RISC World

ArtWorks Made Easy



When Computer Concepts launched Artworks v 1.00 early in 1993, it was already the subject of widespread interest amongst the Acorn 32-bit computing fraternity. An early version of the software had been demonstrated at the 1991 BBC Acorn User show and the media had had access to pre-release (and of necessity incomplete) review copies for some rime. Alan Bums' delightful drawings of cars using the package had appeared in the press and had whetted the appetite of every reader who had ever fancied himself as a computer-aided artist/designer.

And that must include nearly every user of the Acorn 32-bit machines. Surely one of the most strategic moves in the history of personal computing was the bundling of Draw, Paint and Edit with RISC OS. (Of course, in RISC OS 3 these applications are built into the ROM and therefore permanently accessible.) Draw is a remarkably versatile application and it served to introduce a new generation of computer users to the limitless possibilities offered by both vector (line) graphics and the object-based philosophy on which desktop publishing, multimedia and other sophisticated computer applications are based. In common with many other Archimedes owners I was soon hooked, finding in Draw and the other bundled RISC OS applications the solutions to many design and publishing problems. But, despite its sophistication, Draw suffered limitations. It seems ungracious to criticise free software, but I was certainly not alone in yearning for additional features: 'if only Draw could do this...'

Of course, this is exactly what Acorn had planned from the start. The bundled software, although a valuable resource in its own right, was not intended as the last word; on the contrary, it was the starting point. Essentially it was a sophisticated hands-on demonstration of the potential of the hardware in conjunction with RISC OS. Effectively Acorn was issuing an invitation to software producers to improve upon it. And soon they did.

Not surprisingly, first to appear were comparatively simple applications, intended for use alongside Draw, enhancing its versatility. Favourite operations were font manipulation and object distortion: such titles included FontFX. Fantasy, DrawBender and TypeStudio.

Later came 'full-length' applications intended to replace Draw, providing all (or nearly all) of its facilities together with many new ones. Jonathan Marten's public-domain DrawPlus, launched in 1991, incorporated such new features as layers and improved order control.

This he followed with Vector published by 4Mation in 1992 which added further valuable features, while still retaining the familiar philosophy of Draw. And when RISC OS 3 appeared, late in 1991, it included a new and much improved version of Draw.

RISC OS 3 added new incentives to software development. Its provision of on-screen dithering made it possible to display many more colours than were actually contained in the palette. This made graphics more versatile and attractive than was previously possible. It encouraged the use of the VGA and SVGA screen modes, industry standards used on IBM PC-compatibles and recent Apple Macintoshes. Moreover, since its disc interface allowed MS-DOS disc formats to be used as though they were native Acorn formats, users of the Acorn machines were being invited to swap files with users of other computer types.

It was into this milieu that ArtWorks, yet another advanced, object- based drawing package, was launched. Computer Concepts, of course, had already acquired an enviable reputation as an innovator in software design. Impression had already established itself not only as the most widely used document processing package (Computer Concepts dislikes the term desktop publishing) for the Acorn 32-bit machines, but also as the most popular commercial RISC OS package. ArtWorks was intended to follow in its footsteps, achieving for graphics what Impression had done for text.

But ArtWorks was much else besides. It was emphatically not another improved version of Draw. It can accept Draw files and the graphics it creates can be saved as Draw files, RISC OS users naturally expect this, but in other respects it represents a fresh start and its internal philosophy is radically different from that of Draw.

The inspiration behind ArtWorks is not Draw but the professional drawing packages used by illustrators and graphic designers on the Apple Macintosh and IBM-PC compatibles, such as Aldus Freehand, Adobe Illustrator and CorelDRAW. It offers Acorn users drawing facilities with a level of sophistication similar to those professional packages. Indeed, subject to some limitations, file exchange with those packages is possible.

In some respects ArtWorks surpasses those packages. Redrawing speed is a critical productivity factor in drawing software. In many drawing applications, after each edit the whole screen is redrawn and during the redrawing operation the artist has no choice but to sit at his workstation and wait (or drink his coffee). If the redrawing takes one minute (an average time on a complex drawing), then the artist is inevitably unproductive for many minutes every day and the minutes soon add up into lost hours.

Computer Concepts addressed this problem in two ways. Firstly, ArtWorks differs from many applications for the Acorn 32-bit machines in that it was written in Assembler and not in C. This allowed its code to be optimised for speed. Secondly, it offers substantial control over the quality of the screen display and this dramatically affects the redrawing time. With WYSIWYG set to maximum you see the highest quality picture, absolutely everything is included. Realism is enhanced by anti-aliasing along curved and oblique edges. But to produce all this minute detail takes precious time. With WYSIWYG at minimum you see only 'wire frames', all lines are reproduced in black but the fills are omitted. These are plotted very quickly indeed. Computer Concepts claims that redrawing on an ARM3-based machine can be five times as fast as in CorelDRAWon a 486-based PC.

There is much that is innovative in the structure of ArtWorks. Although one package, it is divided into separate modules. This means that it is easily tailored to suit specific needs. You can remove a module that you never use; this will save memory space (and loading time). Modules can be updated individually and Computer Concepts, anticipating that ArtWorks, like Impression, will establish itself as an Acorn standard, is inviting third-parties to introduce their own modules to provide new facilities for ArtWorks.

Some of the modules in ArtWorks perform functions normally provided by RISC OS itself. For example, ArtWorks incorporates its own colour module which provides a form of dithering that is more versatile than that provided by RISC OS 3. It also has its own font manager which allows text to have separate line colours and line widths, while remaining text and fully editable as such. Another interesting innovation is the use of an outline font (AvantG) to replace the system font in dialogue boxes. And there are many other fascinating features with which you will become familiar as you use the package.

ArtWorks also opens up many interesting new educational opportunities. For example, schools who have links with commercial companies can now exchange graphics files with them and this will foster cooperation in joint ventures. I acknowledge my gratitude to Charles Moir, Mick Robinson and their colleagues at Computer Concepts for their encouragement and especially for reading the manuscript and suggesting many improvements. I am also grateful to Clare Atherton at Dabs Press for her on-going support-and patience!