Art Software Review ~ OpenCanvas 6
Portal Graphics has recently released version 6 of their "Open Canvas" drawing/painting program.
120 day, unlimited, full-feature trial here:
OpenCanvas 6 is not Photoshop or MangaStudio5, but it's actually quite a savvy little program as art software goes.
One of the things I really like about Portal Graphics is their economic use of memory. Open Canvas 6 is only 6 Mb! In these days of cheap RAM in the gigabytes, even vast pieces of software like Photoshop don't present any actual technical concerns due to their size, (which I half wonder isn't partly due to marketing, convincing people that their $1000 program must really be worth $1000; just look at it! It's really huge! It MUST be important if it's really huge!). Nonetheless, I have a lot of respect for compact and efficient computing.
With regard to efficiency, PGN has finally upgraded their basic 2D engine. You can now draw on large canvases with minimal-to-zero stylus lag, (it's lickety split even on my test machine running WinXP, which isn't even included on their supported OS list). OpenCanvas' poor response time in the past was the reason I never gave it more than 30 seconds of attention before un-installing the trial. But version 6 is speedy; drawing is silky smooth. This makes OpenCanvas 6 a 'Player'.
-It offers the same wide range of tools, brushes and doodads we have come to expect from today's advanced drawing programs. The user interface is clean, modern and easy to understand. But the thing about OpenCanvas which has always made it noteworthy among an ever-growing list of tablet art software packages is a clever function which is practically unique in the digital art world: OpenCanvas offers the ability to record all your pen touches, finger inputs and commands from the first sketches on a blank canvas to the last finishing touch of a master work painting, all saved in a small file. Then, like one of those old player pianos, OpenCanvas can play back the creation of the entire painting line by line, right before your eyes.
It's sort of like the 'history' feature in Photoshop expanded upon far beyond simple undo/redo functionality. And it's not (entirely) just a gee-whiz curiosity; it's a powerful feature with a number of practical uses. Immediately obvious is the ability to create movies of yourself drawing, (which can be captured with third party software and uploaded to YouTube, for instance). The play-back feature saves otherwise enormous images as small instruction files, (called "Event Files"), basically offering a type of dense and lossless compression for raster images. -You can pause the playback of your drawing as it re-creates itself on the page and then, with stylus in hand, jump back into the middle of this full-resolution replica of your work and take it in a different artistic direction from its mid point (should inspiration strike you thusly). While I can't see myself ever wanting to re-draw something which is already done, (as Carla Speed McNeil wisely notes: "Done is Beautiful!"), you have to admit.., time-travel for painters is kind of cool.
The small Event File also allows you to share your creation with other users in a format where they can see not just the finished work but your entire process from start to finish -and to jump in themselves if they wish to add their own hand to your work, (though the "Event" save feature can be locked so that other artists cannot alter the image). But imagine; if you wanted to learn inking, being able to pause the playback of a drawing created by one of your favorite artists and try your own hand at the stylus! -And indeed PGN has a well-populated forum where hundreds of such event files are regularly uploaded and shared in this manner.
Here's a quick drawing of mine which shows how it works, (right click and save the file to a folder. Your browser might try to change the file extension, so just make sure to save it with the .oe6 appendage)...
Install the OpenCanvas 6 trial package, and load my little drawing file to check it out. (Part way through, I ran out of space for the sketch and increased the canvas size, so you'll need to zoom out in order to see the whole thing.)
Anyway, while all of this is pretty cool there are some curious limitations to the playback feature; you can pause and change the playback speed, but you cannot for, some reason, go backwards. Also, the playback starts immediately upon loading a given event file, so if you are in mind to capture the movie to something suitable for YouTube, you'd better be quick with your mouse. Also, you cannot re-play from the beginning without closing the file and opening it again. It seems curious to have left out such no-brainer features.
OpenCanvas 6 comes in both 32 and 64 bit versions, and at only $59, it rings in as one of the least expensive art programs on the market. (Though, with MangaStudio 5 only being $79, I'd be tempted to spend the extra $20. MS5 is a much more robust piece of software with a far wider feature set, and presently (July 2014), they are offering their basic package for $47, possibly, one wonders, in an attempt to capture new users who might be swayed towards PGN's new offering.)
With all this good stuff, there are, however, some limitations to be aware of...
-OpenCanvas is unashamedly a raster art program. Like a fixed-blade knife, rather than being one of those fat and often awkward multi-tools, it knows what it is and it does its job well. It makes no attempt to offer vector graphics capabilities. It doesn't even offer the ability to work in black & white/grey scale-only files. It's 32 bit color or nothing, so your file sizes are going to be large even if your spectral requirements are not.
-Like all other art software which isn't Photoshop, OpenCanvas 6 has no ability to toggle between regular lasso selection and polygonal selection on the fly. This is a feature which nobody but me seems to care about, but it is the primary reason Photoshop remains a necessity in my studio regardless of how advanced other software becomes.
-Limited file save/read formats. For instance, while it does allow you to save layers in .psd format, you cannot load or save .tif documents. MangaStudio 5 is only marginally better in this regard. When it comes to diverse and highly user-configurable file format control, Photoshop remains the undisputed king. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the thing is so honkin' big.
-Stability. Photoshop and more recently after patch releases, MangaStudio 5 are very stable programs. I *very* rarely lose work due to software instability in either of those two packages. (Though it should be remarked that in the strictest sense, I don't actually use MangaStudio 5; my license is for the original Japanese Version, Clip Studio Paint. -I was too eager to get my hands on the thing to wait for the English release, but language aside, the core code is the same, and quite stable.)
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of OpenCanvas 6. -I decided to try drawing an entire episode of "Stardrop" in the program in order to really give the software a proper road test. I looked forward with some eagerness to being able to play back the entire creation process so that I could see what that would look like, and perhaps upload portions of it to Youtube with some voice-over work. But it was not to be. About four hours into what is generally an 8-10 hour job, the program suddenly and without warning stalled and died, taking my entire 64 bit Windows 7 computer down with it. It was only due to my diligence in backing things up every few minutes that I was saved a large amount of redo work. The playback file, however, was lost, as I'd not thought to back that up.
So, four hours of stability and then a random crash? Not so cool. Maybe that was an isolated event, but I'm not willing to bet on it. I would be very cautious about using OpenCanvas 6 again on a large project, or at the very least, fastidious about making regular back ups. Though, to be fair, we must remember that PGN's new offering is still a very fresh release, having only hit the market a month ago. I would hope to see patches forthcoming.
Despite my one experience with a system failure, OpenCanvas 6 proved itself a tidy and inexpensive digital raster art package designed expressly for use with tablet-enabled computers. In terms of function and speed, it can hold its own alongside other more expensive software. One of the downsides of extremely feature-dense programs like MangaStudio 5 or Photoshop is that it becomes easy to confuse a new user and to frustrate with the click-depths necessary to achieve relatively simple tasks.
If you are not a power-user but you want to jump right into drawing and painting on an advanced and very capable system without first having to learn a cryptic UI, then OpenCanvas 6 is well worth exploring, and the 120 day, full feature trial makes exploring the software easy. At only 6.1 megabytes, it's a fast and easy install, well worth a try.
August 1st, 2014