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Natural media software tools make it possible to create drawings, painting, illustrations and various other forms of art using simulated tools such as oils, charcoals, pencils, airbrush and watercolor. The earliest natural media tools were part of the Mac and MS/DOS paint programs, which also were the basis of early image editing programs. They are all raster based, so they all fundamentally work along the same principal. Most paint and imaging programs can now handle vector elements but they basically still work on a pixel by pixel level.


Natural Media Review

One of my first attempts at using natural media tools was created by using the smudge tool in an early version of Photoshop to pull the pixels of the digital image into brush strokes.


The term "natural media" was first popularized by a program called Painter, which was developed by MetaCreations and has been marketed by various companies over the years. Version 12 is now part of Corelís offerings. Even though there had been paint programs before that, Painter was so different and so much more complex in its capabilities that it was a revolutionary development for artists, not just graphic artist, but any artist that wanted to use the computer.


It accurately simulated the appearance and behavior of traditional media. Painter had as great of an impact on artists as Adobe Photoshop had on photographers. It made it possible for them to recreate styles and techniques digitally that they had been creating conventionally for centuries.


Natural Media Review

The original image was a model with a sheer cloth in front of her. By using the Bucket Fill tool and adding various delineation lines in an image editing program, I was able to come up with an unusual creation.


But a special program isnít required to create natural media effects. Various natural media tools are incorporated into image editing programs. Probably the best known of these are the paint brush, air brush and smudge tool. The smudge tool was one of the first tools that I used to transform my photographs into works of art in the early 1990's. Starting with a low res image of a flower, I would smudge the image to simulate brush stokes. It was relatively easy and the results were quite interesting, making pictures look very much like paintings. I also converted a portrait type shot into the colorful creative graphic by adding different design elements such as lines and geographic shapes, and then using the bucket fill to add color. Both approaches worked well. 


For more sophisticated artistic capabilities, though, a natural media program is required. I recently started playing with Ambient Design's ArtRage Studio Pro 3.5. It's available for PC, Macs and mobile devices. (I played with it on a Windows 7 system.) The program was developed by company founders Andy Bearsley and Matt Fox-Wilson, who were formerly with MetaCreations.


ArtRage Studio Pro

The foliage shot into an art piece by over-painting the image and adding different touches of color in ArtRage Studio Pro 3.5.


The first thing that you notice in ArtRage is the unique interface. There is a small drop down menu bar part way across the top, but rather than conventional rectangular tool bars and palettes, there are quarter circle controls in each lower corner of the screen. The brush panel is in the left hand corner while the color panel is in the right hand corner. Both disappear when youíre working within their range, and they can be collapsed to get them out of the way altogether. 


Image and file management are handled in the File drop down menu, which includes options for importing images and recording progressive brush strokes, so that the entire creative process can be recorded automatically and played back at will. That makes it possible to create interesting annotated art tutorials, letting others see just how an art piece was created. 


ArtRage Reviews

Various Studio Pro tool bars and control panels are open on the desktop for working on the bird image. Each panel can be turned on or off, or placed anywhere on the desktop, as needed.


The program's creative controls are in the Edit and Tools menus. Edit functions include the standard cut and paste options as well as preference settings, while the Tools menu is loaded with everything from  different types of brushes to layer, stencil and tracing options. The View menu makes it possible to turn the different tool and color palettes, including a Canvas Positioning wheel, a Layer panel, and a Color Sample window, on and off.


Somebody who really knows what theyíre doing when it comes to painting and drawing will appreciate the extensive level of control within each brush options. Itís easy, for example. to set things like brush widths and the drying rate of the applied paint. Itís also possible to control how much paint is loaded onto a brush, how it fades as itís being depleted, the opacity of each color being applied and the amount of simulated pressure. Multiple layers of paint can be built up to add texture and body. 



Different brushes can be adjusted in any number of ways, and a virtually unlimited selection of colors can be used to create paintings from scratch.


There are also special application techniques, such as a Paint Tube, Glitter Tube and Sticker Spray. The Paint Tube applies a thick bead of color paint that can be worked into the canvas with the Palette Knife. The Glitter Tube sprays endless pieces of colored glitter. The Sticker Spray works in somewhat the same way, but applies little objects, such as foot prints, houses, character sets and gems. With both of those spray techniques, a little goes a long way. They are a little gimmicky, but they can be used to add touches of interest.


It was fun to create in ArtRage. Again, for the foliage images, this time I used a paint-over technique to apply color. On some parts of the two canvases, I matched the color of that portion of the original image, on others, I added touches of other colors. For the bird picture, I took a washout image of a distant bird, enlarged it, used the bucket fill tool to brighten up the sky and individual brush strokes for the branches and flowers. . (This is the point where it became obvious that Iím not an artist.)


One thing I really appreciated when working on these images was the Undo command. A control-z made it possible to back track as many brush strokes as I needed, to get back to a point were things looked pretty good. Sometimes that was as many as 20 or 30 strokes. Then Iíd try it all again to see if I could do it better. A control-y brought the deleted brush strokes back again. 


Of course, you donít have to start with an imported image. you can start with a blank canvas and create your own artistic vision, one stroke at a time. I played with several creations, just to see what I could come up with. Even with limited abilities, I was able to come up with good results. 


Not every photographer needs a natural media software package. But there are times when it can come in quite handy, if for nothing else than the fact that itís sometimes possible to take a relatively boring shot and turn it into something considerably more interesting. ArtRage Studio Pro 3.5 lists for $80.

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