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For the bigger picture

A quality graphics package needn't leave you starving in a garret. Martin Child casts an eye over the best art software on show

In the dim and distant days of Acorn computers, there was a program called Revelation, which later evolved to the Big Picture. An excellent tool for use in art departments, it met most ICT needs of pupils, including image manipulation and pattern creation.

These days there is no single program to meet all the ICT demands of an art department. Although there is a new program with the Revelation name, don't confuse this with the original - Revelation Natural Art (pound;49) is a totally different kind of program. Within its user-friendly menus it enables pupils to draw on the computer screen using its "natural" media, such as paint, pencil, crayon, charcoal and felt pen.

While it might beg the question of why you would want to use these functions when there is a perfectly good box of real crayons on the desk, the program does the job reasonably well. Menus are simple, there is a way of mixing colours on screen and it is possible to import digital photographs which can then be drawn on. Primarily for use in primary schools, it is a bit simplistic for older pupils. A much more sophisticated natural media program can be found in Painter (pound;180) from Corel - now in version 7. It can do many more complex things and, although it is a little less intuitive to use, the results are very good indeed.

As there is no longer one all-singing-and-dancing program suitable for art department use, you will need to look elsewhere for image manipulation software. The most common programs for school use are Jasc Software's Paint Shop Pro (pound;48) and Adobe's Photoshop (pound;247). They can achieve similar results but Paint Shop Pro obviously has a price advantage. Both are designed for professional use, both can achieve stunning results and both are now up to version 7.

It is easy to end up chasing rainbows over version numbers. Obviously if you are in the market to buy now - get the latest version, although if you are currently working with a recent version it is unlikely to be worth the cost to change. The latest version of Photoshop has an excellent file browser which enables you to view thumbnails in any folder, there is also a healing brush, which makes it simple to remove scratches from old photos, and here is the cunning bit, if you get hold of a photograph of the headteacher you will be able, with a swish of this brush, to remove all those wrinkles. Think how many brownie points that could earn youI Probably the most popular photo-manipulation software to be used in schools is now Photoshop Elements (pound;38) - version 2 is now available. Although this is a cut-down version of Photoshop, it is excellent value, retaining all the useful features which art departments will need, including filters, layers and file browser.

Beyond natural media and image manipulation there is the world of multimedia, which enables pupils, or staff, to create interactive presentations which include images, movies, animations, text and sound. An easy way to achieve this is to try Digital Workshop's Opus Max (pound;51) which is specifically designed for pupil use.

Ultimate interactivity comes with web design and the most intuitive way into it is to use a program such as Macromedia Dreamweaver MX (pound;69). No HTML skills are required as the program writes all the code for you. Designing is simply a matter of creating your layout and dropping the images and text into predefined boxes, creating buttons and links to join pages together. Studio MX (pound;179) is a full design package, combining Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks and Freehand.

Using ICT to produce artwork is an essential part of the art curriculum and, of course, hard copy is vitally important for displays and pupil portfolios.

If you can afford it, buy an A3 printer for the department, failing that, or for larger images, print sections to A4 and join several sheets together. Epson are renowned for their very reliable printers which are capable of photo-quality output. If it is on your wish list, also check out their range of digital projectors. Remember, in the days of Acorn the whole class huddled around a 15-inch monitor for demonstrations and added dot matrix printouts to their portfolios.

Martin Child is an art education consultant and former art teacher. All prices quoted are exclusive of VAT

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