Fine Artist. (multimedia paint program for children) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
The stick man may be seeing his last days. Microsoft's Fine Artist not only combines a tutorial with a powerful multimedia paint program, but also throws in templates and step-by-step instructions for creating special projects. It puts a paintbrush in the hands of kids 8-14 years old and gives them the guidance and encouragement to reach beyond the stick man.
The Fine Artist studios are located in a street in the whimsical town of Imaginapolis. As in Microsoft's other kids' program, Creative Writer, the town acts as an interface between kids and the various activities the program provides. In Fine Artist, a building "houses" the program's activities in the same way that there's a building for the activities in Creative Writer. Each floor within the building supports a different job. It's an odd interface for adults accustomed to files, directories, and folders, but it's very easy to navigate.
In the Fine Artist building, for example, the bottom floor plays host to the Lobby and the Gallery. Kids can hang their pictures on the wall here and then pull them down and work on them some more. They can rearrange the display, exchange the pictures on the wall for others in the library, or bring a picture to the screen to work on it.
Kids can take the elevator or slide up the fire pole to the Painting Studio on the second floor. This may be the most familiar part of the program, as it uses many of the same elements found in other paint programs. To start a new drawing, kids double-click on the blank canvas resting on the easel at the center of the screen. If they have created a picture before, that picture is displayed on the wall. Since the program remembers all of this when it's turned off, kids can easily return to their current project.
The Painting Studio introduces a whole wall of tools that are designed to make the creative process both fun and easy. Kids can choose from standard tools such as paintbrushes, line and shape drawing, and paint buckets, each with special shapes, colors, and patterns. Kids will also find transformers, which will bend and twist and otherwise modify pictures. Original pictures can be started or dressed up with the Sticker Picker, which includes more than 125 different clip art images of several types, from animals to landscapes.
Multimedia events can be added quickly by selecting from menus. Sound effects ranging from the roars of dinosaurs to the mooing of cows to musical notes are easily assigned by clicking on the horn icon. Kids can then play their selected sounds back by using a magic wand option to click on the appropriate spot in the picture. If kids don't find the sounds they want, they can import WAV files or record their own.
Some of the pictures and backgrounds are even animated. While this doesn't translate to the printed page, of course, kids can still enjoy making their own live pictures, complete with slithering snakes, leaping lizards, fugitive spacemen, and so forth.
Mistakes are no problem, thanks to the Fine Artist vacuum. It sucks up misplaced stickers, words, and paint drops. It can also be used to copy and paste from the Windows Clipboard. It's designed to sniff out and whisk away only those elements that it's told to find. That's a handy feature when you're working with a complicated picture and it's only a sticker that has to be erased, not the background.
Fine Artist does a good job with words, allowing kids to use the Windows font library in their computer and to assign special shapes and colors to the words in their pictures. Special effects, like drop shadows, outlines, and extruding type, are as easy to apply as pressing a button.
All of these tools are available both in the Painting Studio and on the Projects floor. If kids discover they need help with any of the tools, the comical McZee character provides explanations.
Most kids will draw without encouragement (especially on the wall), but as they grow older, many stop experimenting, convinced that they lack the talent or the skill. But most drawing skills can be learned--they're not always based on talent or intuition. Fine Artist really shines here as it teaches these skills with short lessons featuring a character named Maggie.
As they move through the lessons, kids learn such terms as negative space and positive space. The terms are illustrated so that kids can immediately grasp the concepts. After all, it's the technique, not the vocabulary, that counts at this point.
Kids also get some pointers in art appreciation as they move through the lessons. By clicking on the Challenge button (located at different intervals within each lesson), kids get a real-life example of the concept being covered. M.C. Escher, for example, explains negative and positive space (with words--none of Escher's pictures are displayed). Anyone familiar with Escher's work knows that he achieved his illusory effects by playing with these concepts.
Other lessons include instruction on giving depth to drawings by teaching how an artist uses a vanishing point on the horizon or how overlapping elements and added detail create the illusion of three dimensions. Not only does Fine Artist explain these concepts, but it also supplies all the tools kids need for pulling off their own visual tricks. They can repeat the same lessons over and over, and then translate those lessons into drawings--on the computer or on a sketch pad out in the backyard.
Learning techniques is a great way to build confidence in kids who might otherwise never attempt to draw. For those who are visual learners, a program like this can engage them in the creative process and lead to discoveries beyond the canvas.
Fine Artist also shines as a project maker. Excellent online help takes kids through the process of making a comic strip, a poster, stickers, and even an electronic flip book.
All of the projects include step-by-step advice from Maggie. When kids are making a comic strip, for example, she helps them decide how many panels to use, guides them in creating a word balloon, directs them to the backgrounds, and then shows them how to use the program's sticker library for characters in the strip.
If they like, kids can create a comic strip from scratch, drawing their own backgrounds and characters. Or they can import pictures from other Windows programs (WMF and BMP formats).
Importing pictures into comics or into other projects works the same way as importing a sound effect, and it illustrates one of the odd characteristics of Fine Artist. The program's interface is designed as a toy, not a toolbox. Where most other art programs ask the user to move through directories or disks to find a picture, Fine Artist uses a frisky fellow named Ratdog to fetch appropriate graphic files from the user's disk.
Such a tool solves the problem of kids having to search through a hard drive for pictures when they may not understand the concepts of filenames and directories. As a protective measure, it guards their parents' machine against mistaken deletions. It's a great feature for the many parents who are anxious about sharing the computer with their kids.
There are plenty of paint and draw programs on store shelves. Many of them are suitable for kids as open-ended discovery toys, but few of them take the time to teach as well as entertain. Fine Artist gives budding artists room to create without ever painting them into a corner.
Circle Reader Service Number 392