Here's to breaking creative rules. Convention dictates that the graphics world is split into two camps. Line-drawing vector editors such as Adobe Illustrator occupy one side of the divide, while bitmap-based programs such as Photoshop, PaintShop Pro and Corel Painter sit on the other.
Recent incarnations of these programs may have taken tentative steps inside each others' territory,but none so drastically as Acrylic. It's a program that traces its heritage back to Creature House's critically acclaimed Expression 3.0, bought by Microsoft back in 2003.
Nobody does it better
Uniquely, Acrylic mixes the accuracy of vector editing with the realism of painted bitmap images. For example, in Photoshop or Corel Painter, a paint stroke is a simple bitmap. But Acrylic's Skeletal Strokes technology allows both bitmap and vector strokes to be underpinned by a path that can be edited at will. This allows you to add curves to paint strokes or adjust its opacity. Skeletal Strokes can also have repeating elements, with fixed end-points. The results often offer near-photographic realism.
But there's more than this to Acrylic. Aside from Skeletals, this version incorporates improved bitmap-painting features, which allows more flexibility as an image editor. While bitmap support itself isn't new - in Expression, such images could be included as objects in a document - now they can be dealt with on separate pixel layers.
When working in a pixel layer,the content of the program's toolbox palette changes to accommodate bitmap-editing tools such as clone and red-eye correction. These add to existing features such as a Warping tool; something, remember, that has only recently been added to Photoshop.
An even more impressive arrival is a stunning image stitcher, which creates panoramas accurately from photographic originals. If you open a number of photos with some overlapping content and import them as bitmap objects in a vector layer, the program can calculate the overlapping points and create a panorama without further intervention.
Take your pixel
Acrylic comes with a wide range of pixel brushes. But be warned that pixel painting, at least in this beta, is slow, painfully so if you're working on a multi-layer document. Microsoft is working on improving performance before final release.
The clearest improvement in Acrylic lies in its range of supported filters. The program now offers its own set of native Live Effects - an outstanding way to apply effects such as drop shadows or colour adjustments, to bitmap layers and vector objects alike.
Although Live Effects are automatically turned into bitmaps when applied to objects, the shapes underneath remain intact. This means that both vector shape and its attached effect can be easily edited. And if the effect is later removed - a fresh palette lets you manage, apply and remove entire sequences of Live Effects - the object immediately reverts to its original vector state.
Thankfully, pixel and vector layers - which are used for creating text, paths or objects - are not mutually exclusive. You can change a layer's format using the helpfully named Layers palette, with the content of the pixel layers becoming a single object in a vector layer during the translation.
Acrylic hasn't abandoned its vector painting tools either. A Variations palette allows you to add a slight element of randomness to vector strokes, permitting the sort of realism you might be able to achieve when using a pressure-sensitive drawing tablet. From a single palette, you can specify degrees of variation in stroke features, such as hue, transparency and width.
Acrylic isn't perfect, though. Seasoned Painter or Photoshop users expecting a polished and consistent interface will view Acrylic's plethora of incongruous and clunky palettes with disappointment. A Hint palette - the sole purpose of which is to explain the role of the currently selected tool - merely adds to the clutter. But usability niceties elsewhere compensate for this.
Generally the program is easier for newcomers to understand than alternatives such as Illustrator. Chunky handles surround objects making them easy to select, group-scale and rotate. Even better is the way that rulers surrounding the document window fulfil a dual role: they can be grabbed and scrolled to navigate the document. If Acrylic represents Microsoft's first serious foray into the professional end of the graphics market, it's a promising start - but with some way still to go.
Although this version claims to work seamlessly with Photoshop and Illustrator files, we couldn't get the beta to fully understand native Photoshop files. Layers were flattened during translation in either direction. This is the sort of flaw that will hopefully be addressed by the time of the full release.