Pixelmator is a powerful and inexpensive alternative to Adobe’s Photoshop. Are you looking to make the transition from Photoshop to Pixelmator? If so, here are some tips to get you started.
Pixelmator looks and behaves a lot like Photoshop. Designing in Pixelmator is based on layers (discrete pieces of the picture stacked on top of the other) features many of the same tools, and has a lot of similar functions. When you open the program, you’ll have a canvas just like in Photoshop. To the left you’ll find a basic set of tools, and to the right you’ll find the layers pane and an effects browser.
Most of the tools are the same familiar ones from Photoshop, but let’s look at a few that are not so familiar:
1) Gradient tool — same as Photoshop, but the icon is very different. Don’t confuse the gradient tool with the auto shape tool, which is the heart-shaped icon in the bottom right of the toolbar.
2) Sponge tool — the sponge tool lightens the image where you apply it, as if you had rubbed a damp sponge over a pained canvas.
3) Warp tool — clicking and holding on the icon reveals a number of related tools. When you click on the canvas, these tools will (variously) stretch, compress, expand, contract, twirl, or smudge the image.
4 and 5) Dodge and burn tools — these are also found in Photoshop, but the change in icons might make them hard to find. These tools can be used to change the exposure of an area of an image, either decreasing (dodge) or increasing (burn) the exposure.
6) Magic eraser — this is one of my favorite new tools. The magic eraser automatically detects what’s in the background and erases it. Just click on the area that you want to erase. Click and drag the mouse to control the tolerance of the tool, or how much material it will erase.
Other tool notes:
- Pixelmator only has one kind of lasso: the regular kind. Unfortunately, it does not a magnetic lasso or polygonal lasso.
- When using the magic wand, as with the magic eraser, you can click and drag to adjust the tolerance. In my opinion, this an improvement over Photoshop, in which the tool had a fixed tolerance. Pixelmator’s adjustable tolerance can remove the need to clean up an image or a selection after you’ve already used the magic wand.
- Holding command + click quickly switches you out of whatever tool you have selected into the move tool.
- Holding alt + click when you have the paintbrush or paint bucket selected quickly pulls up the eyedropper tool, allowing you to match colors without having the change tools.
- Pixelmator does not have a separate path selection or direct selection tool. If you want to manipulate an existing path, select the move tool and double click on a path to make the anchor points and Bezier handles appear.
Nearly all of the functions available in Pixelmator are accessed through panels. The three panels discussed above automatically load when you start the program. You can show or hide an array of other panels under the “View” menu, such as fonts, styles, and colors. Let’s look at a few that are different from Photoshop.
Effects Browser — the effects browser is not found in Photoshop, but it combines the functions of the filters menu and the adjustments menu in Photoshop. You will find options to change the color balance, brightness, and contrast of an image, but you will also find options to add distortion, blur, and stylized effects.
Styles — this panel is where all the options from Photoshops “blending options” menu now live. Here, you can change fill and stroke colors, add shadow, and add reflection. You can also create custom styles by clicking on the gear in the lower right-hand corner.
Photo Browser — also unique to Pixelmator, this panel allows you to search for images on your computer and pull them into your project.
Note that Pixelmator also has fonts, brushes, and shapes as separate panels rather than drop down menus, as Photoshop does.
Differences between Pixelmator and Photoshop
Layers – in Photoshop, you cannot alter a layer unless you have directly selected it in the layers pane. In Pixelmator, clicking on an object in another layer causes you to automatically jump to that layer. Some users may find this set up easier to use, but tenured Photoshop users may have trouble getting use to this feature.
History – Pixelmator, unfortunately, does not have a history panel.
Adjustments — in Photoshop, you can choose between adjusting a layer or adding a separate adjustment layer. Whereas an adjustment applies changes to a specific layer, an adjustment layer is a separate layer entirely that acts like a filter to change whatever it is placed over. Thus, an adjustment layer does not permanently alter any existing material, can be adjusted after it has been applied, can be disabled, and affects all the layers beneath it, whereas a bare adjustment is permanent and unalterable and can be applied to a specific layer. Pixelmator allows you to apply adjustments, but not adjustment layers. One workaround is to create a layer and change the blending options to “darken,” “lighten,” “color burn,” “overlay,” etc. Painting or apply a wash of color on this layer will allow you to adjust the layers beneath it, though not with the same precision as a true adjustment layer.
Variable tolerance — as explained above, there are several tools (e.g. the magic wand and the magic eraser) for which you can change how strongly a tool is applied by clicking and dragging. I see this, in most cases, as an improvement over Photoshop because it gives you much more control. Several of the effects in the effects browser also operate in this way.
Flow — Pixelmator does not any form of flow control when painting. When you paint in Photoshop, going over the same area twice will make the color deeper and less transparent depending on how high you set the flow. It’s like adjusting how much ink comes out of a pen. Pixelmator, on the other hand, applies the same amount of color per click regardless of how long the cursor is held over a spot. This makes painting in Pixelmator more consistent and predictable, but it sacrifices some measure of control.
Puppet Warp – this was my favorite new feature in Photoshop CS5 and up, but alas, Pixelmator does not have it. Puppet warp applies a mesh over your image, and by adding anchor points to this mesh you can realistically manipulate your image. My guess is that the warp tools are meant to bridge this gap, and while they do a fair job, they still don’t give you the control that puppet warp offers.
Screen Tips — this is one feature in Pixelmator I’ve rather grown to like. Whenever you do something in Pixelmator (e.g. copy, paste, add a layer, disable a mask), a screen tip pops up to let you know what you’ve done. This might seem redundant, but it does help prevent that inevitable moment of horror when you’ve button mashed the keyboard by accident and you know you’ve one something but have no idea what. It also means that you never have to guess whether something has successfully copied, modified, etc. Also, when you hit undo, you’re told exactly what it is you’ve undone, which does compensate some for the absence of the history panel.
How does it stack up?
Overall, Pixelmator is an excellent program. It has plenty of power for your average project and you really can’t beat the price: it’s a one-time cost of $29.99 for Pixelmator, versus $699 for Photoshop CS6 ($999 for CS6 Extended) or a recurring monthly fee of $19.99 for the Creative Cloud.
Pixelmator has a more simplified and intuitive interface than Photoshop. This makes it more accessible to newcomers to the world of graphic design, while long-time Photoshop users may find that the set up requires some getting used to. Notwithstanding, nearly everything you might need in Photoshop you can also find in Pixelmator. There are a few areas in which Photoshop has a clear advantage, such as the presence of a history panel and the ability to apply adjustment layers. Yet, Pixelmator is not without its own advantage, such as screen tips and an easy set of tools for warping an image.
In the MPS lab, we currently have both programs installed. If you’re looking to try an alternative to Adobe, or if you want an affordable graphic design program for your home computer, give Pixelmator a try. Pixelmator even allows you export files as Photoshop files (.psd), so you truly have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.