing with real paper and charcoal, except neater.

The use of a pen-like stylus and pad, especially one that registers sensitivity to varying levels of pressure, is recommended for both Painter and Sketcher. Drawing with a mouse is about as easy and elegant as drawing with a potato while looking in the mirror. I use a pressure-sensitive stylus and pad made by Wacom, but other pen systems that work with Painter and Sketcher are made by Kurta and CalComp.

Color is very impressive and adds richness to art, but I found myself more attracted to Sketcher, the gray-scale program, than to Painter. Besides having a lower cost, Sketcher makes more sense for my needs. It does everything Painter does and more, but it does it in shades of gray instead of color.

Color places great demands on a computer system. Working with color images can be slow unless the computer is very powerful, and color images take up a lot of memory and disk storage space.

And then there is the question of what to do with one's color masterpieces. There are very few color printers in use today, and the ones able to make the truest reproduction of the images on the computer screen cost close to $10,000. In contrast, one can get laser-quality printing in gray scale (as opposed to just plain black and white) for less than half the cost of color.

Graphic artists have many options for color output, usually through specialized print shops called service bureaus that have the fancy printers and film-transfer slide equipment. But the majority of desktop artists and publishers print their work in black and white through laser printers. That makes it easy to create art with Sketcher, add text if needed and place the art in newsletters or other documents.

Painter for the Macintosh requires a Mac II, LC or Quadra computer with a hard disk, four megabytes of system memory, System 6.0.5 or later and a color or gray-scale monitor. The Windows version needs a 386- or 486-based PC with a hard disk and a SuperVGA color monitor, six megabytes of system memory, plus Windows 3.0 or later.

Sketcher for the Macintosh will work with Classic II, SE30 and PowerBook 140 and 170 Macs as well as the LC, Mac II and Quadra systems.

The Windows version of Sketcher will not be available until November. It works with 386SX computers and four megabytes of system memory.

Fractal Designs of Aptos, Calif., can be reached at (408) 688-8800.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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