Getting arty with graphics: Part I

Since many people use graphics pro­grams to edit photographs, they may be unaware of how easily the same software can be used to create works of art. All it takes are a few clicks of the mouse and a steady hand. Even if you don't have the patience or proper training to be a traditional artist, your PC can offer tools to make the process much easier. This first installment will cover the shortcuts to instant gratification and reveal some of the basics of using layers.

Filters

As Andy Warhol demonstrated, you don't always need to paint a masterpiece in order to create compelling artwork. One of the quickest ways to generate an interesting image is to use one of the many filters that ship with higher-end graphics software. If you are not satisfied with the filters that were installed with your software, thousands more are available across the Web (they are also known as filter plug-ins). To see an artistic filter in action, compare the two images of the goose in the park on this page.

To apply a filter in Paint Shop Pro, click the Effects menu and choose an item from the various categories. In Photoshop, select an item from the Filter menu.

The filters are grouped under logical sub-menus such as Artistic, 3D or Geometric. Many filters will have limited usefulness, as they tend to be too severe. However, they can be useful when an effect is needed for a special occasion (Fish Eye lens and Chrome are two examples).

At first glance, the restoration filters (Sharpen or Blur) may not seem applicable to creating artistic images. However, they can introduce interesting effects when their settings are used outside of normal ranges.

Using filters is much easier if you spend a little time selecting a suitable photograph. Don't restrict yourself to stunning images - some filters can convert even a low-quality photograph into an interesting picture. You will need to try some experimentation in order to understand the impact that each filter can have on an image. Make sure the picture is in the vicinity of 1000x800 pixels. If it is too small, some filters will tend to overwhelm the picture, and if it is too large, the effect will be barely noticeable.

Layers

Layers are just like normal canvases, except they are stacked on top of each other. Imagine that each layer is a piece of clear plastic where you can create and edit one or more graphical elements. You can then view the complete image as though you were looking down on the stack of layers. Since the elements on each layer remain separate, this means you can change colours, apply filters or edit a layer as if it were a stand-alone image (the other parts of the image will not be affected).

Before using layers, make sure your palette toolbar is visible. In Paint Shop Pro select View-Toolbars and check the box next to Layer Palette. For Photoshop, select Window-Layers.

There are many techniques to exploit with layers, but the key areas are:

1. Opacity.

2. Blend mode.

3. Order of layers.

The opacity is simply a measurement of how much can be seen through a layer. At 100 per cent, you won't be able to see any of the underlying layers. At 50 per cent, the layer is half transparent and the resulting image is a blend of the 50 per cent of the top layer and 50 per cent from the layer(s) underneath.

The Blending mode determines how the layers are to be mixed. You will find about 20 different options and each delivers a unique effect. If you are new to this feature, then start with the Normal setting.

Since you can set different blending modes and opacity, the order of the layers becomes extremely important. Layers set with a high opacity will drown out the layers underneath. This can be used to add subtle effects but you can accidentally swamp important images below. If you get confused, keep imagining that each layer is a plastic sheet and some sheets are darker than others. Layers can also be used to introduce powerful colourisation effects to an image - a topic this column will revisit when the series continues.

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