Deneba Canvas 7

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The improved working environment, core drawing improvements, added animation capabilities and advanced HTML output are impressive, but Canvas 7's new SpriteEffects steal the show.

Throughout its long history Deneba Canvas has always been something of an also-ran. While Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand battled it out for the drawing application crown, Canvas has stayed on the sidelines. The reason is simple. While the big three concentrate almost exclusively on vector power, Canvas takes a much wider view attempting to provide an all-round integrated graphics solution that embraces drawing, painting, photo-editing, DTP and even business presentation. That's a lot of ground to cover and has left Canvas open to the criticism that it is the Jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none. With Canvas 7, Deneba puts that argument to rest once and for all.

When you first load the program, considering the huge range of creative power it offers, the Canvas interface is surprisingly uncluttered with just a small toolbox and clear workspace. Dig a little deeper, however, and the power soon becomes apparent. Click on a tool, for example, and a flyout appears. With some tools, such as the dimensioning tools, you even have flyouts within flyouts though these can always be torn off to float onscreen when you need them to hand. It's the same with palettes. Canvas now offers no less than twenty of these from its new centralised Palettes submenu, and several, such as the Inks palette, offer multiple tabbed pages.

Suddenly rather than simple and clean the Canvas environment is beginning to look overrun. In practice, though, the user always remains in control thanks to the docker toolbar. Floating palettes and torn-off toolboxes can be dropped onto this docker and automatically minimize down to their title tab. You can always drag them back off again when you need them or, alternatively, you can click on the title to temporarily open the palette, do what you want to do and then click elsewhere onscreen to minimize the palette and clear your workspace. New commands give even more control by letting you dock all open palettes, order docked palettes alphabetically and control the size of tabs. The sooner Macromedia and Adobe borrow the idea of the docker bar the better.

After all, Deneba isn't above borrowing the occasional idea itself as its new Navigator palette shows. This works very much like the feature in Photoshop and Illustrator displaying a thumbnail version of the current image and indicating the current view as a superimposed rectangle. This view box can be repositioned to enable interactive panning but, surprisingly, there's no way to drag a new rectangle onscreen to change the current zoom level. Instead this is left to separate Zoom In and Zoom Out palette commands along with the new Fit to Selection, Fit to Objects and Fit to Window commands. Also new, and very welcome to anyone who has ever had to produce designs with upside-down or perpendicular elements, is the ability to rotate the view in 90 degree increments.

More control of the onscreen display comes from the new Display Options command where you can set the display of guides, text flow bars, spelling errors, rulers and so on, all from the one dialog. The dialog also allows you to automatically downsample high-resolution bitmaps as they are imported to speed up screen redrawing. Even more impressive is the new Cache Selection command which lets you substitute a low-resolution screen image for complex objects or groups, resulting in much faster screen redraw. Other ways of speeding redraw include the ability to temporarily hide or lock layers - a capability now extended to individual objects.

The easiest way of managing this for both layers and objects is with the completely revamped Document Layout palette. Previously this palette was restricted to showing the layers in an image but now it shows a hierarchical layout list of all pages, layers and objects throughout the document. As well as toggles for controlling the display, lock, print and colour override status for all elements, the palette has a find box so that you can type in a few letters to jump between all matching objects in your document. Once an object or multiple objects have been selected, you can quickly drag and drop them between pages and layers. With the ability to reorder, add or delete pages, objects or layers, the Document Palette soon becomes a major focus of work in Canvas 7 and adds to the program's general feeling of streamlined efficiency.

The revamped Document Layout palettes helps manage more complex publications.

Just as important as the interface is core drawing power and this is an area that Canvas 7 fully addresses with three new path tools. The first of these is the AutoCurve tool which automatically creates very smooth Bézier-based curves as you click and drag. Even with the AutoCurve tool, the shape you create might not be exactly what you had in mind which is where the Reshape tool comes in. Using this, you can simply draw a new line near the currently selected object and Canvas intelligently incorporates it. Alternatively you can switch to the new Push tool which lets you massage your object into shape as if it was made of clay.

As well as its path tools, Canvas has also revamped its shape tools. A new option has been added to the existing oval, rectangle, rounded rectangle, arc and line tools whereby, if you just click on the image, a dialog appears in which you can set relevant parameters such as the desired width, height, length and angle. Even more useful is the new EasyShapes tool which through flyouts gives access to no less than 58 new objects from thought bubbles though to lightning flashes. The main use of these EasyShapes is for the creation of corporate graphics with a wide range of geometric objects and arrows ideal for flow diagrams. Particularly useful in this regard are the ability to add text to each EasyShape simply by selecting and typing, and a special edit mode which, for example, allows the size of the arrow head to be easily controlled independently of its line.

Another area in which Canvas already excels is technical drawing, thanks to existing features such as comprehensive scaling control, micron-level precision and symbol management. This capability has been extended with the new Drawing Snap feature. When you select a drawing tool you can now select any existing object and automatically ensure that the object you now add is parallel or perpendicular to it, or encompassed or centred within it. Alternatively you can select any object and send it to the guide layer where all objects will automatically snap to it. Even more regularly useful is the new instant access to the major alignment commands through the right-click context-menu.

One aspect of technical drawing that Canvas hasn't previously tackled is the issue of perspective. Now you can select any object and, with the Path>Perspective submenu, choose to distort it based on either a one or two-sided perspective. As you drag the object's bounding box, guidelines appear to indicate the position of the current vanishing point. Once this has been established for the current document, you can select any number of other objects and automatically apply the same vanishing point so that it's simple to create consistent and accurate pseudo-3D images. The Canvas implementation isn't as powerful as FreeHand 9's live perspective effects, but it will certainly be enough for most users.

Where Canvas leaves FreeHand in its wake is with its extrusion capabilities. Using the revamped Extrude palette you can now select any object and quickly create the illusion of depth with a range of parallel and circular extrusion presets. Once created, you can interactively drag onscreen to control the apparent depth of the object and also rotate it accurately within 3D space. You can also now apply a range of lighting presets or expand the palette to control this precisely right down to the light colour and its ambient intensity. The real beauty of the effects is that they remain completely editable so that the object's colour and shading can be instantly changed. Even better, double-clicking on the object takes you back into Extrusion edit mode where you can fine-tune the depth, angle and lighting.

This level of editability derives from the fact that the extrusion remains firmly vector-based. For absolute realism, however, as Corel Draw shows with its fully rendered 3D objects, vectors just can't compete with bitmaps. Canvas shows the truth of this with its new Shadow command. By default this creates a shadow as an offset, coloured vector object. Alternatively you can now choose to create the shadow as a bitmap complete with blurred and semi-transparent edges. The resulting shadow is no longer vector-scalable, but in terms of realism it's in a different league - it actually looks like a shadow.

The Shadow command's new image option produces realistic bitmap shadows.

The shadow effect work works by taking the vector object and automatically rendering it as a bitmap. This is also how the new Camera tool works. Using the Camera you can drag anywhere onscreen and all objects or sections of objects within the tool's bounding box are copied and converted to a bitmap based on your choice of colour space, resolution, and anti-aliasing. The new Clipboard Assistant also takes advantage of Canvas's rendering capabilities to enable vector objects to be automatically copied as bitmaps for pasting into applications where this makes sense. Disappointingly, the ability to automatically EPS Postscript information is only available on the Mac.

Once your objects have been rendered you can work on them with a full range of photo-editing power. The Image menu gives access to various image mode conversions, colour corrections and filters. Far more significant is the ability to paint and retouch bitmap images with pixel-based tools ranging from dodge and burn through to an airbrush and cloner. The only significant new bitmap-based capability is the ability to quickly convert vector objects into image selections and vice versa, but even so Canvas' internal bitmap capabilities are it in a different league to the competition. Photoshop and Photo-Paint offer more dedicated power, but it's difficult to overstate how big a difference it makes having this bitmap control integrated into a single creative environment.

Both Canvas' vector and bitmap power are impressive, but what really separates the program from its rivals is the way that it seamlessly combines the two. This process was begun in version 6 with the introduction of SpriteLayers. Essentially these combine pixel-based compositing effects, such as blend modes and graduated transparency, with object-based precision and editability. You can add text over a bitmap, for example, and then apply a blend mode so that the text colour only shows through where it is darker than the underlying pixels. You can then interactively paint on a transparency mask to merge the two objects even further until the text seems an organic part of the image. What's really amazing, however, is the fact that you can still edit the text and the compositing effects will automatically update!

Canvas 7 sees the extension of SpriteLayers with new dodge and burn blending modes and support for graduated transparency with both neon strokes and gradient inks. Much more powerful, however, is the advance of the underlying technology into the completely new worlds of filtering and colour correction. This is achieved through what Deneba calls "SpriteEffects". Select any object and call up the SpriteEffects palette and you can add the Canvas adjustment and special effects filters as a SpriteEffect. To give a layout a more dynamic edge, for example, you can give a title or clipart object a motion blur. Even better, to avoid the typical over-clinical feel of vector art you can add a noise filter. You can even reorder the sprite effects so that the noise is motion-blurred too. Best of all is the fact that not just the SpriteEffects but the underlying vector-based objects themselves remain completely editable!

SpriteEffects allow filters and colour corrections to be applied non-destructively to any image element.

By default the SpriteEffects are applied to, and remain linked to, the currently selected object but Canvas also allows SpriteEffects to be applied as a "lens" to all underlying objects. By setting up a rectangular lens with a combination of SpriteEffects that converts to grayscale and lowers contrast, for example, you can overlay it over a section of a poster layout where you want to add text. To consistently apply the same effect elsewhere, you can save and named SpriteEffect settings. Canvas also allows you to freeze the lens' underlying viewpoint so that you can easily create image pullouts. You can also automatically magnify the lens - ideal for highlighting important sections of a map or technical drawing.

SpriteEffects can also be applied as a lens to all underlying objects.

When you put the power of SpriteLayers and SpriteEffects together the creative potential is awesome. With an illustration of a car, for example, you can apply a SpriteEffect to reduce the drawing to outlines so that it looks like a blueprint and then add a graduated transparency fade. The end result looks like a technical drawing coming to life on the page - which in many ways is just what it is. You can then add other overlying SpriteEffect lenses to boost saturation or to try out different colorization effects. I've saved the best for last. SpriteEffects are compatible with third-party plug-ins so that you can use any of your existing Photoshop filters. With a brush or watercolour lens effect the end result of your drawing might look like a hand-drawn work of art, but every object and filter that makes it up remains fully editable.

Between its vector and pixel-based power and its ability to create illustrations, publications and presentations you might think that Canvas was already doing more than its fair share, but version 7 adds an entirely new document type - animation. In this mode, each page in the document acts as a frame in the animation and using the Document Layout palette you can control frame duration and onion-skinning though sadly there's no in-built preview. A rather more efficient way of creating simple animations is the new Replicate command which enables you to duplicate, rotate and scale multiple objects with one command. You can then use the new Disperse command to copy each object to its own frame to set up simple flick-book animations.

The Disperse command is such a straight copy of FreeHand's Release to Layers command that I was hoping that Canvas would also allow animations to be output to the Flash SWF format for use on the Web. Unfortunately that's not the case so the only option is to save as animated GIF. At least GIF export is another area that this latest Canvas has seriously worked on along with its JPEG output. In particular the new shared GIF/JPEG Export dialog now offers a multi-pane preview in which you can compare different settings to find the best combination of quality and filesize.

Even more work has been done on Canvas' HTML output. In the past Deneba pushed its own Java-based Colada solution, but it has now accepted the inevitable and offers straight HTML support instead - at least for version 4 and later browsers. This is available directly from the Save As menu and is comprehensive with the ability to control directory structure, generate an overall navigation file, use an external CSS stylesheet and manage the rendering of text and image quality. Most impressive of all is Canvas' ability to bring its Web pages to life, first of all with the new Animated GIF tool, but more importantly with the Web Buttons palette which enables the easy creation of Javascript rollovers. In the past I've always been sceptical about the repackaging of existing design applications as Web authors, and Canvas still can't replace a true dedicated HTML editor. On the other hand Canvas proves that it really does expect you to create and upload - rather than just storyboard - sites with its in-built FTP capabilities.

With features like URL and rollover control, Canvas' new HTML output is impressive.

Canvas is an amazing program. From technical illustration right the way through to Web site creation it offers an extraordinary amount of power. Each of the big three drawing applications can still claim superiority in certain areas of functionality, but these are surprisingly few and far between and pale into insignificance compared to Canvas' own great strength: its integration of vector and bitmap processing. Sadly some doubts linger still remain about Canvas 7's reliability in a production environment, and I hope that Deneba is working on a more stable 7.1 release as they did with version 6. Even so there's no doubt that the program richly deserves to knock Corel Draw from its longstanding A-List throne. After all Canvas offers not just the widest range of graphic-based power but also the most creative. Not bad for an also-ran.

Tom Arah

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

June 2000

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