When we talk about graphics, we mean pictures, and pictures can be either illustrations or photographs. If you want to get graphics into a Web page or multimedia presentation, you either have to
- create them in some kind of graphics application by drawing or painting them right there in the application, or
- bring them into the application from a digital camera or scanner, and then edit and save them in a form suitable for your medium.
Many software applications offer a variety of features for creating and editing pictures on the computer. Even multimedia authoring and word processing programs include some simple features for drawing on the computer.
Drawing and Painting on the Computer
Without getting too technical, you can create graphics on a computer in two ways. Although the terms can become somewhat fuzzy in sophisticated programs, the basic difference is as follows:
Drawing in a software application means using tools that create "objects," such as squares, circles, lines or text, which the program treats as discrete units. If you draw a square in PowerPoint, for example, you can click anywhere on the square and move it around or resize it. It's an object, just like typing the letter "e" in a word processor.
Painting functions, on the other hand, don't create objects. If you look at a computer screen, you'll see that it's made up of millions of tiny dots called pixels. You'll see the same thing in a simpler form if you look at the color comics in the Sunday newspaper—lots of dots of different color ink that form a picture. Unlike a drawing function, a paint function changes the color of individual pixels based on the tools you choose. In a photograph of a person's face, for example, the colors change gradually because of light, shadow and complexion. You need a paint function to create this kind of effect; there's no object that you can select or move the way you can with the drawn square.
That's the un-technical technical version. The reason why the differences are important is that, as noted earlier, many different kinds of programs offer different kinds of graphics features at different levels of sophistication, but they tend to specialize in one or the other. For example:
Many word processors, like Word, offer a handful of simple drawing functions. They aren't that powerful, but if all you need is a basic illustration made up of simple shapes to clarify a point, they're fine.
Some programs specialize in graphics creation. Of these, some are all-purpose programs, like KidPix, which offers both drawing and painting functions. KidPix is targeted specifically at children; it has a simplified interface and lacks the sophisticated functions a professional artist might want.
Other programs, like Adobe PhotoShop, specialize in painting functions, even though they may include drawing functions as well. Painter is a paint-oriented program that offers highly sophisticated, "natural media" functions that approximate the effects of watercolors or drawing with charcoal on textured paper.
Other graphics programs, such as Adobe Illustrator, specialize in drawing for professional artists and designers; AutoCAD is used mainly for technical and engineering drawing.
Page layout, presentation, multimedia authoring and Web development programs usually contain a variety of graphics functions ranging from the simple to the complex, but their main purpose is composition, not image creation or editing. That is, they allow you to create or import text and graphics and, perhaps, sound, animation and video.
Most of the graphics features in these types of programs are limited to drawing functions because they assume that you will do more complex work in a program dedicated to other functions (e.g., writing in a word processor, editing photos in a paint program), then import your work to arrange the different pieces in the composition program. (Some multimedia authoring systems, however, also offer painting and drawing functions.)
By the way, the differences in composition programs are mainly in the form of their output: Page layout programs, such as PageMaker and QuarkXPress, are for composing printed pages; presentation and multimedia authoring programs, such as PowerPoint and HyperStudio, are for slide shows and computer displays; and Web development applications, like Netscape Composer, are for, well, Web pages.
Photo and Image Editing on the Computer
Photo-editing programs are just paint programs—it's just that they include many sophisticated functions for altering images and for controlling aspects of the image, like light and color balance.
For the most part, any paint program can open and display a digital photo image, but it will probably not offer the range and depth of features that a true photo-editing program like PhotoShop does. As mentioned in our software recommendations, we suggest that you have both a general graphics program (e.g., KidPix) and an image-editing program (e.g., PhotoShop) on your machines. When kids are creating their own computer drawings and paintings, have them use KidPix (or a similar program).
When you're really working on a photo project, however, and you want to have kids alter and add to the images, we recommend using PhotoShop, for a number of reasons. When you're first introducing kids (especially young kids) to computer graphics, you want to keep them focused on the drawing and painting functions, especially if the lessons follow a series of hand drawing lessons. In that case, the wealth of features in a program like PhotoShop may confuse them and lead them down paths you're not ready to pursue yet.
However, when you've been teaching about photography for several days, covering topics like framing and light, you want to keep the kids focused on photography and images. Another reason for using programs like PhotoShop, especially with older kids, is that PhotoShop is the standard used by almost all professional artists and image editors. When you have the opportunity to familiarize kids with professional software packages, even if just lightly, you open doors to new careers for them and help prepare them for good jobs in the real world.
Using Graphics Programs in the Classroom
We can't go into detail here about the specifics of using different kinds of graphics programs, but here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:
Whenever you're introducing new software to kids, make sure that you pace the new information. Follow the guidelines for teaching about and with technology.
Only rarely will your goal be to work on a file in a graphics program and leave it there. Ideally, you're doing it to create images that are part of a larger project, which means ultimately moving the pictures into a composition program for print, multimedia or the Web. Make sure your kids are familiar with issues of saving, file formats and naming.
The basic tools and features of graphics programs have largely been standardized across applications. Once you introduce kids to tools like the pen, brush and paint bucket in KidPix, they'll recognize them again with little difference in PhotoShop. (That's another reason for introducing kids gradually to more sophisticated programs.) The programs have some minor differences in how one selects a color and so forth, but once your class has mastered the basics in KidPix, you can concentrate on the new tools that PhotoShop has to offer.