Software Workflow

Review: Acorn 2.0 by Flying Meat

Gus Mueller, the guiding light behind and the newly released version 2.0 of Acorn calls his software "The image editor for humans" and it truly is a moderately priced image editor at US $49.95 with an upgrade from version 1.0 at US $19.95. At 7.8 megabytes in the compressed zip download form, it only takes a brief time to reach your computer. Acorn is a Macintosh only (Snow Leopard OS X 10.6 and later) software this is truly an image editor that is easy to use and powerful in implementation.

But I am going to rave about Acorn’s ability to serve in preparing lessons or tutorials from it’s screen capture abilities as well as its serving as a image editor. As a workshop instructor I often get asked two questions: "What is an INEXPENSIVE image editing program?" and "How did you prepare the tutorials that are on the workshop tutorial CD’s that you hand out?" I’ve been using Acorn in its 1.0 version pretty much since it appeared; and having the new additons to the application has made it a really good bargain as an image editor and made it even more useful to do tutorials. The only thing that it can’t do (so far) that I would like it to do is allow me to draw an arrow to point to something.

I’ve extracted a bit of the data off the website ( for a quick look here and I encourage you to go to the website and download the two week trial version of Acorn and see for yourself how useful it can be.

Some Highlights of Acorn’s capabilities:

  • Layers and Blending Modes allows for easy placement of text
  • Brushes that let’s "you draw, scribble and sketch right on your image"
  • A great selection of filters and the additon of vector shapes makes this app a robust image editor as well as great screen grab software.
  • Magic wand and other selection tools
  • Web export
  • Python-based plugibn architecture


New in Acorn 2.0 according to their website:

  • Improved Screenshots You’ve now got a new preference to have every window on its own layer when making a screenshot.
  • Rulers Bring up rulers for your image.
  • Raw Image Import Open up your Raw images and adjust exposure, temperature, tint, and more.
  • 64 Bit Support Acorn is ready for the future.
  • New Dodge, Burn, Clone, and Smudge tools Some important photo retouching tools have been added to Acorn.
  • Layer Groups Organize your layers into hierarchical groups.
  • Perspective Transform A new Perspective Transform tool, along with much improved Transform and Crop tools.
  • Render Clouds Filter Render Clouds has long been a staple in the designer’s toolbox, a great starting place for textures.
  • JSTalk Support Script Acorn using JavaScript, by way of JSTalk. * New UI and Performance Improvements It’s faster, and it looks better to boot.
  • Use for Free After the trial period is up. Acorn will disable some advanced features, but you can keep on using it anyway. Find out more.
  • And Plenty More! Check out the release notes for all the details.


Let’s activate Acorn and see what will open the first time.

If you have not previously told Acorn NOT to give you a splash screen, it will ask you whether you want a NEW IMAGE, OPEN IMAGE, or ONLINE HELP AND DOCS? Almost as important, it will remind you that Acorn can take screen shots. This is kind of hiding on the page and, of course, is really only useful if you intend to do some tutorial preparation.

PREFERENCES will tell you that CMD>Shift>6 is the default key combination to take screen shots; but more importantly check USE LAYERS WHEN TAKING SCREEN SHOTS and you will find that every element on the screen will be on a separate layer which can be turned off to hide it and thus eliminates the necessity of retouching much of the page as you are working on a tutorial or shot where you desire to give instruction.

Even more exciting is the fact that Acorn does not have to be foremost in order to activate the screen shot function. Just have it open and sitting in the background while you work in another program if that is your choice. Take a screen shot via CMD>Shift>6 and the screen shot will automatically appear and bring Acorn to the foreground at the same time. This will work no matter what application you happen to have on top when you use the screen shot command. Selecting the screen shot brings it to the front and makes Acorn’s tools available at that point. If they don’t appear, then go to WINDOW to make them visible.

Here’s a screen grab of the monitor. If you look closely you realize that Photoshop CS4 is open and Acorn (now active) shows us the multitude of layers that comprise the desktop and Photoshop and the image being worked on and the Photoshop toolbars (hidden under the Acorn tools).

. Here’s a layer breakdown of everything visible on the desktop with each item saved to its own separate layer. This way you can turn off all system readouts you have added to the top of your computer (battery, monitors, time machine, clock, airport, Growl, etc.) and isolate any single item on the monitor screen while preparing a tutorial
Moving on to the working part of Acorn and examining the menus we can see that the menus available will remind you of most image editors, but you may have to hunt for a few things that occur in menus positions that are not quite what you expect. Note the key commands.
The EDIT menu is quite normal in appearance. Note the key commands.
The VIEW menu has the ability to zoom in and out and show rulers and full screen in a conventional manner; however, you may also increase and decrease the brush size as well as Select, Reset, and Swap colors. The TOOL menu (see below). Note the key commands.
The tool menu allows you to directly select the tools that can be otherwise selected from the toolbox. Learning the key commands from this menu will measurably speed up the artists’ workflow. Note the key commands.
The IMAGE menu is standard except there is the direct ability to get an image from the Apple iSight camera without the necessity of returning to the desktop to do so. Note the key commands.

LAYERS menus gives you more key commands that speed up operations, though some items such as New Shape Layer and New Group Layer can only be accessed from this menu or the bottom of the Layers palette. Most of this palette can be considered conventional to someone comfortable with the usual image editors.

One of the coolest filters was the last one in the list with NEW IMAGE WITH CURVED DROP SHADOW. This produced the effect of a slightly curling image rising on either end on a flat table and casting a slight shadow. This effect is very subtle but seems to add a very faint white space around the image along with the slightest suggestion of a shadow.
The SELECT menu has the expected items but it also contains the important Inverse and Feather functions. These functions will be available any time an area of an image has been selected with one of the selection tools. Note the key commands.
The WINDOW menu gives us access to Tools, Colors, Fonts, and the Brush Designer. Note the key commands (OK, I won’t mention Key Commands again).
The HELP menu does not require that you be on line in order to access many of the topics. Typing a phrase or question in the Search window accesses online help almost as fast as you can type. Typing a word such as "transform" will open a window with several related words or topics. Choosing one of them will open another window with a floating arrow pointing to the particular tool.
Looking at the TOOLS menu we can begin with the move tool which allows us to move any selected item including text.
As you would expect, the magnifying glass signifies the ZOOM tool. It defaults into magnify and selecting the OPTION key shifts the zoom from "+" to "-" and makes the image smaller. I, personally, like the message that a space is intentionally left blank; this keeps me from wondering if there is something that I am missing at this point.
The CROP tool allows you to select a part of the image to be saved with the external parts to be lost after double-clicking on the selected portion of the image.
The PAN tool is the equilivant of the hand tool in Adobe Photoshop where you can shift up/down/left/right on the image when it is too large to be wholly visible on the monitor screen.
Selecting the BRUSH/PENCIL tool drops you into the DRAW mode and gives access to various sizes and opacities of brush and pencil lines. These are readily adjustable and as Bit-Maps they can have Anti-alias edges and be controlled by tablet pressure if you are using a Wacom or other pressure sensitive tablet.
The SELECT menu can define rectangular, oval, free or polygon select points, or be configured as a magic wand. When in the magic wand mode the threshold or sensitivity can be modified. Holding down SHIFT allows you to add to a selection and holding OPTION allows you to subtract from a selection.
The ERASER size can be adjusted as well as the opacity of the erasing stroke. The eraser can be a block or a circle (anti-alias) and be controlled by tablet pen pressure with a Wacom or similar pressure-sensitive tablet.
The TEXT tool will allow a text block to be drawn; this may be a horizontal or vertical block depending on the drag-click of the mouse or tablet pen. Text color will be the default of the foreground color and the type Family, Style, and Size as well as the baseline spacing, the character space, line space, and left, center right or forced alignment can be chosen. Type defaults to a new layer when the type tool is chosen.
GRADIENTS can be Linear or Radial and are determined by the foreground colors already chosen.
FLOOD FILL will fill any area that is selected, or if nothing is selected then it will fill the entire image or layer area.
The CLONE tool window also gives access to Smudge, Dodge, and Burn as well as the clone tool itself. Option-clicking with the Clone tool defines the clone source, and the size of the cloning brush can be increased (right bracket) or decreased (left bracket) as is found in other editing programs.
The SHAPE tool acceses a stylus that can define a circle or a rectangle with either fill or stroke capabilities, with the corner radius definable as well as the stroke width. A stroke can be solid or a dash with the gap in the dotted line also definable. A straight line can be drawn with the narrow pen-like shape but there are no arrowheads available. The color is set by the color choice in the foreground color sample. Shapes default to a new layer above the original image when they are selected.

The FOREGROUND COLOR is the upper circle and the BACKGROUND COLOR is the lower circle; however, these can be reversed with the two headed arrow or black and white rectangle seen below. The eydropper clicks to a set of cross-hairs that can be placed precisely on an image to select that exact color


LAYERS can be stacked above one another and an upper layer can be moved below another layer without the necessity of changing or modifying (renaming) the lower layer. All those blending methods normally found in an image editing program are available. The opacity of each layer can be individually adjusted as well.
New layers can be added or a layer modified or deleted via symbols at the bottom of the layer palette.
The COLOR PICKER is standard, and is made visible by selecting COLOR in the WINDOWS menu at the top of the page.
The FONT selection is also made visible by choosing it in the WINDOWS menu at the top of the page.



Accessing a RAW file will result in a frame with adjustments available for Exposure, Bias, Boost, Shadow Boost, Color Temperature, Tint, and scale. Sharpening may be chosen, but the amount is not defined, and Progressive Chromatic Noise Tracking may be chosen as well.

Choosing "OK" will result in the image opening…

…if the TOOLS window is selected in the WINDOW menu it will open with the image. If it was not previously selected you must select it and COLOR and possibly TYPE if needed.

Acorn is a lot of product for a reasonable price and I am quite taken with it and make tutorials with it as I have mentioned. But I did have to use another program to add the arrows. If Mr. Mueller gets around to adding arrows it will simplify my workflow. Version 2.0.3 is available for Snow Leopard. This review is written for version is 2.0.1 but the advanced versions correct a couple of bugs and make Acorn happy with Snow Leopard.

While you are at the website take a look at two other of his creations: VoodooPad and FlySketch. Both are extremely creative products as well, but we can discuss them another time, right now I’m still learning new things to do with Acorn.