One salient fact about doing graphic design–in this case making your logos and covers and other pictures writers need to go with their thousand words–is that you need to have a graphic program to do it with. This is actually not a problem, but it’s not hard to run into advice and situations that make it seem like a problem. As with so many other things that writers have to learn aside from writing these days, a main issue is knowing what to avoid.
As promised, I’m going to tell you about the programs to do this stuff with, and a bit on how to maximize your use of them. The programs I suggest are all free, or at most very cheap. Let me say a word about programs that aren’t free and cheap. The first thing you always hear when asking about doing your own artwork (or googling for suggestion on how to do something) is Adobe Photoshop. This is a professional program that costs anywhere from $300 to $1000. Most would say that getting what you need runs around $700. That should be enough to convince you to skip it and look elsewhere. But it’s worse than that. It’s a hard program to use, and is set up kind of awkwardly and bassackward. I used to use it and considered it a pain in the butt. For awhile I only used it to bevel type and the “smudge” tool. Now I don’t even have it installed. Almost anything you need to do can be done easier with free programs, and often better. And PS has some glaring problems for people like us. For one thing, its vector structure makes it really bad at shrinking picture size. As one example of what I mean, on Paint.net I can just keep hitting Ctrl Z (just like in all Windows programs, notice?) and delete changes one by one, all the way back. In Photoshop you get one “redo” then have to go into the history and fool around with that. Not a huge human sacrifice, sure, but something you have to learn. There are big thick books on how to use Photoshop. It’s got learning curve like Rosie O’Donnell has hip curve.
So what should you use that’s free and easy? There are some very, very good programs: the ones I most recommend are very easy to use right out of the box, and can be customized to do pretty much anything Photoshop can do. Both have smudge tools now. You can create and use layers without a PhD. Here they are, starting with your basic or “core” programs that will be the basic tools for your graphic creations.
FREE “CORE” PROGRAMS
Many would scoff at my even including this, but for some it might be all you need. And it comes installed with Windows, always has. It can’t do much, but what it can do is load a picture, resize it, flop it horizontally or vertically, crop it, save it as the format you need (jpg, gif, etc.), and let you add type titles on it using any font you have on your computer. That may be all you need and kindergarten kids–literally–use this program. It’s right there on your Windows computer, pull it up and mess around. If you have zero experience, it’s a great basic sandbox to explore the things that graphics programs do. Crop, use the “paintcan” to flood in a color you pick out from the design with the “eyedropper”, create outlines or color blocks, color out of the lines and go wild like a three year old. Try uploading a picture, sizing it, adding a title, and saving it. You can do it, easy.
Paint.net was basically a build on Paint, but it’s grown into a powerful, simple, glorious way to do graphics. Frankly, if you have Windows and don’t have this program, you’re nuts. Even if all you do is make Christmas cards and goofy distorted pics for your kids. If you have ever used Paint, you will find you already know how to use Paint.net, just need to learn the new features. And they are really easy to learn. Using layers is a pain on Photoshop, on Paint.net you hit the tab, click to add layers, and go. You touch the “magic wand” to the new layer and hit delete and Pow, you have a transparent layer. Type in your title and manipulate it move it, scrunch it, feather it… then collapse the layers and you have totally controlled title type on your image. The screenshot here shows a photo with titles being composed on the checkered transparent layer in order to be manipulated, then “pasted down” over the artwork. The new layer appears at the touch of a button and you can choose which layers to see, and which to work on. You can also see the tool bar here, and the full color window which gives you total control of colors, including their transparency in case you want to see through them to the background design.
But “simple” doesn’t mean “retarded”: you can add plug-ins to do amazing things with Paint.net. Blur edges, create psychedelic versions, roll it into a tube, bevel edges of anything you select, convert a title into a circle, apply dozens of blurs and glows and distortions, alter the colors and brightness, generate special modes like sepia tone…all very easy to do, usually with one click. There is a plug-in that will convert an image (stone or wood or hay, let’s say) into a “tile” that will be seamless if laid up side by side–perfect for website backgrounds, or maybe even a book cover.
If you use Windows, this is your huckleberry and no two ways about it. Free download at GetPaint.net. http://www.getpaint.net/download.html (Any downloads I post here are absolutely safe and proven.) Any help or advice you need is generally available on their forums http://forums.getpaint.net/ or just by googling. “Paint.net 3-d titles”, for instance, or “Paint.net transparent layers”. I’d suggest that once you download and install it you immediately figure out how to add plug-ins (NOT difficult; just download into the folder they tell you to) and add some that you will need or enjoy. This sub-forum http://forums.getpaint.net/index.php?/forum/7-plugins-publishing-only/ lists plug-ins and has a tutorial on adding them. Not hard to do—basically opening zip files into the “Effects” directory of your Paint.net folder in Program Files. Most installers do it automatically. You can usually find what you need by googling for it. There are lots of “Packs” of plug-ins (also called effects) like the MadJikPack or Ed Harvey’s. One problem with getting packs that brag about how many hundreds of effects they have is that they clog up your menus and you have to figure out what they are and how to use them.
Some I use a lot are Soften Portrait (popular with the ladies), Sharpen+, (almost any blur), distorts (Tube Oblique, Bulge, Oblique, Perspective), Glow, Smudge, Sepia, Color Balance, Drop Shadow, (anything “selection”). I have hundreds I never use and don’t understand.
But what, you might be saying, if I’m too hip to use Windows? Don’t worry, there is another world class great free program that will run on any platform, GIMP. Stands for–like it matters–GNU Image Manipulation Program. GNU stands for “GNU Not Unix”. I think you see this could go on forever. Main thing, it’s not named after the kink sex slave in “Pulp Fiction”. It’s a fabulous program and you might want to install it even if you do have Windows because it can do some unique and handy things. Also, you might prefer it. This is another program with a large fan community, and people continually design improvements on it.
The knock on GIMP is generally that it’s “alien”. It does things differently. Instead of a single window that opens up images and boxes of tools, it’s a bunch of windows strewn around your screen. Not a huge barrier to understanding it. The way it selects and sets type is odd, but you catch on–and it’s actually handier when you learn to just hit the “larger arrow” and watch your text just expand in front of your eyes. It takes awhile to realize that when you add type or open a filter (like one that will turn that type into molded gold or hardwood or whatever) the options open new windows, which might not be immediately visible unless you click on them at the bottom of your screen. Again… not a brain strain. I don’t think GIMP works quite like any other program. But if you are new to graphics and own a Mac, what does that matter? You turn it on and start learning. You’ll learn nicely, trust me.
The two things I tend to use GIMP for are its smudge/smear tool, which is more powerful and easier to use than the Paint.net one–maybe better than the Photoshop one, and the Alpha To Logo filter. Smudge may not sound like much–and it takes a little bit of learned skill, like using a brass nibbed pen–but is invaluable. It’s like running a wet finger over a watercolor. Got a bunch of jaggedy pixels around the Viking you pasted into your landscape? Set the smudge tool to a small circle and carefully soften them up. How cool is that? Now take a look at your author photo. A little wrinkled? Smudge those furrows and zits and scars away.
Alpha To Logo is super magic for making titles and logos and banners. You type in “My Cool Book” with the Text tool, then open A2L and look for a nice way to alter it. How about bronze? How about fuzz or flames or calfskin or alien neon glow? It’s very useful and it’s just one little stunt this program can pull. The screenshot here shows cover art, a titles layer, and the menu for the “Glossy” filter of A2L, which has turned he title gold with an outline and drop shadow.
Download and install from GIMP.org. http://www.gimp.org/downloads/ Like much about GIMP, it’s a little itzier, requires downloading an installer first. But not rocket surgery.
There are simpler free programs for Mac users. I can’t evaluate them, but these get good marks from users.
Paintbrush http://sourceforge.net/projects/paintbrush/ A Basic easy-to-use Paint application
Seashore http://seashore.sourceforge.net/The_Seashore_Project/About.html Open source image editor based on GIMP, but far less complex.
And for those who like the idea of Paint.net, there is a clone of it for Mac called Pinta http://www.downloadcrew.com/article/22997-pinta
There are literally hundreds of free graphics programs. If you don’t like these main ones, you might find one that suits you better.
Artweaver http://www.artweaver.de/index.php?artweaver_en Very popular easy program
Inkscape http://inkscape.org/ A sophisticated drawing program
DAZ http://www.daz3d.com/ This is a free program for generating Computer Generated Images. You can make the mannequin people you see. Do NOT use CGI people on your covers or I will come to your house to kick your kids and molest your pets.
Some I use a lot are Soften Portrait (popular with the ladies), Sharpen+, (almost any blur), distorts (Tube Oblique, Bulge, Oblique, Perspective), Glow, Smudge, Sepia, Color Balance, Drop Shadow, (anything “selection”). I have hundreds I never use and don’t understand. I have placed about 74 useful plug-ins in a zip file. You can download it here: http://linrobinson.com/download/PaintNet.zip
Unzip it and place the files in the Effects folder in your Paint.net program directory and when you start it up you should see them.
I’m running long, but there are a few more specialized programs I’ll discuss down the line. Next time I’ll get into how to make logos and buttons and banners.
For now, I’ll leave you with a link I’ll do more with next time. If you are in immediate need of a button or avatar or logo/banner, you can do them easily, for free, online at CoolText.com. http://cooltext.com/ You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish without having to know a damned thing. And, they have a fantastic library of free specialty fonts that are very easy to search, download, and install.
Also next time—how to make animated graphics.