First, they gave you Music Studio. Now they're back, this time with The Art Studio. Will Rainbird's new drawing program for the C64 and C128 be as illustrious as its musical partner?
You could fill a dustbin with the amount of mediocre drawing programs now available for the Commodore 64. Fortunately, Rainbird's new Art Studio is a cut above that lot. It offers not only a whole load of 'professional' quality facilities, but it does it remarkably cheaply - at £14.95 on cassette, and £17.95 on disk. If the name sounds familiar, it's because The Art Studio originally appeared last autumn on the Spectrum.
Like most software these days, The Art Studio uses an easy-to-operate windows and icons system. So, apart from making the occasional reference, you can happily let the dog get at the instruction book. The program is joystick, keyboard, mouse of Koalapad controlled and will print out to the Commodore MPS 801 or a Centronics interfaced printer.
When loaded, you see a single drawing screen which is surprisingly uncluttered. There's simply a panel of eleven option boxes across the top. Point your arrow-shaped cursor at the appropriate box and a window opens giving a list of secondary options - it's as simple as that. You see only 22 of the 25-line screen but the picture can be scrolled up and down to reveal the entire drawing surface.
Most C64 drawing packages won't let you do exactly what you want, like magnifying a section of your drawing for close-up work, or moving bits of it around or copying it to different parts of the screen. The Art Studio lets you do all that. If offers three levels of magnification and the ability to turn individual pixels on and off.
To move and alter parts of a drawing, there's a window option. When you've enclosed the area you want to work on inside a window, you can perform a whole range of operations on it. These range from simple tasks like rotating and flipping horizontally and vertically, to stretching and shrinking in any direction, and making multiple copies anywhere on the screen. These are powerful functions by anybody's standards, and they're simple to use.
Apart from that, you get the usual array of options: 16 colours, 16 pens, 8 spray patterns, 32 fill patterns, 9 sizes of text (can be flipped, rotated or written downwards), solid or textured fill, a wash texture facility and a very useful 'Undo' function that cancels any mistake you've made.
There's also a set of custom shapes including rectangle, triangle, circle, line and rays. All these are drawn elastically, which means you actually see the lines stretching to the size you want. There are two circle options: one in which you define a point on the circumference, the other its radius. If that's not enough for you, you can even design your own text font and brush patterns.
Since mice (mouses) and the Koalapad are rather expensive, most people will be using a joystick to draw. Although, with The Art Studio, joysticks give smooth movement, draw shapes without fuss and select functions easily (by hitting the fire button), they're not so good at freehand drawing. That's because joysticks, unless they are analogue, generally only have eight directions of movement. That could restrict your creativity somewhat. Still, I found that using a mouse proved to be much jerkier and difficult than the joystick.
Also, I found it annoying that colour options are not permanently displayed on the screen. To change colour, you constantly have to access the 'attributes' box. There's also no way of knowing what colour you're using until you've actually used it - good job there's an undo command.
Talking of colours, they sometimes bleed into each other during fill operations. This is unavoidable on the C64 but the manual fails to explain this important point properly.
Apart from that, The Art Studio works very well and will become more useful the more you experiment with it. There's enough there to keep you occupied for quite a while, especially the Window section which offers the most scope for creativity.
Rainbird have included a 'printer dump' option in The Art Studio, realising that drawings are of little use if you can't have a permanent copy. But they didn't realise that since printers are always problematic, they must make it as easy as possible to get them to work.
The Art Studio defaults to the MPS 801 printer - no problems there. But it also has a Centronics interface and a program that lets you customised your particular printer, by means of a series of questions. Here's a nice example: "Is the most significant bit of the data byte sent to the printer at the top of the printhead or at the bottom?" Er, perhaps I won't bother with the printer.
If you do manage to gather all this esoteric information about your printer, you will be able to print in five sizes, sideways, single or double density and in varying shades of grey. Using the MPS 801 you get just two sizes (the largest is 9 by 6 inches), no greys and only single density print. My Citizen 120D (Epson compatible) worked well using a Super Graphix interface with The Art Studio set up for the MPS 801.
The Art Studio is a very sophisticated program that offers functions you'd expect to find on much more expensive and professional systems. But lack of scaling or x and y coordinate plotting makes it more a fun package than a truly useful program.
It's also more a design than a drawing program. It's much more at home with shapes and patterns than it is with freehand drawing.
Having said that, there's no doubt that The Art Studio is great value for money and, even if you struggle to design a new Civic Centre or paint a self-portrait, it's worth the price just for the fun of it.