The Wonderful Tools of Astute Graphics

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Astute Graphics plugins review - header

A bit of background information

Astute Graphics is a company from the UK. I’ve come across the name a couple times, through people like Von Glitschka, or through desperate searches on how to create proper vector halftones. I have a personal stance against plugins (“creativity doesn’t come from drop-own menus,” credit to Von Glitschka), so I decided to never get them.

Then, a few months ago, Astute Graphics launched a new version of their tools, got them rebranded by Von Glitschka (see a pattern?) and made quite a buzz about it. I downloaded the trial, watched the videos, and then…work happened. I became busy. A few weeks later, I opened up the tool panel of one of their plugins by mistake when using Ai.

I decided to use it, and I had a revelation. I got in touch with the good folks at Astute Graphics, explained to them who I was and that I intended to do a review of their plugins on the Zine, and here we are.

My goal for today is to present these products and their abilities honestly. I won’t be doing a tool by tool walk-through, but a general overview of what these plugins can accomplish and why they can be efficient time savers once included in your workflow.

The plugins

Astute Graphics offers two plugins, or set of plugins, to their customers: Vector Scribe and Phantasm CS.

Vector Scribe

Vector Scribe logo

Vector Scribe is the one which I used the most frequently during my exploration and testing period. I was working on a branding project at the same time, and the time I saved in shape construction is hard to believe. The plugin exists in two versions: Designer and Studio, which correspond to different levels of functions.

The plugin extends Ai’s native toolbox with paths, points, handles and corner manipulation tools that feel more organic and intuitive to use. There’s also a Dynamic Shape series of tools that make shape building more pleasant.

Here’s the video introduction to Vector Scribe put together by Astute Graphics:

Here’s an example of how easy shape building can become:

There are many more videos to be seen about Vector Scribe. They will demonstrate quite efficiently the power of the plugin, and show how to use your new tools well.

Oh, and if you’re not convinced by all that information yet, there’s a page full of testimonials of Vector Scribe users.

Phantasm CS

Phantasm CS logo

As written in the introduction, I discovered Phantasm CS and Astute Graphics when looking for a way to produce decent vector halftones. To this day, it’s still the best way I know of to do this.  That said, this plugin’s abilities go way beyond that. Here’s a quick list:

  • Color functions available as Filters and live Effects:
    • Brightness/Contrast
    • Curves
    • Desaturate
    • Duotone (including monotone, tritone and quadtone)
    • Exposure
    • Halftone (vector)
    • Hue/Saturation/Lightness
      • Colorize mode
    • Invert
    • Levels
    • Shift to Color
    • Swap Channels
    • Temperature/Tint
  • Photoshop-compatible color adjustment settings exchange:
    • Curves (including pencil mode)
    • Duotone
    • Exposure
    • Hue/Saturation
    • Levels
  • Filter and Effect color function options:
    • Safe CMYK, with option to exlude pure black
    • Ignore spot colors
    • Apply to: Fill / Stroke / Text / Images
    • Convert colorized bitmaps
    • Auto Rasterize
    • Black / White color cut-off:
      • Ignore White (variable range)
      • Ignore Rich Black (variable range)
      • Ignore Pure Black (variable range)
    • Rich black to user-defined color
    • Overprint control
    • Gradient Accuracy
  • All live Effects can be incorporated into Illustrator Graphic Styles
  • Save and manage options settings
  • Additional spot color object, image types and Phantasm live Effect selection
  • Actions-compliant

The Studio and Publisher versions have additional tools that are more geared towards pre-press usage.

There are videos to see the plugin in action:

Introduction to Phantasm CS

Vector halftones tool

Some conclusive notes

Even after playing with these plugins for over a month now, I still agree very much with Von Glitschka’s quote, which I included in my introduction. These plugins can be time savers, but should not replace craftsmanship. I think it’s important to learn how to build shapes just with the pen tool. I mean, Bill’s Lady Luck illustration wasn’t done differently.

With that said, I saved so much time when building rather complex shapes for a logo thanks to Vector Scribe. I believe (hope?) that Adobe is actually drawing inspiration from the level of easiness Path Scribe gives you when working with paths (and it seems like John Nack is aware of the existence of the software). And once dynamic shapes are understood, I’m thinking that producing shape variations of a concept can be done in a snap.

Also, in regards of Phantasm CS, I think it can help greatly and that it’s an amazing add-on to Ai, but I haven’t had a chance to use it enough to fully measure its potential. But after watching the videos, I think it’s safe to assume there are people out there that will find it extremely useful.

If some of you are downloading the trial versions of the plugins, I’d love to hear what you think about them. Are they improving your workflow? Are they filling a gap for you? Or are they useless to you?

Beyond Vector Scribe and Phantasm CS, are there other plugins in your digital tool arsenal that you swear by? Let’s hear it in the comments!


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