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5 June 2007

Inkscape and The Gimp

By Andrew Clifford

Inkscape and The Gimp are full-featured open source graphics programs. Even if you are not a professional artist or designer, they have plenty of features that you will find useful.

I am one of the world's "graphically challenged" people. I got 12% in the one and only art exam I ever took. But even I need to use graphics occasionally. I'm a great fan of free and open source software, and so I thought I would share my experience of two of the leading open source graphics packages.

The GNU Image Manipulation Program, Gimp, is a picture and photo editor. It is a long-established product, and has been around for over ten years. It provides the "simple" features that novices like me use - crop, resize and rotate. But it also provides literally hundreds of features for more advanced users. (I counted almost 500 menu options!)

Gimp is an alternative to paid-for photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop Pro.

Inkscape is a drawing tool, for diagrams, pictures and illustrations. It is an alternative to software such as Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw. Inkscape has been around for three or four years, though it is based on earlier open source drawing tools. It has strong support for scalable vector graphics (SVG), an open standard for graphics.

If, like me, you are only an occasional user, why should you be interested in these tools?

If you work in IT, it's always useful to know about good free and open source software. I am not qualified to recommend whether these tools meet the needs of professional artists and designers, but they are certainly worth considering because they are well established, fully featured, and free.

For more occasional users, these tools could be ideal. Where I used to work, many people who wrote content for the intranet were given a copy of Paint Shop Pro, so that they could prepare web-friendly images. For these occasional, non-expert users, Gimp could provide a much more cost-effective option, and avoid the bureaucracy of software license purchasing.

Even non-artists need to use graphics. For many tasks, the common office tools and Windows "free" tools fall short of the mark. I used to mess around drawing diagrams in Microsoft Powerpoint, export them as bitmaps, then trim the file in Windows Paint, just to get simple diagrams that I could reuse.

Some of the more advanced features of these tools are really effective. I have been using Inkscape to convert photos or pictures into drawings, or "raster to vector conversion". This is a really useful way of getting good quality graphics that will enlarge or print well from lower quality images or scans, for example to reuse paper-based diagrams. The only difficult thing about it was finding it, cunningly hidden as Trace Bitmap on the Path menu.

These products do not do away with the need for professional artists and designers. But because they are freely available and packed with features, they can turn incompetent amateurs like me into competent amateurs, which is a great step forward. And they are great fun too, so go and have a play.

Next: Open source hypocrisy


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