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Art & Design Case Study:

Defining the Limits of Metaphor.

Sue Gollifer

School or Art,
Faculty of Art, Design & Humanities,
University of Brighton.


This case study examines a number of software applications available to Fine Art Students, and specifically those which are used in the School of Art, at the University of Brighton. Particular emphasis is placed on an examination of computer applications which are designed to provide on-screen tools and functinos analogous to 'real-world' tools and materials used intraditional Fine Art practice.


At the University of Brighton's School of Art, within the Faculty of Art, Design & Humanities, there are seven individual BA programmes in Art:

It is an important educational objective within each specialist programme, and it is the policy of the School of Art as a whole, that all students should have training in computer-use, at least to a basic level of word processing and simple black-and-white paint draw applications

All students within the Faculty of Art, Design, & Humanities have access to a central computer pool: this pool has over twenty Apple Macintosh platforms, and has a wide range of software, scanners, and printers. There is also a word processing pool of about ten machines, and a Mac Quadra 950-based animation facility in the Learning Resources AV Media Unit.

There are also three dedicated pools for computing in specialist areas within the School:


The applications which were used for this case study were Painter, Sketcher, Kid Pix. These provide on-screen tools which are used as metaphors for physical equivalents used by artists: how do the students respond (react) to these? Are they appropriate within their specialise areas? Do they create limits or expand the borders of their perceptions? Alongside these particular applications there are others such as SuperPaint and Photoshop which use different icons and interfaces, but have similar or related attributes.

I decided to invite first year students who had not had a computer induction to participate in this case study, particularly students who knew little or nothing about computing. Ten students volunteered to act as guinea-pigs: three sculpture students, three painters, and four printmaker, with an equal balance of gender.

The applications they used were:

Broderbund:Kid Pix

This is a children's paint programme, originally designed by Craig Hickman for his three year-old son, after seeing his growing frustration when faced with full featured art programs. He accidentally launched desk accessories, moved windows, and made random menu selections, in much the same way as my computer-illiterate students do, particularly when using system 7. The application was expanded from the original programme, and more 'fun' features were added, yet it still retains the original intention of making the interface easier to understand and apply.For example, the whole drawing/painting area is visible on the screen: there are no scroll bars. WYSIWYG when you print the window.

The metaphor for each drawing tool is very clear, and available on the left hand side of the screen, with no menus to open, no dialogue boxes, and with the use of sound adding a new dimension to their use. The options available for each action, and each drawing instrument, are clearly displayed at the bottom of the screen. Some tools have several sets of options. An arrow icon at the end of a set indicates that more options are available. Some tools and tool options behave differently if the options key is pressed and this is indicated with a star.

The tools have humorous titles: there is a Wacky Pencil, and a Wacky Brush (which can be turned into a Leaky Pen );Drippy Paint, which drips as you draw; Splatter Paint, which produces an instant Jackson Pollock. The Electric Mixer transforms the drawing by mixing it up in a variety of ways. With Splats: big blobs of paint are splashed onto the drawing;Broken Glass shatters it into many jagged pieces. The Paint Can fills areas with selected paint patterns. The Eraser tool acquires a whole new meaning, for apart from varying in size it can also turn into a Firecracker that clears the screen in one big blast, or a Black Hole that swallows everything up. Luckily the Undo Guy's at hand and will come to the rescue: click on his face and the results of your last action will immediately disappear. This works the same way as Undo in the standard Mac Edit menu.

There are many other features too numerous to list here, but including all the standard Macintosh GUI features. The Kid Pix menu, for example, is standard format, except that the items are seen as icons, as well as words and PowerKey options. A Sesame Street-style feature, obviously more relevant in the USA than in the UK, is dual Spanish/English capability. This application is obviously fun to use, for adults as well as children, but why give it serious study? One important reason is that software developers can easily overestimate the ability of users intuitively to grasp the functions and possibilities of a given application.

The advantage gained from encouraging students new to computer use in art to use Kid Pix obviously not intended for professional users - is that they very quickly become aware that, when working within more complex programs, similar multiple-option features can be found. The principles of menus and dialogue boxes, even scroll bars, rapidly become easier to understand: they learn how to search and explore within the interface.

Lebaset Fractal Design Painter 1.0 & 2,0

(Painter 3.0 was not available for this study. We have a site licence for Letraset software)

Painter was the first program seriously to simulate traditional artists' tools and materials; it concentrated on this simulation and was not seen originally as an all-round graphics package. The palette system is very un-Mac like, no strips of tools down the left hand side, but eleven separate palettes, each of which can be opened and closed from the windows menu. The brush palette is the most innovative, a series of twelve inch-square icons, each providing a paradigm of an artists' tool: pencils, chalk, charcoal, calligraphic pens, felt pens, airbrush, crayons, oil paint and a range of brushes. Each tool performs in the same way as its actual counterpoint, supposedly simulating traditional painting techniques. A range of pop of menu allows for other options: the application even gives the possibilities of mimicking the styles of Van Gogh or Seurat.

The colour palette is also unique to this application: a triangle with the hue at the apex, blending out to white at the top and black at the bottom, to give saturation and value components. This is a more obvious method of colour- management for artists to understand than the computer's native RGB.

Artists often prefer to work on textured surfaces, than on the featureless screen most paint programmes provide, and Painter allows the user to specify the surface, a scrolling palette gives a range of surface textures from fine cartridge paper to coarse canvas and a library of 'wild' textures and surfaces. These textures can be applied to the whole document or to individual tools as an applied variant. Additionally, each tool can be used in conjunction with various modes of added 'water', providing a further set of options. The different kinds of 'water' can be applied to the painting surface in advance, used with the tools, or added retrospectively. The tool box contains ten options familiar to Mac users: selecting, painting, filling, text, frisket and stencilling.

Another distinctive feature of Painter is the 'cloning' function, which bears a similarity to the Photoshop 'rubber stamp' tool, but which provides the opportunity to apply attributes such as those of oil paint, or crayons, for example, to a scanned photograph.

The application is most effective when used with a fast computer with plenty of RAM. Otherwise, when using painting modes of any complexity, there is a delay between each mouse or tablet action and its effect on screen, which obscures the immediate, intuitive nature of the programme, and inhibits any freedom of expression and movement. When used with a suitable platform, and with a Wacom pen and tablet, it is possible, through its pressure and velocity settings, to match the style, speed and direction of 'real' painting marks and strokes. Even the manual is designed like an artists sketchbookt and the application comes packaged in a paint tin.

Unfortunately the students and I did not have the opportunity to use the newest upgrade of this application Painter 3.0; but judging from reviews, this version is seen as a major upgrade, and has been extensively rewritten and filled with new features. Apparently the significant feature of the earlier application - its ease of accessibility - has been lost and it has become a much more complex programme. The clear understanding of the metaphors for paint tools were seen as a very positive feature by the students, who found it very accessible and easy to use and understand. It is a great pity when programmers become more concerned with applying more and more complex features to applications, forgetting the earlier intention of the applications, and marginalising those people to whom they were originally designed to appeal.

Fractal Design: Sketcher 1.0

Sketcher is a powerful grey scale paint image manipulation application and has some fine-tuning options such as image, flip, soften,sharpen, and 'Brightness/ Conkast' window. But with a few exceptions this program is basically a black and white version of Painter; it has all the similar attributes, interface and icons, although the brush palette is replaced with 'Art supplies' and the colour palette is changed to that of 'Shades Palette'.

One of the main problems with some paint programmes is that of resolution options. Because bitmaps contain a fixed number of pixels, governing the resolution of an image, the number of pixels-per-inch is independent of the size at which the image is printed. So when images are printed small the paintings appear smooth. When printed large they appear jagged unless the resolution is increased, thus increasing the file size. Painter has managed to resolve this by its special format of RIFF (Raster Image File Format).

A drawing program, on the other hand, features tools that have no real counterparts. The processing of drawing might be more aptly described as constructing, because the user builds lines and shapes point by point and arranges them in sets or layers to create the finished piece. Each object is independently available for editing. Drawing programs defines lines, shapes and text as mathematical equations, and conform to the resolution of the output. In other words the information is translated by the printer software into printer pixels. The printed drawing looks smooth and sharp regardless of the size it is printed. Paint-layer graphics are pattern of dots with no special relationship to each other - paint images have a "textural"look.This is similar effect as using drawing on a blank sheet of paper or canvas. Working in the draw layer is similar to cutting out smooth shapes and laying them out as collage. Generally the paint layer allows for options for creativity, while the draw layer provides smooth precision.

Aldus: SuperPaint 3.0

This programme is a hybrid application combing both paint (or bitmapped) layer, and draw (or object-oriented) layers, allowing to freely mix text and other postscript objects with paint images. Both layers have various drawbacks but it is possible to move freely between each layer, taking advantage of the strengths of each.The 'Paint Brush' and 'Compass' represent SuperPairlt's two layers, the icon that's on the top is the layer your working in, clicking the icon switches layers. The layers are superimposed on the screen, and in the printouts, to produce a single layer.

SuperPaint makes no real effort to simulate real-world painting methods and doesn't appear to feel the need to compromise itself, to the extent that most of the images produced within the application, could not be anything other than computer generated.

In SuperPaint' there are two types of palettes: floating palettes and pop-up palettes. The primary Palettes are 'Tools','Line and Fill', 'Frequent Fills ' and 'Coordinates', and to reduce screen and palette clutter, sets of related tools and controls are displayed by with a series of pop out palettes, that can also be torn off and placed around the screen.

The 'Tool Box' gives the option of a basic range of simple 'Brush' and 'Pencil' tools, a rudimentary 'Marker pen', 'Airbrush', and the obligatory Mac-tools such as the 'Rubber', 'Paint Bucket', 'Grabber' and ~Magnifier'.The bitmapped 'Brushes' also offer a range of brush styles including, the 'Spin' and 'Sprinkler' the former produces an effect based on two lines of equal length spinning about an axis, the latter stamps a series of shapes onto the document such as 'Happy Faces', 'Hearts' and 'Balloons.'

The Draw and Paint 'Plug-ins' palette is available in both layers: which indudes '3D Box', 'Allgon', XBubbles', 'Cycloid', 'Quick Shadow', and 'Spiral.

SuperPaint only offers a simple range of of image manipulations, not in any way as an extensive as Painter or Photoshop. Its colour palette has a similar arrangement to that of Painter, but uses a continuous colour palette instead of a triangle.

This is a very versatile program and is unassuming about the range of options it has available within it. But once the interface is understood it offers the opportunity to work with a wide range of possibilities.

Adobe: Photoshop 2.5

Photoshop has always been seen as one of the best image-editors, and with its many upgrades it now stands out from all other applications within this area. Although it might not be seen as an obvious art application, nevertheless my students regularly use it for a variety of purposes, which is why it features in this case study.

One of the strengths of the Photoshop 'Tools' icons is that they are very clearly displayed on the left-hand side of the screen; and although it is a very complex program and has numerous levels hidden within it, it appears initially very straight-forward. Its core painting tools are as easy to use as a (real) pencil. Alternately there are pixel-by-pixel draw and erase features; the pencil is the only tool that is not anti -aliased.

In addition to being simple to use, each tool is customisable, similar to the options available in Painter: 'Coloured Pencils', 'Airbrush' and sWater-colours', for example. The main tool palette also contains icons for selection such the 'Circular' and 'Rectangular' selection 'Marquees', the 'Lasso', and the 'Magic Wand'. One of the unique features of Photoshop tools is the 'Rubber Stamp' which is one of the most versatile tools in the tool palette; the option dialogue, besides giving size, opacity, spacing, and mode choices, offers a long list of additional options, for example applying texture, pattern. The other useful tool is the 'Blend Tool', it can be modified to fill to reate some unusual effects. The 'Crop Tool' is self explanatory and is a more expanded version of thte 'crop command' found in the edit menu. the other tools are: the @Smudge' tool which has the concept similar to using your fingers to work into a shape. The 'Blur' and 'Sharpening' tool are self explanaroty. the 'Paint' tools are very versatile and can be set to apply colour in a variety of ways, includeing lighten, darken, or colour only.

There are also a series of floating palettes similar to those found in SuperPaint, that can be moved into any position on the screen. They support the main tool palette: 'colour Picker' and 'Brush Shape' palettes as well as the 'Fill' command and 'Paste Control'.

This is a powerful paint application with strong image manipulation effects invluding a large variety of filters virtually unequalled by any other Macintosh graphics programs; 'Twirl', 'Spherize', 'Zigzag', 'Pinch', and 'Wave' for example; but with none of the gimmicks available in some of the other paint programs.

But it is also useful program to export work from other paint programs, because it supports CMYK system as well as the standard RGB and HSV and overall offers a greater fixability for output than the more specialised paint programs. So it can be seen either in a paint program in iits own right or used in conjunction with another application.

These are the questions the students were asked to address, with their responses, in order of decreasing occurence:

1. What are your three main objectives in using this application? 2. Which objective did the application most readily help you to achieve. 3. Did the icon for each tool give an accurate indication of its function? 4. Are the options assigned to each tool simple to understand and use? 5. Do you feel that the general principles of Macintosh applications, governing the use of paint tools, are followed in this application? 6. Did you think that the application was too simplistic, too complex, or about right? 7. Does the use of colour in the menus/tool panels help with the ease of use of the application? 8. Does sound help to enhance the ease of use of the application? 9. Do you feel that the application will be of any be1lefit to your own work? 10. How directly did you feel you were able to control the application?


This was very interesting case study to do and I feel that the students and I learnt a lot from the experience. Not only in the way that they learnt how to use computer applications, but also in the fact that they were able to analyse the applications, for what they were and for what they were being offered, which was 'provide on-screen tools, or metaphors for physical equivalents used by artist and functions analogous to 'real-world' tools and materials used in traditional Fine Art practice.

On a personal note I was surprised that the students felt so at ease with the different applications. Admittedly I was there to open up applications and to help them if things went wrong. This probably allowed them to gain in confidence. There is a slight naivete when first approaching computer applications, which makes the new user allow the application to set its own limits and boundaries. The problems only seem to arise when they have gained more in experience and want to apply a certain features to an application, without understanding various functions and options available. Because of this they get increasingly frustrated with their lack of knowledge and control over the application.


Some of the paint programmes are becoming increasingly complex, and marginalising those people to whom they were originally designed to appeal. The ideal program would perhaps combine the simple 'Interface' of Kid Pix with the 'Icon' metaphors of Painter; combining the ability to work in both 'Paint' and 'Draw' layers of SuperPaint; and the image manipulation effects of Photoshop, and with its clear 'Tool' box.

The case should be made for applications, as they are upgraded, to become clearer and simpler, without adding more and more features. Perhaps applications can be designed with even more specialist audiences in mind, so that they can be individually programed, with the facility to add special features as required.

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