technique

Serif Drawplus – updates and new FREE version

Since I last wrote about Serif Drawplus on the blog there have been some major changes by the software company. First of all, Drawplus has been updated from X2, through X3 and now stands at version X4! Also and probably of more impact to the freebie loving computer users the downloadable free version has completely changed. Instead of making available an old version for free, Serif have decided to release a new up-to-date little brother kind of version call DrawPlus Starter Edition. I’ve seen and heard of quite a few other companies doing this recently, it seems to be a new trend for software developers.

This is bad and good news as you have probably guessed. The best things about the new Starter Edition in my opinion are;

  1. The new interface. It’s a lot less clunky and Windows 95 looking than the previous free version! The docked tabs seem more sensible in their layout. They are very very much like Adobe’s tabbed palettes. Some have more options and flexibility than Adobe’s, others less. The balance is good though.
  2. DrawPlus’s fills, transparency and brushes. All seem to have better, more accessible and immediate use than in Illustrator. Immediate because there’s so many more useful presets and when you drag the mouse you see the fill or transparency transform in real time. In Illustrator and older versions of Drawplus you could only see the reault after you let go of the mouse, so it was a guessing game with any kind of gradient.
  3. Effects. They work really nicely, like Adobe’s Styles but I like having material thickness and fathering right there on the palette itself. The Starter Edition has just a few of a massive range of materials and textures that is included in the full X4 version. Enough to test, quite a crafty ploy to make you feel like buying the full version!
  4. Tablet support. The brushes are highly configurable, and look great. I didn’t use a tablet in my test though, just the mouse.
Brush editing dialogue

Brush editing dialogue

The not so good things are of course the things that are unavailable to Starter Edition users. As well as having less fills, brushes etc available, some portions of the program are ghosted out so the options/facilities are unavailable. Notably these are;

  • Export/publishing options
  • Envelopes
  • 3D projections and planes
  • Blends
  • Colour palette designer
  • Flash animation

There are still lots of things available to make the program fully functional in many ways, it might be all you need! If you’ve never tried Drawplus yet love working with vector graphics it’s definately worth trying this new Starter Edition. I am really quite tempted to upgrade it to the full X4 version because other than the interface there are lots of other things in this new version of the program I would like to try out. I only own full version 6, which came out in 2001 according to Wikipedia! Also for work, it has CMYK and Pantone fill palettes now available. Mostly I’d like to try the 3D planes feature which could help create some great isometric designs and logos.

I’ll update you with my findings if I buy the X4 upgrade.

Somerset sunsets

The wife and I have just enjoyed a little excursion down to Devon and Somerset but mainly Somerset. We saw some great places and scenes and tasted some fantastic local brews. We highly recommend a tipple at Sheppy’s Cider Farm, which has been churning out lovely cider since 1817. I’ve just noticed you can buy their cider online too, nice…

On the way back from the seaside one evening we managed to shoot some lovely sunset photos. My wife particularly likes these, and she took them all. Her ideal sunset scene has a skeletal tree or two in front of the sunset scene. This time of year is the last chance to get these shots before the trees are all full and covered in leaves.

I’ve chosen the best six and hosted them here, you can open the large versions by clicking on the composite scene below.

Six gorgeous sunsets over Somerset

The six pictures are all approximately 2Mpix images, they have just been cropped down a little but not too much, so they might be useful for various bits of design work, please feel free to borrow them. The pictures were taken with a Canon camcorder with a good lens, the pictures look nice and crisp in their full size pixel preview.

Three by Three (3×3) Illustration Annual No.5

I have in front of me the latest 3×3 Annual No. 5, published January 2009, it’s not even on their own website yet! The cover, as you can see is a splendid illustration of Björk.

3x3 Illustration Annual Number 5

3x3 Illustration Annual Number 5

Inside the book starts with an interview of Henning Wagenbreth, Artists/Educator of the year, who appears to be sitting in his back garden on a deck chair wearing a beach towel. I haven’t read it because I got the book for the pictures! The book has section of illustration in the following categories; advertising, animation, books, editorial, institutional, self promotion, sequential, 3D and unpublished. Finally there is a section of student submissions.

It’s all great stuff, nicely printed on decent paper and inspirational, sometimes. There is such a massive range of techniques and styles on show in the book and it’s all quite new so it’s a good indicator of up and coming or current fashionable illustration types. Next time I find myself with a blank document and a blank mind I’ll be dipping into this book for some kind of inspiration. I bought this at ‘Borders’ but you can probably get it lots of places; UK people can get it at Central Books. If you know where to get it on-line feel free to post a link!

Gort wallpaper – klaatu barada nikto!

The Day the Earth Stood Still, 19512008. What a great film with 1951 version was (is), and what a great soundtrack. I’ve not got around to seeing the 2008 version, will probably wait until it’s on TV. Big problem – it’s got Kanue in it, but the front page review on imdb says his wooden acting ‘style’ suits the alien persona of Klaatu. Also the trailer is uninspiring.

What has that got to do with Design Reviews? Well the huge robot Gort is a very cool robot design and I was sidetracked last night while designing a logo to do a version of Gort in Adobe Illustrator. I think it’s pretty nice and you can see it below.

Gort

Also out of huge generosity and Christmas spirit I have uploaded some ‘Gort wallpaper’ for your desktop. It’s available in lots of sizes to match your screen 1024×768, 1280×800, 1280×960, 1280×1024 and a big one at 1365×1024. Also even more incredibly I’ve uploaded the Adobe Illustrator (v8 for compatibility) file for you to download, to see how it’s drawn or so you can modify it, such as move the ‘klaatu barada nikto’ text around to suit your own desktop. Please if you do anything like that write a little comment on my page, or DIGG it or something!

CD cover for The Ebbs (UK) – Russian Skidoo

The song ‘Russian Skidoo’ has been recorded since summer 2005, now I’ve only just got around to making the CD cover for it. I drew all the trees and snow textures on a background layer in Illustrator. Also in separate layers I drew the guy and the skidoo. That look a while, balancing the amount of detail to be sketched with what I wanted the finished article to be like.

Illustrating the shapes of the skidoo was no problem but it took three revisions to draw the helmet! The picture I was looking at had a guy with lots and lots of stickers on the helmet and I got too involved working close up and made something far too detailed, twice. This picture is of a guy speeding through the night in a snow storm so it’s not necessary at all to have that detail. Then when I finished I fired up Photoshop and used a combination of the motion blur and the wind tools. The snow wasn’t so tricky, inserting a new layer in Photoshop using the noise filter and distort filters to make it wavy, then altering the opacity of that layer.

The Ebbs (UK) - Russian Skidoo

The Ebbs (UK) - Russian Skidoo

I’m quite happy with the result, from the ingredients I started with. If I were to do it again I would focus on a detail of the skidoo, coming almost straight towards the viewer, perhaps looking like it’s about to run into the camera. Could do that for the back cover though… If it’s better it can be swapped with the front image! Sound clip here; The Ebbs (UK) – Russian Skidoo.

Cheers, Mark

Lightscribe – is it worth the effort?

I’ve been away for the last month in the far east, Taiwan. Whilst over there, the home of many of the tech companies that provide the gadgets we love to use, I was tempted beyond my resistance limits to buy some computer hardware. Today I will try and answer the question;  “Lightscribe – is it worth the effort?”

Disc labeling is useful, so most people will keep a CD marker pen next to their disc box for the scrawling of disc name (if you’re organized enough to use a disc cataloging software program) or a contents list of sorts, onto the surface of the disc. For a graphic designer, rather than a calligrapher, this isn’t very satisfactory. So ever since the average computer user has been able to make their own CDs there have been ways to make more professional/designed on CD labels.

I remember using something called ‘PressIt’ about 15 years ago, an awful contraption that was just a plastic spindle with a disc to transfer a printed sticky paper label onto the disc surface. The disc labels came two up on an A4 sheet. I found the paper a bit too thin and poorly surfaced to make a good job. Also the plunger contraption didn’t facilitate perfectly centred and ripple free labeling, so that kit got used about 3 times.

I’ve skipped a generation perhaps, because I’ve never had an inkjet printer that was capable of printing onto the surface of a CD/DVD. But now I have a brand new LG Lightscribe DVD writer and a pack of HP Colour Lightscribe DVD+R.

The first thing I noticed, I knew nothing of the technology before buying this drive, was that colour is just monochrome shades. The 10 pack has 5 shades, you can see in the picture below on the HP top sheet from the pack. Also you can see two of the discs I’ve used. I was in Taiwan using a new computer so I only had a few photos on the computer I could use for a label. I quickly made up these labels in Photoshop as 300dpi images at a size of 12cm x 12cm. On screen I used a circular masking layer so I could see what bits would be cut off during the printing onto disc.

HP Colour Lightscribe discs printed with 300dpi images

The discs look pretty nice on the main picture, but you might have an impression of the slight soft focus on the discs by looking at them and the HP label in comparison.

Scan of disc 1

Let’s look at the quality closer up. This is from my scanner. You can definitely see the softness here, especially in contrast to the plastic/foil markings on the inner ring. It’s a bit like a motion blur or mis-registration from multiple laser passes. Below you can see the original photo section at approximately the same size and rotation. It’s quite a lot sharper.

Original photo detail

For another comparison I’ve changed the pic to similar tones to the green of the disc. Compared to the scan, the colours and tonal range have been matched but it’s not so blurry, the text is much more legible.

Original photo detail colourised

I’ll be using and trying these discs some more, I used the ‘best’ setting in the Cyberlink imaging software and the media is ‘version 1.2‘. The DVDs both took about 19 minutes to etch the images upon.

One thing I might test is to incorporate lines of various weights in an illustrator drawing and print it onto a light scribe disc to test the resolution of the process. The Lightscribe website suggests “When using images from your digital camera or scanner, use the highest resolution possible to yield the best label quality.” From my results I’m guessing that 150dpi would be the most efficient res, my 300dpi image was not necessary – it didn’t benefit with extra sharpness.

Now I might have sounded a bit negative in the review but weighing everything up I think it’s worth having a Lightscribe drive. The discs look nice, the drives are not expensive, the media isn’t much more expensive if you shop around. If you want to add an extra drive or replace an old slow one I’d definitely go for a Lightscribe or Labelflash capable drive.

Cheers, Mark

Halftone effects in Illustrator – 'Raster' review

The Design Reviews logo with 'Raster' effect

The Design Reviews logo + 'Raster'

My first review here on Design Reviews is of a FREE graphics utility (for Windows only, sorry Mac users). It might be free but it’s fantastic and fills a gap not addressed in any of the Adobe suite such as Flash, Illustrator or Photoshop.

Do you like sometimes to use halftone patterns as fills? It’s quite easy to do solid colour (same size dot) patterns but what about variable dot sizes corresponding to lightness and darkness of the images you want to create.

New Jordanian Bridge

New Jordanian Bridge

The program in question is called Raster, it creates dot or square halftone patterns in a vector format which can then be used in your favourite design programs with all the advantages of a vector file (mainly scalability and editability). Now I know there is a Halftone Pattern filter in Photoshop but it’s not at all the same as this. The Photoshop filter doesn’t create vector output, also the dot or line styles are uniform. In Raster the dots size vary with intensity or depth of colour. So for instance with a simple linear gradient the dots will fade from large to small where the gradient would fade from dark to light. Before this program I used to try and do the effect ‘by hand’ which was neither convenient or satisfactory.

Try it for yourself, if you’ve read this and made some Pop Art using Raster and your favourite vector editor please leave a link in the comments below.

Raster Screen Grab

Raster Screen Grab

Cheers, Mark