Painting by numbers

Three collections of Photoshop-compatible artistic plug-ins stand out in particular, the first of which is Virtual Painter 4 ($59 from www.vpainter.com), available both as a standalone application and a Photoshop plug-in (unlike most plug-ins, its effects can also be applied non-destructively in Fireworks and Illustrator).

It couldn’t be easier to use: simply call up the filter and you’re offered a choice of 16 effects displayed as resizable thumbnails of your current image. Often, you’ll simply choose the one that looks best and that’s it, but if you need more control open an Adjust window where you can set five parameters: material, rendering, coloration, deformation and focus. You can also draw on the preview window to indicate the main areas of interest in the image, and these are handled accordingly.

What makes Virtual Painter stand out is the sheer flair of its effects. Its developer Umemura Taka clearly has a passionate interest in the creative possibilities of computer art and, while his list of filters includes the usual suspects like Coloured Drawing, Pointillism and WaterColour, their results are very different from the uninspired renderings of Photoshop’s built-in jobs. Where lines are drawn, they’re fluid and graceful, not just crude edges, and Virtual Painter pushes the envelope with the types of media it mimics, including Gouache, Impasto and even Fauvist oil paint options.

The exuberance of Virtual Painter puts the majority of artistic filters to shame and, at its best, really does produce attractive creative work instantly. However, by its nature, you’re effectively handing over all creative control and input to the program. You can fine-tune a little around the edges, but essentially you have to take what you’re given. If you’d rather stay completely in charge, but still let the filter do all the hard work, Paint Alchemy (sale price $99 from www.xaostools.com) has a lot to offer.

Along with Aldus Gallery Effects, Paint Alchemy was one of the first sets of Photoshop-compatible filters on the market, and its age shows up in its idiosyncratic interface, built around floating windows and a tiny central preview. The program cries out for a modern makeover, and this is exactly what Corel has provided in the version it bundles with Photo-Paint, which offers a tabbed interface complete with on-image previews. However, the fact that the original Paint Alchemy Photoshop plug-in is still on sale shows the success of its underlying approach.

Essentially, Paint Alchemy provides a Painter-style, brush-based artistic cloning, but performed automatically. Call up the dialog and you can choose from dozens of preset effects – from Art to ZigZag – and including options such as charcoal, coloured pencil, crayon, cubist and pointillist. Each style is built around a central choice of brush based on a greyscale BMP combined with an application method. It’s here that Paint Alchemy offers its extensive customisation control, with the ability to set an overall stroke density and manage colour, size, angle and transparency. Each of these settings can be set to vary with position, distance from a given point or image hue, saturation and brightness, which ties the drawn strokes to an underlying image and enables the creation of some subtle creative effects.

Paint Alchemy’s results typically don’t look computer-generated, but to be honest they don’t quite look hand-painted either. Maybe it’s just too much to ask for an instant, off-the-shelf solution that can be applied automatically to any image, even one as customisable as Paint Alchemy. That’s certainly the opinion of the UK company Fo2PiX, specialist developer of photo-to-art solutions and maker of the buZZ.Pro 3 Photoshop plug-in (£102 from www.Fo2PiX.co.uk).

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