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From graphics to galleries

The range of computer materials and functions now available to art departments is kaleidoscopic. Martin Child reports.

Dipping a toe in the ocean of technological progress which has washed over education in the past few years can be quite daunting: things have changed so much.

Remember when computers were first introduced to art teachers? We hardly felt that they would become the indispensable tool which has now developed.

At first we were thrilled to be able to use 16 colours on the screen at once. Then came 256, which seemed a veritable kaleidoscope, but now with 16.7 million colours on tap, the sky is the limit - and a very colourful one at that.

With so much technology now on offer to an art department, what is useful? And what doors does it open up?

I have always maintained that computers and related technology should be regarded as tools to be used: no more and no less important than, say, a printing press or pottery wheel.

As improvements continue, more uses become apparent. Obvious recent innovations are much greater speed of processing, higher resolution and, of course, the ability to use a phenomenal range of colours, allowing professional- quality imagery to be produced.

With these faster machines, such as the Acorn Risc PC, Apple Power Macintosh and PC 486 and Pentium (RMElonexICLSIR and other PC suppliers), art packages can now realistically imitate the qualities of traditional materials such as chalk, watercolour and brushmarks with ease.

But surely if you want these effects, traditional materials could, or should, be used? No, the main advantages of the computer are still speed, the fact that mistakes can be undone, the de-skilling of some processes and, most importantly, image processing - manipulating an image through many changes of colour, scale, texture, distortion and so on.

Some of the better art software includes, for Acorn, the updated Pro Artisan 2 from Clares, which is now available on CD-Rom and also a 24-bit version, and the excellent Revelation Image Pro Risc PC 24-bit (what a mouthful) from Longman Logotron.

Newly launched, but not at the show, is Studio 24 from Pineapple Software, another 24-bit painting program with interesting features. The fine Artworks from Computer Concepts will also run on the new generation of machines.

For image processing, Photodesk from Spacetech is a very useful program which will work on any Acorn machine, but is at its best when installed in a Risc PC. From Ablac there is The Incredible Colouring Kit for primary pupils and also the more advanced Flying Colors (both are for Windows or Mac).

Oak Solutions offers three new programs for art and design - OakDraw for Windows allows Draw files to be created within Windows and then exported to Acorn machines. Rephorm, the "morphing" program, has been updated to take advantage of Risc PC machines, and VersaTile is a new tiling program.

Animation and multimedia are of great interest to art studios. There is not much animation available for Acorns yet (Minerva is launching PrimeMover), but Macromind Director for Apple Macs and Autodesk Animator for PCs are fine programs, which are only limited by the imagination of the student.

The possibility of incorporating still images, video, text, sound and animation (multimedia) opens up many creative possibilities. Acorns, Apples and PCs will all allow this, but several other bits of hardware are also really necessary.

A digitiser allows photographs and also students' work to be displayed on the screen, usually in full colour.

Scanners, video cameras or video-still cameras, such as the Canon Ion camera (CSH) - which, although very simple, is an incredibly useful and direct tool - all provide a source of digital imagery.

Another option, by-passing the need for a digitiser, is to use a CD-Rom drive and show Photo CDs (Cumana). Libraries of images can be bought, but most usefully, with Kodak CD-Roms, any photograph can be inexpensively added to a compact disc.

Although nowhere near as direct as the almost instantaneous digital camera, the quality can be superb, making full use of 24-bit (16.7 million) colours.

CD-Roms have another, highly desirable, reason for being in the art room. The possibility of a whole art gallery being stored on one CD is a very exciting development, giving easy access to hundreds of images. The best of these discs contain sound and sometimes video with text and images. This helps put art work into context.

You should see the superb Art Gallery from Microsoft; Investigating 20th Century Art (works from the Tate Gallery) from Attica Cybernetics; Impressionism to the Twentieth Century and Art in the National Curriculum, both from AVP Computing; and also the Electronic Library of Art series from Optech.

These discs give students a door into a worthwhile exploration of art history. Schools Direct will supply any CD-Rom title.

Graphics tablets allow a natural, pencil-grip hold: a much more intuitive action than trying to control a mouse (which leaves some students feeling ratty). It almost goes without saying that a good colour printer is also necessary, although there is still a gap between what you see on the screen and what is printed out.

Integrex has a wide range of colour printers including the new Colour Jet Master. I imagine that eventually it will be possible to take a disc to be printed in the same way that we have photographs processed. Alternatively, for good-quality hard copy, the screen can be photographed with a traditional camera.

Within the art and design studio, any tool should be capable of producing diverse and exciting work which is not prescriptive, but allows the discovery and exploration of new possibilities. Computers can help in this task of opening eyes and minds.

Rather than dipping toes into the water, I think that now is the time for art departments to take a deep breath and dive in - there are certain to be some pearls to be discovered on the bottom.

Ablac - stand 120, Acorn - stands 241, 440, SN15, Apple - stand 251, Attica - stand 113, Autodesk - stand 717, AVP - stand 355, CSH - stand 313, Clares - stand 410, Computer Concepts - stand 351, Cumana - stand 343, Elonex - stand 141, ICL Classicl - stand 250, Integrex - stand 364, Longman Logotron - stand 261, Microsoft - stand 782, Minerva - stand 428, Oak Solutions - stand 344, RM - stand 131, Schools Direct - stand S35, SIR - stand 101, Spacetech - stand 424.

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