Price: £395; upgrade £149 plus VAT
Company: Deneba Software
Graphic artists might think they’ve seen it all, but they truly haven’t until they try Canvas 7. The program was conceived with the goal of integrating vector and paint design. Sure, illustration and photo-editing packages offer a certain measure of crossover functionality, and you can buy graphics suites like CorelDraw that include vector and photo-editing programs in one box. But Canvas is just one program, offering a single multipage space for working with vectors and bitmaps together. And with Canvas 7, the developers at Deneba have rebuilt the graphics engine to make it faster, more powerful and capable of supporting some astonishing features. At the basic level, you can use Canvas for bézier illustrations and photo retouching as you might already do it in other programs. What makes Canvas unique is Deneba’s SpriteLayer technology, which essentially provides flat, gradient and mask transparency tools that can apply to both vector and bitmap artwork in any combination. You can also work with multiple objects per document layer, which is something you can’t do in most photo editors. A classic example of SpriteLayer use is to literally paint through layers of vector or bitmap imagery to reveal other graphics behind. In other words, it lets you create cutaways with freehand brushstrokes. New to Canvas 7 is the ability to add and reposition intermediate nodes in directional and radial transparency effects, not unlike working with a gradient fill. In fact, you can now use ‘no fill’ as a colour value when building gradients too, allowing you to combine both irregular colour and opacity changes at the same time. The new graphics engine has allowed Deneba to extend SpriteLayer into a very clever feature it calls SpriteEffects. This lets you apply Photoshop-compatible filter plug-ins from the menus or using a special floating palette. What’s so clever about that? Well, SpriteEffects can be applied to vector artwork as well as bitmaps, or both at the same time. Imagine being able to apply Gaussian Blurs, colour curves, noise effects, ripples and so on to your bézier objects – Canvas 7 makes it possible for the first time ever. The SpriteEffects palette maintains a history-list of the effects you have applied to a selection so that you can re-edit and re-order them, or save the sequence to a settings file that can be reloaded later – Photoshop Action-style – for applying to graphics in other documents. Linked to SpriteEffects is a new Lens feature. Any object can be turned into a lens through which you view graphics behind. This lens can be made to magnify as you might expect, but it can also contain plug-in filter attributes from the SpriteEffects list. Lenses remain dynamic and can be re-edited and repositioned whenever you like, or detached so that they always point to a set location even when you move them away – great for those enlargement break-outs in complex illustrations. Inevitably, this latest release of Canvas boasts a clutch of Web features. Surprisingly, these are actually useful ones. Not only can you create and save standard multipage Web sites, complete with internal and external URL links, you can use the program to generate image maps and export the lot to HTML, and even upload to an FTP site directly from within the program. There’s a lovely new Web Buttons palette for building Java rollovers, which lets you preview the action instantly. When using Canvas to create Web pages, you can switch all rollovers to ‘Play Mode’ so you can preview the site without having to export to HTML first. Perhaps most impressive of all is Canvas 7’s movie document mode, which provides a very neat interface for creating animated GIFs. It’s not just a cludge, but an intuitive frame-based working environment with onion-skinning features, full timing controls and, of course, the wonderful freedom of being able to combine vector and bitmap artwork. On this note, the program now comes with an ImageReady-style interface for saving static GIFs and JPEGs, letting you preview the effect of changing colour tables and compression levels along with file sizes and download times, and compare up to four versions side by side. All this merely scratches the surface of the full might of the program. Its vector tools are easily a match for Illustrator and FreeHand, but also include CAD-like grid and precision features, plus special effects such as live 3D extrusion and a whole variety of reshaping envelopes. You may also be surprised at Canvas 7’s desktop publishing features: as well as supporting master pages and flowing text frames, you can work with pop-up spellcheckers and even style sheets – character and paragraph. Packed in the box too are 30,000 clip art graphics on three CDs and 2,450 URW fonts in Type 1 and TrueType formats. The one thing that is going to grate with many users is the interface. Not that there’s a major problem with it, but it feels completely unlike the Adobe interface style that has taken over the rest of the market. There’s a lot of double-clicking and some of the tool flyouts are enormous; on the other hand, the unique Docking bar for minimizing floating palettes is quite brilliant. It’s just something that needs to be learnt. Mid-range graphics users can easily bin existing software in favour of Canvas 7. Professionals would be ill-advised to do the same, but Canvas 7 is still a must-buy for your graphics armoury, especially at the competitive upgrade price.