Eye-catching Web art just got easier

Microsoft Image Composer is an exception. This graphics manipulation package is
designed expressly to create images for on-screen display. It's truly powerful, fairly
intuitive and lots of fun to use.


Image Composer comes as part of Microsoft's FrontPage 97 Bonus Pack with 700 pieces of
clip art and photographs. You can download Image Composer, sans clip art, for free from
Microsoft's World Wide Web site at http://www.microsoft.com.


As its name suggests, this package lets you move, arrange and edit individual images,
known as sprites, and then save them as a single composition. It's a little like arranging
flowers, if you can imagine changing the flowers' sizes and colors and transforming them
into glass, plaster or molten lava.


There's a variable-size workspace known as the Composition Guide plus a scratch area
limited by system memory. Only the sprites or portions of sprites inside the Composition
Guide are saved to the final image file.


You can open several views of the same composition. For example, one window might
display your composition in True Color at 100 percent size while a second window shows the
size reduced for a Web page.


Image Composer supports industry-standard file formats: TIFF (.tif), GIF (.gif), Targa
(.tga), Joint Photographic Experts Group (.jpeg), Windows bitmap (.bmp) and Adobe
Photoshop (.psd).


Regardless of format, existing art automatically gets converted into sprites when you
insert it into the workspace. Most existing graphics will be usable this way without
time-consuming conversion procedures.


You can create new art with Image Composer, but don't confuse it with a true drawing or
illustration package. Like Adobe Systems Inc.'s PhotoShop, Image Composer is best at
modifying and arranging existing art.


The toolbox contains nine palettes. The art effects palette has dozens of tools for
fine-art effects. Even relatively inexperienced artists can emulate styles ranging from
14th-century suibok-ga to 19th-century pointillism. If your tastes are more modern, go to
the Warps and Filters palette for a Salvador Dali melting-wax look or a chrome finish on a
stone statue.


I selected three images included with Image Composer to make the collage in the
illustration. After opening a work area, I inserted the American flag, the eagle and a
photograph of an armored soldier. I sized the flag, applied a craqueture art effect to add
depth, and used the Vortex Warps and Filters effects for dimension and a sense of motion.


I made the eagle sprite slightly transparent, stacked it over the flag, and added
contrast with the outline tool. The craqueture effect was the same as on the flag, but
with larger spacing for better definition and contrast.


After resizing the soldier photo, I used the colorize, outline and fresco effects to
brighten the image, keeping the texture of the original photo. Then I stacked the items
and applied the group and flatten functions on the Arrange palette to save the sprites as
one file.


I made a background with the oval tool from the Shape palette. The texture came from
the mosaic art effect--I set the grout width wider than the tiles. The edge of the oval
was simply a wide outline from the Warp palette.


I made a custom palette with reduced colors for Web use. The fewer bytes in a Web
graphic, the faster it downloads.


Image Composer isn't perfect. As usual, Microsoft has left out some features that would
be helpful. If you right-click on an image and select Properties, you'll learn everything
about the file you could possibly want--except the item most important to a webmaster:
file size.


I would have liked to see multiple undo/redo functions. Image Composer has only one
level of undo, so it's important to save your work frequently.


Image Composer is easy enough for those who only occasionally create graphics but
powerful enough for artists. It supports Adobe Photoshop plug-ins such as Kai's Power
Tools, and the online help is extensive. Most important, Image Composer frees you to spend
your time on art instead of looking up computer commands.


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