Bring Out Your Inner Artist. Graphics Program Makes Illustrations from CAD
Scott Wertel posted on July 10, 2018 |

The best designs in the world are useless if they can’t be conveyed to others. While 3D solid modeling, BIM, and even simulation software have come a long way in presenting designs to the typical non-engineer, it is rarely in a format that is easy to consume. Most are not able to receive designs in the native software tool and even third-party viewers can be too complicated for many who need to access the design.

Figure 1. Captain, there be numbers here. —Scotty never said this. It’s possible to enter actual values and mathematical definitions of an element, or drag a shape onto the screen and drag control points.

With Canvas X, it’s possible to enter actual values and mathematical definitions of an element, or drag a shape onto the screen and drag control points.
There is more to sharing data than design reviews. Often, the best way to convey an idea is through a story—a preset series of images that progress to the main point the engineer is trying to convey. Whether that story be a formal presentation, concept sketches (long before the details have been worked out in CAD), marketing collateral, or even an animation, CAD is not always the right tool for the job.  Enter Canvas X, by ACD Systems.

Graphic Illustrations

Engineers are not artists. They have never had to be good at art. They have not been required to draw something and make it look real. At best, they can make perspective drawings, one- and two-point perspective mainly. Give them a straight edge and a scale and they might be able to make it look somewhat realistic, using real measurements. However, ask them to freehand something—you don't have a chance.

But sketching is an integral part of the job and a key component in explaining ideas to others. It would be nice to have a tool that can improve sketching in a way that makes sense to engineers, with more measurement accuracy and less freehand. You can try Photoshop, or other applications like GIMP, MS PowerPoint and Word Smart Art. There are countless others. None of these tools gives a result engineers will be comfortable with.

Then there's Canvas X, a graphic illustration tool, but with numbers.

See the screenshot of the Cube tool. Note the numbers there. You can click and drag and create a rough cube in a perspective, or you can enter actual values and it will look real.  This interface is consistent across all geometry creation tools: squares, rhomboids, lines, polygons, s-curves, pre-defined shapes, circles, ellipses, spirals, arcs, and even vanishing points. The list goes on and on. The user experience is consistent and flexible. You can enter mathematical definitions of an element and click Create or drag it on the screen and then edit it later, either by dragging control points or by editing the mathematical definition.

If Canvas X contains mathematical parameters of its geometry elements, why not just use a CAD tool? First, because there is no design yet. We're still sketching concepts and Canvas X is much quicker than CAD for that purpose. Second, it handles all types of illustration files, both vector and raster, with the ability to intermix them on the same illustration. Click on File-> Open and scroll through all of the file types Canvas X can import. Too many to list here.

Canvas X also has the same set of tools as competitive graphics programs with the ability to organize your illustrations in sheets and layers. New to Canvas X 2018 is the ability to create shadows and reflections from 2D objects. It is most impressive.

Figure 2. My simple cube with color fill, shadow, and reflection.
 A simple cube with color fill, shadow, and reflection.

But if “fake” 3D objects aren’t to your liking, you can import a 3D View of your solid geometry. Howver, only a limited amount of options are available for importing. While the number of 2D graphics formats is vast, Canvas X only supports 3D DWG or DXF. While you can’t expect it to import every native CAD format, the ability to import IGES, STEP, and 3D PDF. JT and STL would be icing on the cake.

Figure 3. The 3D Import Options are Limited.
The 3D import options are limited.


If you create trade show flyers, magazine pages, brochures, or other printed media, then Canvas X has you covered as well. Using standard page sizes, or your own custom page size, you can lay out your illustrations for whatever two-sided, bifold, trifold, or single-page handouts you need. Spend even a short time with the program and you will be creating printed media the same as you created illustrations. This includes tools for adding copy (that are available in both environments): text, linked text to objects, text along a geometric path, and form fields. Once you learn one environment, you learn them all. 

It's curious why Canvas X has separated the environments, like the Animation and Presentation environments. When you create a new Animation or Presentation, all the same tools are available in the same interface, with no difference in the environments. Granted, there are some templates available to create Publications or Presentations (as well as Illustrations), but the suggested layouts are not much more than formatting ideas. They don’t lend themselves to creating a better publication or a better presentation. If you are going to create a presentation, stick with PowerPoint, Slides, or Prezi and embed the illustrations created with Canvas X into those programs.

Cool and Unique Features

Further use Canvas X and you will be delighted with some unique features.

Annotation Lens

The Annotation Lens may be better referred to as the "detail view tool” or the “zoom area tool.” Click on a spot and locate the detail circle. The circle shows an enlarged detail of the area it’s pointing to. The detail area appears to be constant, but the view itself can be sized.

Figure 4. Two clicks to create a close-up view of a select area.
Two clicks to create a close-up view of a select area.

Canvas Assistant

The right-hand margin of the application contains several tabs. One of those tabs is the Canvas Assistant. This flyout is a context-sensitive help menu. For every click or function you select, the flyout provides information regarding the available options and links for further information. As a first-time user, you will find this very helpful to learn more about the program and its capabilities.

Figure 5. The Canvas Assistant tab provides in-context help for the current selection.
The Canvas Assistant tab provides in-context help for the current selection.

Symbol Library

The Symbol Library contains a considerable collection of preinstalled symbols, plus the ability to create and store your own. For those that lack artistic abilities, starting with a built-in symbol may be exactly what is needed to kick off  amazing presentations.

Figure 6. Over a dozen pre-defined categories containing hundreds of symbols and shapes.
Over a dozen pre-defined categories containing hundreds of symbols and shapes.

Is it Worth It?

If you are fluent in GIMP or Photoshop, is Canvas X worth the investment? We can't answer that for everyone. However, Canvas X can be had for a free 30-day trial, so you can try it for yourself. For engineers who have trouble expressing themselves artistically, this is exactly the type of illustration program that is needed to make your marketing collateral and presentations pop. No more clip art! The level of technical definition that goes into object and geometry creation in Canvas X will be comfortable for engineers so they can transition from MCAD to graphic arts. While the variety of image filters and channels may still be foreign, those tools are fairly easy to learn.

Is Canvas X the best-in-class tool for all workflows? Maybe not. For example, while Canvas X does have Flowchart tools and a comprehensive symbol library, Visio is the master of that domain. The tools in Visio are more robust. That being said, if you don't have Visio as part of your Office subscription and you have Canvas X, you will not want to bother paying for Visio. Between the symbol library for Flowcharting and the Kinked Smartline Tool (same as Visio Connector), users can certainly create and edit flowcharts relatively painlessly.

For organizations, Canvas GFX provides enterprise licensing as well as single user licensing.

To sum up Canvas X 2018, we'd have to say “Wow!” At $599 for a perpetual license ($299 to upgrade) or $239 per user per year for a subscription, it makes sense to consider Canvas X to your list of productivity software tools.

ACD Systems International, Inc. has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Scott Wertel

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