Not too small, not too big... just right: PC Paintbrush

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, December 1994

Okay, ever since the very first 128k Macintosh shipped with a free copy of MacPaint, personal computers and graphics have gone together.

And hardly a day had passed from that first demo of MacPaint before PC users (i.e. IBM and compatible users) wanted theirs too.

And pretty quickly, they got it. PC Paintbrush, from Atlanta-based Z-Soft, was an early best seller. As close to a MacPaint look and feel as you could get on a PC. Of course, you had to get a mouse to use it (and many copies were sold bundled with early versions of Microsoft mice). It even went one-up on the early Macs... it supported colour.

Well, computer fashions came and went, and users demanded more and more. Pretty soon, we got 256 colours, then 32,000 colours, and now 16.7 million colours (24-bit). And more and more tools and icons. Until now, whether you're using a Mac or a PC, you've got heavy duty photo-editing programs, such as Adobe PhotoShop, along with natural-media programs like Fractal Design Painter, letting you imitate charcoal on rice paper, Impressionists or Pointellists.

Stir in some add-in filters such as Kai's Power Tools, and you've got the software to produce some pretty impressive output. Of course you'll want some pretty impressive hardware, and a lot of time to learn to use your power tools.

While these high-end graphics programs are equally available now for both Mac and Windows users, at least on the Windows side, there hasn't been much for more artist wannabees with more modest ambitions.

Windows itself ships with Windows Paintbrush, but like the rest of the free Windows accessories, it's pretty basic. Designed by the original Z-Soft crew, it lets you work with 16 colours at a time, and with a very limited set of tools and effects.

Finally, the graphics programmers at Z-Soft have returned to their roots. PC Paintbrush for Windows neatly fills the hole between the too-little of Windows Paintbrush and the overkill of PhotoShop and Fractal Design Painter.

Only two floppies, requiring a mere 3-4 megs of drive space. But it lets you work with 256 colour to 24-bit files as well as grey-scale art.

It sports an easy to use interface, derived from Z-Soft's earlier PhotoFinish picture editing program... 27 tool icons, most of which have a number of options for a total of 87 tools, easily accessed from choices that appear when you select one of the icons. Don't remember what a tool's icon stands for? Just pass your mouse over the tool, and its name appears on the status bat. Right-click a tool's icon, and help for that tool pops up. This program gets a lot of points for ease of use, and good design.

You get a nod towards Fractal Design's natural media... there are tools for crayons, chalk, and felts, along with the more standard paintbrushes, pencils, and spray cans. And all have lots of easily-chosen variations. 15 paint brushes, for example, including the now obligatory Van Gogh and Seurat styles, along with Neon, Wet Oils, and Jitter Rainbow brushes. 21 simulated papers, to give you that textured look and feel. Zoom down to 3% or up to 1600%.

No longer limited to the original PC Paintbrush's PCX files, or Windows Paintbrush's BMP pictures, you can also open most standard bitmap pictures. Supported file types include GIF, and TIF, along with PhotoCD (PCD), and highly compressed JPGs. There's even a built-in thumbnail viewer, to simplify working with groups of images.

While the program doesn't support the now-standard PhotoShop add-ins, there are 18 built-in special effects, letting you emboss, blur, sharpen, or make mosaics from your pictures. The dialogue box shows you a small version of your original, with the effect already in action, making it easy to pick what you want.

Because 24 bit pictures, such as scanned photos can get huge pretty quickly, the program allows the user to make use of virtual memory, in addition to the standard Windows swap file. This is especially useful for anyone using Windows' standard mode, which otherwise doesn't support virtual memory.

Even if you don't need to work with 24-bit photos, this program is a must have for the non-professional graphics user... anyone who doesn't need either the power or the expense of the graphics industry standards like PhotoShop, but who has become frustrated with the minimal features of the built-in Windows Paintbrush.

For all those users, this program not only meets your needs, not only has a clear and easy to use interface, but it's being sold at a very affordable price... it lists for $59.95 US.

But there's also some bad news. Z-Soft, which created this, along with all the PC Paintbrush series, was sold to software veteran WordStar, soon after releasing this program. WordStar then merged with Spinnaker and SoftKey. This program has seemed to have become lost in the shuffle... it's hard to find on store shelves; I found a copy bundled with a video card.

This is a nice, affordable program. If you can find a copy, get it.

Comments (February 2002): since posting this 1994 article on the Web, it's gotten a surprising number of comments. It appears that there are PC Paintbrush fans out there, who are unable to get a fix. As far as I can tell, Z-Soft, the company that made PC Paintbrush (and other PC graphics programs) has vanished... there is an, but if it has any connection to the old Marietta, Georgia-based company, it's not apparent (They make an interesting Windows file manager: FileProbe).

If you don't need or want the power and complexity of, say, Adobe Photoshop, but want more than what you get with the Windows Paint accessory, you might want to check out ImageForge, available in a free version, and a US$29 Pro version. Worth checking out.

(September 2004): Many people have written wondering if I know how to make PC Paintbrush work under Windows XP. Sorry, I haven't done that-- but then again, I no longer have a copy of the program to experiment with. Windows XP has a Program Compability Wizard (look in the Start Menu's Accessories group). That may be of use. If someone has success in making PC Paintbrush work with Windows XP, please let me know! 

(February 2007):  Ed Hargadine writes: 

"I stumbled onto your website, on which it's stated that you'd like to know
if anyone has any success running PC Paintbrush 1.0 (1993) for Windows under
Windows XP.  Well, not exactly.  I mean, not directly, but I do have PC
Paintbrush, which I can't live without, running on an XP machine.  The trick is
a free download from Microsoft called Virtual PC.  I installed Virtual PC,
used it to create a computer model of a Windows 98 computer, installed a legal
copy of Windows 98 into that virtual computer, and then installed PC Paintbrush
on the virtual computer, and it runs nicely under Windows 98.

I love PC Paintbrush and I certainly wish it had been maintained long
enough to be able to deal with long filenames; that's the only inconvenience in
connection with Paintbrush, which I think is arguably the most brilliant user
interface a real painter could ever hope for in a computer program.  It has a
few tools that no other program has thought of, which is why I say I can't live
without it.  I bought it on a single CD at a supermarket in Portland, Oregon for
$10 in '94, if I remember correctly, and have used it nearly every week since
then.  I believe that Mattel, Inc. owns it now, and I'm pretty sure that if they
knew how close they really are to being able to publish a hot seller, they'd get
on the stick and fix this proggy up by LEAVING THE PROGRAM ALONE, except to add long filename capacity and port it to Windows XP.  No filters and flash
necessary; they could still sell a lot of them for $60.

Microsoft says, somewhere in their knowledge base, that PC Paintbrush won't
run under Windows XP because it wants to access the video directly, which is
strictly illegal in the Windows XP application programming interface.  They add
that this program just isn't going to run under XP until the developers do
something about it."

Virtual PC can be downloaded here.

-- AZ

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan