Deneba Canvas 5

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Innovative and liberating graphics solution that offers surprisingly strong illustration, technical drawing, business presentations, DTP and even pixel-based photo-editing from within the one program.

Deneba Canvas 5

Canvas 5 is the first PC version of a long-standing Mac drawing package. In the past the program always suffered in comparison to market leaders like Illustrator and Freehand, but in the jump from version 3.5 to 5.0 a lot has changed. The latest Canvas has completely reinvented itself as an all round graphics solution offering drawing, painting, DTP and even presentation graphics. The big difference compared to existing suites like Corel Draw is that all these functions are offered from within the one program.

In spite of these new areas of functionality, Canvas is still primarily a drawing program and, as such the core of the program remains its toolbox. This offers the traditional lines, ovals and rectangles together with a few more modern variations for producing grids, polygons, circular starbursts and so on. One advanced feature is the ability to add connector lines to objects that then remain linked even when the objects are repositioned. Connector lines are useful for knocking up simple flow diagrams, but also for serious technical drawing. With an accuracy to 0.5 microns, the ability to set a scale between drawing and real life units, seventeen advanced dimensioning tools and a customisable "smart mouse" snap facility, Canvas can even claim to be a CAD solution.

In keeping with this technical feel, Canvas offers a number of CAD-like formatting features. The controls over a line's dashes and arrows, for example, are the most comprehensive I've seen. For object fills a number of pre-set colours, hatching patterns, gradient and textures are offered from a flyout palette accessed from the toolbox. Initially I was disappointed with the apparent lack of customisation until I realised that, if the palette was dragged off the toolbox, a whole host of new controls became available. For solid fills, for example, colours can be specified with various models ranging from CMYK and RGB through to Pantone and TruMatch.

Once an object has been added and formatted, it can be transformed in a number of ways. Bounding box handles enable interactive resizing, rotation and skewing, while floating palettes allow the same transformations to be set precisely and also offer more advanced effects like enveloping and blending. The Canvas implementation of extrusion is particularly powerful with circular and sweep options that can turn a circle into a sphere, for example. The resulting object can then be fully rotated in 3D space and its apparent lighting source controlled.

The handling of objects is equally comprehensive. Selected objects can be aligned on each other, grouped, ungrouped and combined in a number of ways. The combinations range from masking through to intersecting, slicing, mixing and even a limited form of transparency where new objects with intermediate colouring are produced. For more complex drawings it is possible to lock objects or to copy them to their own layers to prevent unintentional editing and to speed up screen redraw.

One clever use of layers is in the production of business graphics. When you create a new document you can specify it as a presentation in which case, instead of adding layers to a drawing, you can now add slides. Transitions can then be set up between these slides and the resulting presentation can be run as a show or saved as a QuickTime movie. However, the lack of outlining, animation or charting facilities means that Canvas is distinctly under-powered as a potential replacement to PowerPoint.

At this stage, Canvas is looking very much like a standard drawing package, capable but hardly exciting. However there are two tool types that remain to be covered that hide an immense amount of power. The first of these is the text tool. As you would expect with a drawing package, Canvas is capable of creating advanced design effects like text on a path, but it is also very competent with longer sections of text. These are managed through text blocks which are created by dragging on screen with the text tool rather than simply clicking.

The beauty is that the created text now has the best of both worlds and can be treated either as a word-wrapping, DTP-style text block or as a graphical object. Dragging on a corner handle, for example, resizes the text block with line lengths changing accordingly. Dragging on a corner handle with the Alt key pressed down, however, automatically and interactively changes the size of the font. The fact that such handling is possible at all is impressive, but more important is the fact that it is practical. Most drawing programs begin to become grindingly slow when dealing with more than a paragraph or so of text. Canvas certainly slows - and once crashed - but the response remains acceptable even when handling advanced typographic features like kerning and text wrap.

What really takes Canvas into DTP territory though is its handling of multiple page documents with multiple columns. To access this, the user must specify that they are producing a publication when they create the file. This allows new pages to be added to the document rather than layers or slides. It also allows the user to set up margins and columns and headers and footers on individual or master pages. Imported text cannot be made to automatically flow within these columns, but the same effect can be achieved manually by creating linked text blocks.

As many of Canvas's text formatting features are awkward - such as the managing of styles -and many others are completely absent - such as the ability to automatically apply bullets or ruling lines - the likes of PageMaker can still rest easy. However, for a drawing program, the control offered is impressive and for many short and design-intensive publications, such as brochures and adverts, Canvas could be the ideal solution. There are two serious limitations holding it back though: the lack of a Word *.doc import filter and the lack of an in-built story editor which means that all text changes must be made directly on the layout.

The final power that Canvas offers is its comprehensive control over bitmaps. Drawing and paint programs have previously kept very much to themselves, but increasingly the boundaries are blurring. Canvas allows any of its objects to be rendered as a bitmap - grayscale, RGB or even CMYK - in resolutions up to 1200 ppi. It is then possible to apply various plug-in filters from the image menu so that, for example, a text heading can be converted to a bitmap and then given a Gaussian blur to create a realistic shadow effect.

Such controls are now becoming increasingly common - even the budget Windows Draw offers similar power - but Canvas takes things several stages further by allowing the user to create their own bitmap areas anywhere on the page and then offering near Photoshop-style control over them. Over twenty photo-editing tools can be accessed from the toolbox including paint tools, such as the brush and airbrush, and eraser and retouching tools, such as dodge and burn. These will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used Photoshop and work in very similar ways even down to pressure sensitivity and the fourteen transfer modes with which the brushes can interact with the underlying pixel information.

About the only area that Canvas does not cater for is the creation of advanced photo-compositions as, although masks can be built up and saved as channels, there is no ability to control multiple image sections on their own layers. This would be asking a great deal, however, and for most design purposes the tools on offer are more than sufficient. More power would always be welcome, but simply marking off a section of a design as a bitmap and beginning to paint is a very liberating experience and should not be underestimated.

Even better is the way that Canvas has seamlessly integrated its painting and drawing. The various shape and text tools, for example, are automatically rendered and anti-aliased if drawn within a bitmap. Other integrated features are the ability to mask images or to pick up a colour from a bitmap to then apply to vector elements or text. Best of all is the fact that the multiple levels of undo are still available when photo-editing - something Photoshop itself still does not offer. Through creative integration like this, Canvas becomes more than just a sum of its parts and shows the future for all computer-based graphic work.

By this stage you're probably thinking there has to be a catch somewhere. The most likely weakness - as shown by previous innovative programs like Xara and Expression - is a lack of output options. Again though Canvas offers comprehensive control, with integrated trapping on both a global and object basis and advanced colour separation capabilities including grey colour removal and CMYK gamut warnings. For commercial printing, the practical problem will be finding a typesetter with Canvas installed, but Deneba clearly intend the program to be taken seriously as a high-end, professional solution.

Of course the program still does have weaknesses. The interface, although carefully thought out, takes a lot of getting used to and the omission of Windows 95 shortcut menus is particularly disappointing. In terms of functionality too there are inevitably many areas that could be improved. To begin competing with the best in each of its fields, Canvas would have to add control over charting, tables, animations, transparency, lens effects, story editing and photo composition.

To say that Canvas is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none though would be unfair on two grounds. To begin with it would suggest that the program is under-powered when it is anything but - particularly in its two strongest areas of vector illustration and bitmap photo-editing. Secondly it will always be unfair to judge each aspect of the program against the equivalent, top-of-the-range, dedicated program. Instead Canvas should be judged on its own terms. By breaking down the artificial barriers between different types of computer graphic, it creates its own category as the first truly integrated and complete design solution.

The professional will always need the best-of-breed programs, but for the occasional user who still wants access to serious, all-round graphic power, Canvas is a very attractive option.

Ease of Use




Value for Money




ratings out of 6

Deneba Canvas
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System Requirements: Pentium, 32/64MB of RAM, 80MB of disk space, Windows 95 or above, SVGA, CD-ROM

Tom Arah

April 1998

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