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SuperPaint 3.0 Review

SuperPaint, the old workhorse that started life as little more than a combination of a MacPaint clone and a MacDraw clone, has been given a new lease on life in the competitive world of increasingly sophisticated drawing and painting programs. Version 3.0, produced by a Silicon Beach now subjugated to Aldus, adds some splendid color tools to its already solid and easy-to-use capabilities.

SuperPaint 2.0 had lately been overshadowed by low-priced paint and draw programs (Color MacCheese, UltraPaint) incorporating the sort of color and texture tools associated with higher-priced programs; version 3.0 is clearly an attempt to reclaim some of the lost territory, and I suspect it will be successful. Serious artists may still need the greater power and precision of Canvas, FreeHand, PixelPaint Pro, or Illustrator, but if you want to buy just one all-around program for occasional use (pictures for HyperCard, diagrams for teaching, custom color icons, and the occasional desktop image are my main uses), and you’d rather spend a bit over $100, not something over $300, SuperPaint may prove an excellent choice.

The original SuperPaint idea of combining a single draw layer and a single paint layer in one document remains a clever and powerful one. The draw layer permits precision work with basic geometrical shapes and text, and objects remain objects after you’ve created them: you can move them, delete them, or modify their attributes, at any time and independently of one another. It also allows objects to be encoded more precisely than the screen will show: a circle that looks jagged on the screen will be perfectly round in a higher-resolution print (such as laser printing), and you can edit at that higher resolution as well. The paint layer is just a collection of 72-dpi pixels; but even so, you can edit close up for precision work, and SuperPaint comes bundled with lots of "fun" paint tools and patterns (streams of bubbles or musical notes, that sort of thing). The result is that even the most hamfisted operator (like me) can have a good time and make something acceptable.

The burning question is whether SuperPaint can add color features without sacrificing the ease of use that has been its trademark and greatest advantage over its higher-priced, more powerful rivals. The answer appears to be "Yes." The color tools are built conceptually onto the back of the old black and white tools in a thoroughly intuitive and straightforward way, and clever use of palettes that pop up from palettes allows easy mouse-driven access to everything (with keyboard shortcuts as well, but I can never remember them). Only one thing is clumsier to do than it was in version 2.0: making the widths for horizontal and for vertical strokes be different (though there is also vastly more flexibility here than there was, so perhaps the trade is a fair one).

Using color is just plain easy. If your line or fill is solid, you can choose a color for it (from a pop-down palette); if it is a pattern, you can choose one color for the "white" part and another for the "black" part. SuperPaint remembers all your pattern-color combinations, and posts images of them on a floating palette so that you can recreate them with a single mouse-click.

And that’s not all. Included are a number of "textures" – complex color images, such as a water-surface or a delicately shaded brick wall, that can repeat at intervals of any size, even so large that no repetition may be visible on an ordinary page. Also, a number of gradient structures are included, so you can shade a round ball with a round smear of color. A solid line or fill, or the "black" part of a pattern, may be one of these textures or gradients instead of a color. You may edit the gradients, and you can create and save new textures. Since SuperPaint can also import EPS and TIFF images with full resolution (into the Draw layer as single objects), you have tremendous power and flexibility here (especially if you happen to own a scanner).

Finally, when one image appears over another, you can set the nature of the interaction between the two: the front image’s line and fill may each be opaque, transparent, or translucent. The possibilities for fun and experimentation seem endless.

Now for the down side. First, SuperPaint can be a little slow if your machine is slow; and, more significantly, it is a terrible memory hog the moment you start using color. The program tries to compensate by using a virtual memory scheme (only showing on screen what it can maintain in memory, and keeping the rest on disk); but when I’ve assigned the program 4500K and I keep getting "Not enough memory to do that" alerts, I believe I’ve a right to be a bit exasperated, especially when "that" is something simple like save my document as a startup screen.

Second, don’t throw away your copy of Adobe Illustrator. SuperPaint has no facilities for making text follow a path. Worse, its Bezier tools (for determining mathematically the characteristics of a curve) remain as clumsy as in version 2.0: handles are not marked as to what point they belong to; you are not shown changes smoothly as you work and have mostly to operate by blind guessing and then waiting for the result to appear; and you can easily accidentally rocket yourself out of Bezier mode when you are not finished editing.

Finally, if there isn’t a PostScript (e.g. laser) printer in your life, be prepared for a disappointment at print time. On a laser printer, even a black and white one, SuperPaint will reduce everything intelligently to simulated gray shades, and will show all items from the draw layer (including rotated text and Bezier curves) in perfect high resolution. But on a QuickDraw device such as a StyleWriter, your output won’t be much better than on an ImageWriter: nearly everything is reduced to 72 dpi, a waste of your 360 dpi capacity. Come on, Silicon Beach, I know you can do better than this, because Adobe Illustrator translates Bezier curves into high resolution and complex color blends into beautiful smooth simulated gray-shades on a StyleWriter. My crystal ball says some third party has or will develop an engine for converting SuperPaint’s PostScript output into nice StyleWriter images. But then, my crystal ball has never been right yet.

Aldus — 206/628-2320

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