Thursday, December 08, 2005

TuxPaint - it's like Fingerpainting on your PC

With the holidays upon us, I thought I would takes some time to show you the kid-friendly side of Open Source. There are many programs out there for the children in our lives - or the kid inside of all of us - and TuxPaint is a great example of this genre.

A little bit of back ground information. Some of you may be wondering why a kids program is named after an outfit that most grown men complain about wearing, namely a Tuxedo. Well Tux is the name of a little cartoon penguin that has come to represent Linux, (Tux ... Linux, get it?) :) And since Linux is *the* project that is most representative of the open source movement, Tux is used even in cross-platform apps, like TuxPaint. But Tux doesn't just show up in the title - he's also very active in the program itself.

A lot of work has gone into TuxPaint to make it as easy to use as possible - remember, it was designed for children. Once the program opens up, Tux welcomes the user to the canvas. If the user has already started a painting - it opens right up to where he left off. If not, the user is greeted with a new place to get creative. And Tux is there to guide the young users step-by-step. Even the canvas is a consistent size, so issues like number of pixels or width in inches or centimeters never come up. The whole screen can fit on a small 640 x 480 monitor or be expanded to fill whatever screen is being used.

There are plenty of tools available for the budding artist - stamps, paintbrushes, a text tool, a shape tool, a line tool, an eraser, an undo and redo button, and "magic". All of these tools are a breeze to use, and the reuse of some of the settings (like the line tool is based on the paintbrush that was last selected, which can also be changed while you have the line tool selected), makes the interface very consistent and easy to learn. There are even fun sound effects that are played when tools are selected and used. Of course, those sound effects can be turned off if they get annoying.

Even saving a picture is consistent no matter what operating system or file structure the computer uses, because it's not based on file names or folders - it's all done with thumbnails that are displayed right in the canvas area of the screen. The drawback is that this limits the pictures made in TuxPaint to TuxPaint only, unless the user uses a screen-capture program or similar software. But TuxPaint does allow for printing, so the little artist's masterpiece can be proudly displayed at the local Refrigerator Museum of Fine Art.

The two tools that most appeal to the children, (I'm basing this assumption on extensive research which consisted of watching my youngest sister play with it), are the stamps and the Magic. The stamps are a huge assortment of different pictures like cars, planets, smiley faces, shapes, bugs, animals, etc. Some of them are included in the basic download, but a ton more are in a separate easy-to-install download. These stamps can be a learning tool as well as a fun and creative way to spend some time. Whenever a stamp is selected, our good friend Tux has something to say about it. Sometimes it's a simple one-word description "Pumpkins!" but sometimes it is a full-fledged lesson. Like "This is a 50-cent piece from the United States. It features a picture of US President John F. Kennedy. That's why this coin is known as the Kennedy Half-Dollar." It's a neat way to include learning in an afternoon of computerized arts and crafts.

The other popular tool is Magic. Magic offers a whole new set of tools that takes TuxPaint to a whole new level. The magic tools include a rainbow paintbrush, sparkles, a flip tool, a mirror tool, an negative tool, a "chalk" tool - which makes the picture look like chalk art, a drip tool - which causes the draw to start to melt around the edges, a box tool - which makes the drawing turn into a mosaic of blocks, think about a badly distorted JPG, and you'll get the idea, a thick tool, and matching thin tool, and a fill tool.

There are parental or teacher controls, so the adults can adjust the way it is set up, turn on and off some of the more advanced features, or include special instructions for the young artists.

All in all, this is a neat little program to play with whatever your age, and might just replace solitaire on your list of things to do with your computer when the network is down. The author, Bill Kendrick has done an excellent job with this project. You can pick up a copy of TuxPaint, on the NewBreedSoftware website- the extras I told you about are also available there.

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