Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 141 / JUNE 1992 / PAGE S6

15 tips from the pros. (includes related article on speeding up Windows graphics) (Compute's Getting Started with Desktop Graphics )
by Steven Anzovin, David English

Learning all the ins and outs of a graphic program won't make you a skilled artist. That takes a practice, dedication, and imagination. But you don't have to toil completely in the dark, either. Here are 15 tips from the pros on basic computer graphics techniques, on getting the most from your software and hardware, on avoiding common problems, and on what to do with your work once you've created it.

1. Carefully chosen colors will make your paintings stand out and your drawings convey their messages effectively. Colors are seen most clearly when displayed against a neutral field such as gray or blue. Small objects should be colored boldly, but don't use blue, as the human eye has the most trouble focusing on blue (that's why blue makes a good background color). Avoid juxtaposing complementary colors such as pure red against pure blue-green. This will create a vibrating border between the colors that can distract from the impact of your graphic--unless a psychedelic effect is what you're after.

2. The pros also keep in mind the psychological effects of color. Create a feeling of depth in your work by using bright, warm colors in the foreground, and cool pale colors in the background. Red, pink, and yellow jump off the screen and should be used for elements meant to catch the eye. Some colors have definite meanings, such as red for stop and green for go, and should be used appropriately.

3. There are special rules for the use of graphics and text in onscreen presentations. Large text, short words, and bold pictures work best. All images and text should be in the central 80 percent of the screen--the so-called "safe text area"--to avoid the distortion at the edge of computer monitors. Use unobtrusive backgrounds in your designs, and separate foreground text and pictures from the background through the use of color blocks and drop shadows.

4. Much computer are is destined for viewing on video screens. But art that looks good on a computer monitor may look terrible on TV, which has inferior resolution and color purity. Avoid thin vertical lines and fine patterns of contrasting colors, especially black and white. These will flicker badly when viewed on video. Television has trouble handling certain colors, such as bright white, fire-engine red, hot pink, and rich brown. Dark gray, off white, blue, green, and yellow are the most stable video colors--and, you'll notice, the most used in professional video graphics.

5. The stairstepped edges of lines, text, and color borders in computer paintings are due to a phenomenon called aliasing, or simply the jaggies. Better paint programs offer anti-aliasing tools to smooth out the jaggies and increase the realism of your work. For example; stroking a smoothing tool over an aliased black line on a white background will add gray pixels along the jagged edge, softening the transition between black and white. Seen from a small distance, the line looks far smoother and straighter. Anti-aliasing is especially helpful for increasing the readibility of text created with the text tool in paint programs.

6. The variety of simulated 3-D effects you can create with a sophisticated paint program are endless. Embossed type is easy to make by pasting a text outline over itself in black and white, each outline offset by a few pixels. Paste down a copy of a drawing in black, skewed a flattened, to create a shadow. Some programs offer perspective distortions, so that your drawing can be made to appear as though it's projected on a wall receding into the distance. Text and pictures can be filled with any texture you can scan or draw. For example, try putting rippling waves into the word water or Monument Valley into the word western. Text can be distorted with special filters that make it appear to be floating on the surface of a placid lake or spinning in the eye of a whirlwind.

7. Drawing programs are often used to create data graphics such as charts and tables. Your data graphics will look more professional and communicate more clearly if you include only the data you need and delete extraneous information; avoid mixing several chart types in one graphic (a pie chart with a bar graph, for example); and use the fewest number of different text styles, colors, and symbolic elements that will get your message across.

8. Getting the best-quality scans from your scanner takes care and skill. Align the original squarely on flatbed scanners so horizontal and verticall lines look straight and smooth on the preview scan. Use tape to hold the original art in place if necessary; some people use Post-It notes for this because the glue doesn't leave a mark on the scanner's glass platen. If you're using a handheld scanner, you can get straighter scans by moving the scanner along the edge of a ruler or book. When scanning color art with a gray-scale scanner, lay a piece of clear yellow or orange plastic over the original. This trick often helps to boost the contrast level in the scan.

9. A scanner is the easiest way to input line art on paper into your computer, but if you're willing to spend some time tracing, there is another way. If you can't get access to a scanner or drawing tablet and stylus, try copying the art onto transparency stock with a photocopier (Avery makes transparency film that is compatible with photocopiers and laser printers). You can use the photocopier to scale the art so if fits comfortably within a 14-inch diagonal rectangle. Then run a paint or drawing program, tape the transparency onto the screen of your monitor, and carefully trace under it with the mouse. When you're finished, remove the transparency and clean up your drawing.

10. Not everyone is skilled at painting or drawing. Luckily there are vast libraries of clip art available to paste into your work. Even professional artists use clip art to save time and effort, especially for repetitive design jobs such as advertishing circulars. Images and scanned photos for use in everything from a multimedia sales presentation to an engineering manual are available on disk and CD-ROM. They come in draw and paint file formats that will work with virtually any program on the market. The many clip art collections differ in style, content, and quality, so send for sample disks from several publishers before you invest in one.

11. Here are a few tricks for producing good-looking overhead transparencies from your graphics. Use large, thick type and art--they won't get washed out by the light of the overhead projector. Use a good quality office copier to copy printed graphics to transparency film. Good copiers print denser blacks than many dot-matrix or laser printers can. But print color transparencies directly on a color printer. Try printing two copies of the transparency and layering them in a matte to get the densest blacks and colors.

12. If you need slides of your work for use in a presentation or for color desktop publishing, you can send your graphics files to a slide service bureau and get back top-quality slides at a fairly steep price. But before you do that, try taking the slides yourself right off your computer screen. You'll need a dark room, a 35mm camera with a zoom lens and manual shutter, a cable release, a roll of Kodak Ektachrome or other color slide film, and a tripod. Display your picture, hiding any menus or toolboxes, and clean off the surface of the screen. Set up the camera so it's exactly level with and at least six feet from the center of the screen, then zoom in until the screen fills the viewfinder. Set the shutter at half a second and snap away.

13. Lots of computer artists are happy with a mouse, but many serious artists invest in a drawing tablet, a sensitized surface that can be drawn upon with a stylus similar to a pen. A stylus is a more natural tool for drawing and makes possible certain actions, such as drawing freefrom curves and signing your name, that are quite difficult with a mouse. The latest drawing tablets are pressure sensitive, so with compatible software you can change the action of the current drawing tool by bearing down or letting up on the stylus. Trackballs, by contrast, are good for moving a pointer but nearly useless for drawing.

14. Until recently, inexpensive and good quality were mutually exclusive terms when it came to color printing of computer graphics. Now color printing is finally becoming affordable. For example, Hewlett-Packard's DeskJet 500C (800-752-0900; $1,095) can print out drawings and paintings on plain paper or transparency stock at up to 300 dots per inch and with thousands of colors. For better color than the DeskJet can provide, seek out a local color printing service bureau that can print out your work on a high-end color printer. To make many copies of color art without using a service bureau, use the color copier at your local copy center. Color copies currently cost under a dollar and can be made from slides as well as paper. Lots of small desktop publishers put out limited runs of color brochures and newsletters that way with minimal hassle and expense.

15. It's easy to use any paint or draw program to create your own wallpaper for Windows. Just save an image in the proper size (for example, 640 by 480 for standard VGA) as a BMP (bitmap) file. Most Windows graphics programs, including Windows Paintbrush, will let you do this. Then select the BMP file in the wallpaper section of the Windows Control Panel. Try doing this with a scanned color photo.




aspect ratio. The shape of an object as measured by the ratio of the horizontal to vertical dimensions. Usually refers to the shape of a video or movie screen. When applied to pixels, it refers to the square or rounded shape of each individual pixel. See also pixel.

color depth. The maximum number of colors that a video board can display simultaneously. For example, a VGA card can display as many 256 colors at a time. An EGA card can display as many as 16 colors at a time. See also palette.

compression. The process of storing a file so that it takes less space on a floppy or hard disk. Because graphics files can be large, many graphics file formats have built-in compression routines.

metafile. A class of graphics file formats that can accomodate both raster and vector information. See also raster and vector.

palette. The total number of colors that a video board can use. Typically, a board can display only a portion of its palette at one time. For example, a VGA card can display 256 colors from a palette of 262,144 colors. An EGA card can display 16 colors from a palette of 64 colors. See also color depth.

pixel. Short for picture element. One of the many thousands of dots that make up a computer graphic. These dots are arranged in a grid of vertical and horizontal lines. When viewed as a group, they can form a recognizable image.

raster. A method of coding and storing a graphics image as a pattern of dots. Also known as bitmap. See also vector.

resolution. The number of dots, or pixels, on the screen. The more pixels, the sharper the image. VGA can display a maximum of 640 pixels horizontally by 480 pixels vertically. See also pixel.

24-bit color. A method of storing and displaying computer-based graphics that allows more than 16 million colors to be shown at the same time. Also known as true color.

vector. A method of coding and storing a graphics image as straight lines. See also raster.





1. Use a faster CPU. If you're buying a new machine and plan to work with Windows-based graphics, go for a 486 or a fast 386.

2. Use a math co-processor. This can be especially helpful with high-end illustration programs that are written to take advantage of a math co-processor, but any Windows program will benefits some from a math chip.

3. Use a graphics coprocessor. You can buy coprocessor boards with 24-bit color, 16-bit color, with no color upgrade at all. They can increase your Windows performance from two to over five times and range in price from $149 (Aamazing's VGA700 accelerator card includes support for 16 and 256 colors) to over $2,000 (most of these cards offer support for over 16 million colors).

4. Use fewer colors or lower resolution. With Windows, it's a trade off between the number of colors and speed. If you're using 256 colors, you can increase your speed dramatically by switching to the more commonly used--but less spectacular--16-color mode. In other words, plain VGA is faster than Super VGA.

5. Use an XGA graphics card. With its built-in graphics coprocessor, as many as 65,536 colors, and IBM's official blessing, look for this new video standard to make quite a splash in the next 6 to 18 months.

6. Use WinSpeed (Panacea, 24 Orchard View Drive, Londonderry, New Hampshire 03053; 800-729-7429; $79). It provides faster software drivers for many of the popular Super-VGA cards. However, it only works with the 256-color modes.

7. Upgrade your system to Windows 3.1. Not only is 3.1 inherently faster than its predecessor, but the program includes hi-res drivers that are, in most cases, faster than the ones you can get directly from the video-card manufacturer.