Illustration's Golden Age

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"Five Tasks Illustrator Does Best"
"Five Tasks FreeHand Does Best"
"Five Tasks CorelDraw Does Best"
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"Illustrious Implementations"

That's why the newest update frenzy is so impressive. Adobe Illustrator 8.0 ( ) returns to its glory days as a streamlined, feature-rich standard-bearer. CorelDraw 8.0.1 ( ) performs an even more amazing trick, rising like a phoenix from the smoking husk of the roundly dismissed version 6. A third upgrade, Macromedia FreeHand 8.0.1 ( ), is the most modest, but its predecessor, FreeHand 7, was so far ahead of the pack that the new version still comes out smelling like a rose.

The secret behind the success of the version 8 upgrades is imitation. Each of these drawing programs offers exciting new features that were either borrowed from competitors or inspired by different graphics programs. The result is a trio of drawing doppelgängers–each has its special strengths, but if all you care about is having a lot of great features, then they all fit the bill.

That's why we dug a little deeper to examine not only whether these programs have particular features but also–if so–how well those features perform and how easy they are to use.

To do this, we gave key features a grade on a scale from A to F, with A, of course, being best. We also hired three artists to test drive the new applications and report back some findings and we compiled lists of the top five tasks that each program performs better than the rest (see the "Five Tasks" sidebars throughout this article). The result is a comprehensive picture of three closely matched rivals and a clear ruling on the one program that gets it right most often.

Every graphics program is like a room in a big studio. If you're comfortable working in the environment that the software provides, you can accomplish anything. If not, no matter how well the tools work, your creativity will be stymied.

Likewise, you need to be able to move freely throughout the studio–from your drawing program to Adobe Photoshop, for example. If you can exchange files easily, as well as open old files and integrate them into new artwork, you'll save time.

New Order

Say what you will about Adobe's efforts to make all its applications' interfaces consistent–in return for the sometimes confusing changes Illustrator has undergone, the program now has the most straightforward working environment in the business.

Illustrator 8.0 frees up screen space by aligning palettes in an orderly column along the window's right side. It colorizes selection outlines by layer, so you always know where you are. It provides on-screen hints telling you which key to press to get any tool. It also hides interface elements at the touch of the tab key, leaving just you and the illustration, artist to artwork.

Illustrator also now opens FreeHand and CorelDraw files, so your artistic experience isn't interrupted by technical difficulties. As always, Illustrator also opens and saves native and EPS files that have been saved in any previous version of the program–a claim to backward compatibility that neither FreeHand nor CorelDraw can make.

Customizable Disorder

When compared with Illustrator 8.0's orderly atmosphere, FreeHand 8.0.1's interface is best described as unkempt. Unless you have a second monitor, mismatched palettes either overlap or obscure your view of the illustration window. Granted, you can collapse the palettes you aren't using, but it's far easier to pile them up in a heap.

FreeHand is not without its advantages over Illustrator–which include smoother scrolling, faster screen redraws, and more opportunities for customizing the interface. However, there's no full-screen drawing mode; no graphic navigator; and no helpful hints built into the default tool shortcuts, which include such oddities as pressing F10 for the scale tool (you can choose to use built-in Illustrator or CorelDraw shortcuts, though).

FreeHand does a great job of opening Illustrator artwork but has problems with FreeHand 2 files and can't even see FreeHand 1 files. As a result, I have a drawer full of floppies with FreeHand files that I can't open with this version–and you may, too.

Strange Ways

CorelDraw 8.0.1 presents a more streamlined front than FreeHand 8.0.1, with regularly sized palettes and a context-sensitive Properties bar that changes to suit the selected object. It also offers the most extreme zoom range, from 1 percent to several thousand times normal size, for when you need to be really precise.

If you've spent any time in Illustrator or FreeHand, however, using CorelDraw feels like a trip to a foreign country. I've been using CorelDraw since version 1, yet I still shudder at anchor points called "nodes," masking called "power clipping," and the common arrow unpleasantly labeled the Pick tool.

There are also inconvenient aspects to the interface. There's no shortcut for the hand (or Pan) tool, although you can scroll by pressing option while using the arrow keys. You can hide all interface elements by pressing F9, but you can't do anything with your artwork until you press the esc key to bring back the clutter. CorelDraw 8's interface is original, but there's work to be done before it will bridge the gap with Mac professionals.

* Interface/Compatibility Champ: Illustrator 8.0

Once the exclusive domain of Illustrator, drawing and editing is now handled competently by all three applications. This is a good thing, since drawing is the central capability of a drawing program.

All three programs let you draw and edit complex paths, automatically trace scanned line art, and establish custom guidelines that apply order to even the most sophisticated illustrations. That said, each program has strengths that suit specific kinds of artists–with Illustrator focusing on precision drawing, FreeHand on tracing, and CorelDraw on plans and schematics.

Precise Power

Despite its competitors' improvements, Illustrator still dominates in a few areas. Its geometric-shape tools can't be beat, letting you draw, move, and edit shapes on the fly so that you get them right the first time. The pen tool is now smarter, permitting you to add and subtract points without switching tools or pressing keys. Illustrator 8's numerous path operations are conveniently collected in a single palette. Timesaving smart guides ensure that your straight lines are absolutely straight and in line with every other path in your drawing.

The one continuing failure of Illustrator 8 in this category is the program's Stone Age autotrace tool, which traces only one path at a time, and does so badly. If tracing is important to you, purchase a dedicated program such as the $199 Adobe Streamline. Better yet, get FreeHand instead.

Efficient Flexibility

Despite Illustrator's popularity among working artists, FreeHand is every bit as good at drawing and editing and includes some true time-savers to boot. For example, where Illustrator makes you trace one path at a time and CorelDraw makes you launch a separate program (CorelTrace) if you're doing complex tracing, FreeHand alone can automatically draw hundreds of paths anytime you draw a marquee around a bitmapped image with the tracing tool.

FreeHand likewise expedites the selection of objects, so you can quickly access any shape you want to edit and even replace all occurrences of it globally. I'm not a fan of how FreeHand makes you regularly press tab to deselect objects before making a new selection, but the ability to select down a stack of overlapping objects by control-clicking still beats what you can do in Illustrator.

FreeHand also offers a welcome break to artists who simply want to draw. If you're tired of editing paths by pulling on little control handles, FreeHand's Freeform tool will offer some relief–it lets you mold outlines by brushing up against them.

Schematic Standout

CorelDraw's drawing features take some getting used to, but ultimately they make sense. For example, to edit points, you use a dedicated reshape tool or click on buttons on the Properties bar. Illustrator and FreeHand provide more-dynamic controls, but the advantage of CorelDraw's approach is that it's easy for novices to learn.

Where the program really distinguishes itself is in schematic drawing. It lets you specify a scale of measurement–say, 0.25 inch equals 1 foot–essential when drawing plans or schematics. You can then use the Dimension tool to automatically label the length of line segments according to your scale. This feature–inexplicably missing from both Illustrator and FreeHand–makes CorelDraw an appealing option for artists who do a lot of technical or architectural illustrations.

* Drawing/Editing Champ: Three-way tie

When you're creating professional-level artwork, it's not enough to just push around your polygons. The next stage of creating and editing your artwork involves using three very practical effects–transformations, masks, and blends.

Simple Convenience

The most commonly used transformation is scaling. Illustrator 8 lets you increase or decrease an object's size by simply dragging a corner handle. However, this may hamper your ability to snap objects into alignment–for example, when attempting to align the corner of one shape to another–so if you don't like the feature, turn it off.

Illustrator's Transformation palette is unequaled for convenience. It puts scale, rotate, and skew options with a center-point control in a single location. The program lets you apply editable type as a mask as well as blend between any two shapes filled with any number of colors. Finally, you can also edit blends dynamically.

The bad news is that you can repeat just one transformation at a time, which means you can't rotate and scale in one duplication when you want to create, say, a pattern of objects spiraling toward the viewer. If you managed to put up with Illustrator back before live blends, however, this is probably small potatoes.

Uneven Abilities

FreeHand loses points in this category for its lack of distortion capabilities, its poor enveloping feature, and its inability to blend between two gradations unless they contain exactly the same number of colors.

On the other hand, FreeHand's mask-editing functions are every bit as good as Illustrator's, and FreeHand lets you repeat a long series of transformations to quickly create swirling tailspin patterns that simply aren't possible with blends. FreeHand's transformation effects also have some efficient touches. For example, you can double-click on an object to quickly toggle between scale and rotate modes.

Erratic Rewards

You can do the same in CorelDraw, but the program suffers from disorienting inconsistencies. For example, to scale height and width disproportionally in one operation, you must press the shift key while dragging. But if you use the dedicated Free Transform tool, things suddenly change–disproportional scaling is the rule, and you press 1 to scale proportionally. CorelDraw doesn't do things the way they've been done for years on the Mac, and in the process, the program ensures that many artists will be frustrated.

The saving grace is that CorelDraw excels when it comes to distortions. You can tug and bend outlines in ways simply not possible in Illustrator and FreeHand (see the sidebar "Five Tasks CorelDraw Does Best"). If you're willing to put in the time to learn the Corel Way, there are rewards.

* Transformations/Masks/Blends Champ: Illustrator 8.0

The logos and designer type treatments we see around us in magazines and posters all started out in drawing programs. Programs like Illustrator, FreeHand, and CorelDraw are unique in the software world for permitting you to fit text to a curve, stroke character outlines, and convert letters to editable paths. For many designers, these are the very reasons they own a drawing program at all.

Modest but Solid

Illustrator lags behind FreeHand for type-handling abilities mostly because it lacks style sheets, it doesn't let you change the slant of type on a curve, and it offers only rudimentary support for multipage documents.

What Illustrator does, however, it does right. Instead of offering style options such as bold and italic, which have no bearing on the many typeface families that include stylistic variations such as black, condensed, semibold, and a wealth of others, the Character palette presents you with two pop-up menus: one for the font and the other for the true designer-defined styles. You can even create custom variations on Multiple Master fonts, just the thing if you need picture-perfect copyfitting.

Illustrator is also the only Macintosh program I've seen that lets you access the prebuilt fractions (such as 1/4) included with most PostScript typefaces. And like FreeHand, Illustrator lets you modify most formatting attributes, such as kerning and leading, directly from keyboard shortcuts–a helpful time-saver.

Unmatched Excellence

Be that as it may, FreeHand still dominates this category as it has since FreeHand 1 first beat Illustrator to market with a feature that let you put type on a curve. FreeHand's style sheets rival those in Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress and are much easier to use. Just option-click on a style name and you can edit every attribute, from typeface to paragraph spacing, all in a single dialog box. Unlike Illustrator, FreeHand also lets you link a standard text block to type on a curve–great for free-form layouts.

If you ever need to create a list or catalog, FreeHand is also clearly your buddy. It's the only drawing program that accommodates multiple lines of type between tab stops. FreeHand also supports multipage documents–even with varied page sizes and orientations–an essential feature for those who use their drawing program to design brochures or complex packaging.

Glitz without Guts

When it comes to type-handling features, CorelDraw delivers the glitz–all its special effects, from masking to enveloping, are applicable to editable type. Unfortunately, it chokes on the workaday routine.

Basic timesaving features are missing from this program. For example, you can't kern from the keyboard. Instead you drag little handles to adjust letterspacing–a terribly imprecise and tedious approach. When you edit text, tab stops conveniently appear in the horizontal ruler, but to simply change the alignment of a tab stop, you have to visit a dialog box, switch panels, hunt down the tab stop in a list, and choose a different alignment option. Strangest of all, there's no command or shortcut for selecting all the words in a text block, a simple matter of command-A in FreeHand and Illustrator.

* Text Champ: FreeHand 8.0.1

You'd think assigning color would be an open-and-shut matter in a drawing program–after all, it's just a question of filling the interior of shapes and stroking the outlines. But there are still lots of variations among the Big Three. Name any fill, stroke, or color feature, and you'll find one program that's out of step.

Take arrowheads, for example. CorelDraw conveniently lets you convert any shape into an arrow and fit it to a stroked path. FreeHand provides an editor that lets you build and catalog arrows on the fly–also nice. All Illustrator can muster is a lame plug-in that serves up a handful of Zapf Dingbats characters.

Illustrator isn't the only offender. FreeHand's fill and stroke options are strewn among five different palettes, and its eyedropper tool lacks a keyboard shortcut. CorelDraw refuses to show you Pantone numbers unless you visit a dialog box that just so happens to let you apply only one color at a time.

Different Strokes

Lest you grow sour and disillusioned, we should inform you that each application is innovating in new directions. Illustrator's hot new feature is the Brushes palette. After saving a series of paths as a brush, you can use the brush to create traditional-looking paint strokes or twisting images. Edit any of the paths that make up the brush, and Illustrator automatically updates the brush to fit. This approach is simple, dynamic, and very effective–a boon to artists trying to give their drawings a different look.

Power with Pizzazz

To expedite the editing of your art, FreeHand lets you search and replace according to fill, stroke, and other attributes. Not only is FreeHand's Search And Replace palette set up more conveniently than CorelDraw's equivalent wizard, but the FreeHand palette also lets you sample colors from an illustration–the only sure way to get the search criteria right.

FreeHand 8 also adds a new feature–lens effects. The most useful aspect of this is that you can fill a shape with translucent color. You can likewise magnify an area and center the effect anywhere in your artwork, just the ticket if you want to draw, say, an offset refraction in a pair of glasses.

Flashy Effects

CorelDraw is no slacker in the competition for flashy fill and stroke effects. Its lens effects were, after all, the inspiration for FreeHand's. While CorelDraw lacks FreeHand's automatic updates–you're forever having to click on the Edit and Apply buttons to see the result of your changes–its effects are more numerous, including a fish-eye magnifier.

If you're smart, however, you'll ditch CorelDraw's Lens palette and focus on the program's Interactive Transparency tool. This is one of CorelDraw's most compelling features–it lets you use linear and radial gradients to fade an object into nothingness. You can even apply Photoshop-like blend modes such as Multiply, exactly what you need to create a colored cast shadow.

* Fill/Stroke/Color Champ: Three-way tie

Drawing programs were never designed with Internet output in mind, but it's just too trendy a topic for them (or us) to resist. The category is so new that there's very little overlap in features.

Bang-up Basics

Illustrator's Web features deliver practical support to artists exporting work for the Web. You can open the Web-safe color palette in an independent window without closing other colors. The program's image-map support is excellent–after you assign URLs from the handy Attributes palette, Illustrator even generates the client-side HTML.

There's also easy access to essential GIF and JPEG export options (although unlike in FreeHand, you're on your own to manually append vital extensions such as .gif). The program does the best job of exporting PDF pages. Finally, if you care to finesse your artwork in Photoshop–which you probably will–only Illustrator lets you export complex artwork with every layer intact. If you're primarily interested in creating basic Web graphics as efficiently as possible, Illustrator delivers.

Animation Innovator

On the other hand, FreeHand's approach to Web graphics focuses on Web animation, primarily in the form of Shockwave Flash output (Macromedia's proprietary vector-graphics standard for the Web).

FreeHand makes animation easy. After blending among a few paths, for example, you can automatically assign each step in the blend to a layer and then export the layers as frames in a Flash animation. You can also export the pages in a FreeHand document as frames. If you have the $499 Design in Motion Suite, you can also use Insta.HTML to export artwork as Dynamic HTML (DHTML).

FreeHand's more basic Web-graphics features, however, don't shine as much as Illustrator's. FreeHand makes you import Web-safe colors into the Colors palette, where they can become confused with unsafe colors. The program cannot save Photoshop files with layers intact.

If you want to create Web animations, FreeHand can't be beat. Otherwise Illustrator's more modest but well-implemented Web features are your best bet.

Limited Control

CorelDraw comes at Web graphics from a completely different angle–in addition to creating dynamic drop shadows and 3-D extrusions (handy for making all those navigation buttons), CorelDraw lets you assign URLs to objects and then output them as full-blown Web pages.

Many of these features are tricky to use. Although you can export full-blown Web pages, you have little control over the output of individual images. There's limited GIF color-palette control. File-size estimates are often inaccurate. CorelDraw offers no PDF support and cannot save images as layered Photoshop or CorelPhoto-Paint files.

* Web Graphics Champ: Illustrator 8.0

The politics of drawing tend to be pretty darn partisan–Illustrator users regard FreeHand as clumsy and disorganized, FreeHand users see Illustrator as awkward and incapable, and so on.

If that's the way you feel, then buy the drawing program that appeals to your politics and how you work. For once, you can't go wrong–Illustrator 8.0 and FreeHand 8.0.1 are both excellent, so who cares how the competition shapes up? And while Corel doesn't have much of a following on the Mac, CorelDraw 8.0.1 may earn one.

For those who are apolitical or new to the drawing scene, however, we recommend Illustrator. It wins or ties in five of our categories and performs well in the sixth. FreeHand is a better choice for artists who create multipage, text-rich work or Web animations. But for the general artist, Illustrator is a solid overall program with more new features than loyal Illustrator users have seen in years.

The fact is, the competition has never been closer. I'm happy to say that we've most certainly entered drawing's golden age.

February 1999 page: 75

On the Road: Illustrator   Artist John Ritter usually sticks to pens, paint, and Adobe Photoshop. After experimenting with Illustrator 8.0 to make this drawing, however, he was pleasantly surprised. "It took me awhile to get the hang of it," he said, "but once I did, I was amazed by all I could do." Ritter was particularly impressed by Illustrator 8's new Gradient Mesh tool, which let him blend multiple colors in different directions within the same object. He used it to quickly create complex shading that would normally require a trip to Photoshop, such as those in the rider's helmet and arms.

1.    Combine paths.   No program lets you make complex paths out of simple ones like Illustrator. FreeHand and CorelDraw let you unite paths, find the intersection, and punch out holes. But only Illustrator lets you exclude intersections, merge all similarly filled paths, crop, trap, and more.

2.    Create brushstrokes.   Illustrator 8 lets you attach any collection of objects to a curve. The result is undulating artwork, wavy type, and traditional-looking brushstrokes. The effects are live–just edit the path and the brushstroke changes with it.

3.    Mask objects.   Unlike FreeHand, Illustrator lets you mask objects with editable text. Unlike CorelDraw, it lets you edit the contents of a mask without hiding everything else on the page. It offers the best of both worlds.

4.    Draw geometric shapes.   Illustrator is known for its free-form curves, but even more impressive are its geometric shapes. While you draw, you can change the number of sides on a polygon, increase the pointiness of a star, and move an ellipse to get it exactly in place.

5.    Trade artwork with Photoshop.   Drag and drop clipping paths between the two programs, calibrate the programs (using shared ColorSync profiles), and export Illustrator artwork to the Photoshop format with all layers intact.

On the Road: FreeHand   Adobe Illustrator is Ron Chan's "everyday tool," so we asked him to take FreeHand 8.0.1 for a spin. He was surprised how difficult it was to make the transition, but as he created this drawing he did find some features he thought were keepers. To make sure his colors look just right, Chan always previews his drawings in Photoshop. Usually, fixing colors that have shifted is a pain, but FreeHand's powerful find and replace tool gave him a new way to do so quickly and thoroughly–he could select a color and change it everywhere (even in the gradients) within seconds.

1.    Trace scanned images.   Kudos to CorelDraw for bundling the stand-alone CorelTrace, but FreeHand's integrated tracing tool is more reliable and easier to use. It traces multiple paths at a time, fills them with up to 256 colors, and offers expert edge control. No tool measures up to hand tracing, but this one comes the closest.

2.    Create tables.   FreeHand still creams the competition in the text department, and its tabs and tables are the crème de la crème. Besides supplying the widest array of tab-stop options, FreeHand lets you divide a text block into editable rows and columns for spreadsheetlike control.

3.    Repeat a series of transformations.   Clone a path, rotate it, scale it, rotate it again, and transform it in a hundred different ways. Repeat the whole shebang by pressing command-D. Unlike CorelDraw, FreeHand doesn't make you clone and transform according to a prescribed ritual. If you just work naturally, FreeHand keeps up.

4.    Search and replace objects.   FreeHand is the king of the graphic search, select, and replace. Search according to font, color, stroke weight, and even path shape. This has handy applications–look for speedy draft-quality blends that have 10 steps or fewer, and then replace them with the slow-drawing, smooth-printing, 100-step variety.

5.    Create animated Web graphics.   Illustrator is the better all-around Web-graphics app, but only FreeHand lets you create Web animations. Blend a series of objects, expand the blend to layers, and export the layers as frames in Macromedia's Flash format.

On the Road: CorelDraw  Artist Hank Osuna loves shapes. So much so that before PostScript drawing programs existed he cut templates out of Mylar and then traced the edges with a pen to make his curves really smooth. When we asked Osuna to put CorelDraw 8.0.1 through its paces, he found himself somewhat confused by its interface but impressed by ways it made experimenting with shapes easy. He used the Interactive 3-D tool to quickly create the buildings in the background of this illustration by drawing squares and extruding them. He appreciated being able to rotate, extrude, and experiment with light without taking time to create the illusion of 3-D space himself or having to work in another program.

1.    Blend paths.   Only CorelDraw lets you adjust the acceleration of a blend with separate control over the pace of intermediate steps and colors. Also unique: you can convert any step in the blend to an independent anchor path, which means that you can change the shape of a blend in its center.

2.    Distort type and graphics.   CorelDraw's Interactive Envelope tool lets you stretch a complex group of paths in eight directions at once, and it's even applicable to fully editable text. FreeHand's Envelope Xtra isn't in the same league.

3.    Create translucent objects.   CorelDraw 5 for Windows introduced dynamic lens effects years before FreeHand did, and Corel has been improving them ever since. Add and subtract color values, colorize, and magnify with a fish-eye lens. But even that pales in comparison to the Interactive Transparency tool, which fades and blends objects with any background.

4.    Draw plans and diagrams.   CorelDraw lets you specify a scale of measure and automatically labels the height and width of objects, essential for creating schematics and architectural plans.

5.    Explore 3-D effects.   Can Illustrator extrude type and graphics into 3-D space? Can FreeHand bevel the edges of editable letters and apply realistic lighting? No, but CorelDraw can. The redraw is as slow as molasses, but that's the price you pay for true 3-D.

For those shopping for a drawing program, FreeHand, Illustrator, and CorelDraw aren't the only options. By the time you read this, Deneba (305/596-5644, ) will have shipped the $375 Canvas 6, which is certain to offer high-quality drawing tools and features.

Comparing the packages in this shoot-out directly to Canvas is like comparing apples to, well, the whole basket of fruit. Canvas isn't just a drawing program; it is an image-editing, page-layout, Web design, and presentation program, too.

Innovative Effects   Canvas 6 wasn't shipping at press time, but we took a peek at a late-beta version. (Look for our upcoming review.) We found that the program's best features spring directly from Canvas's signature strength–the marriage of bitmap and vector technology.

Deneba's SpriteLayers technology lets you create some interesting transparency effects that would be difficult–if not impossible–to make in a dedicated drawing program. The effects can be applied to anything–bitmapped images, vector-based drawings, and text. For example, you can create a vignette in which your artwork becomes gradually more transparent near the edges. Apply a vector-transparency gradient mask (or a custom mask) to experiment with the size and positioning of the vignetted area. You can also place the transparent area in the interior of a graphic to create cutaway views. For example, you can layer a scanned photograph of the Statue of Liberty over an illustration of its supporting structure and then make the uplifted arm of the statue transparent to reveal the beams underneath. The elements always remain editable even after you've applied the effect.

A Tidy New Look   We were also impressed by Canvas's new face-lift, which helps your workspace stay better organized and perform more efficiently. Stash floating palettes in Canvas's new docking bar–a thin horizontal strip, just above the drawing area, that displays only the tabs of each palette. Click on a tab to make a palette unfurl. You can rearrange the tabs along the bar at will. Also new is a customizable tool bar.

Canvas 6 also addresses a gripe users had with earlier versions, namely that the drawing tools weren't robust enough. New tools include a knife for slicing vector objects, as well as others for drawing arcs and ellipses by defining three key points. Other complaints centered on Canvas's limited set of supported file formats–this also appears to be remedied.

A Promising Future   We'll have to wait for the shipping product to see just how Canvas 6 rates. But it's already clear that in the competition of the graphics titans, Canvas 6 is fighting with a unique set of weapons.–SHELLEY CRYAN

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