Natural-media simulation programs lay themselves open to failure on two counts: interface and results. With interfaces, the difference in feel between a palette knife loaded with gouache, and a stylus poised on a drawing tablet, is enough to discourage many would-be digital artists. And, this is without grappling with dialogue boxes that contain a bewildering display of characteristics, such as jitter, resaturation, flow and angle.
Secondly, the result. However closely natural media programs try to reproduce the characteristics of natural media, the effects are often patchy and unconvincing. But, with Painter 6.0, MetaCreations has brought back two of the original Fractal Design developers, to consider the very fundamentals of Painterness - and it shows. The team has obviously aimed to bridge the "reality gap" between digital paint and real-life paint - and also, significantly, between digital painting and real-life painting. This is far and away the best Painter upgrade yet.
The main improvements in the pen-to-paper (stylus-to-screen) interface, centre on a "next-generation brush engine". Previous versions of Painter laid down colour on the canvas using a series of dots - according to user-defined parameters of size, spacing and distribution. The end result could tie slower processors in knots, resulting in slow rendering that was anything but intuitive. In Painter 6.0, the brush engine renders the laid-down colour as continuous one-pixel lines - these represent the individual hairs of a brush - which is easier for slower processors to handle, and makes the brush speed significantly faster than in version 5.0.
Painter 6.0's new rationalised interface is almost elegant. Almost.
On top of this, the new multi-stroke spooling feature also helps compensate for slower processors - it might take a while for the stroke to catch up with you, but you won't lose any stroke information. Or, so the theory goes - I found this often didn't work, especially when using the Impasto brushes. The new brush engine also allows each bristle on a version 6.0 brush to pick up a different colour. And there's a new, adjustable Damping feature that creates smoother, less twitchy looking lines.
Users of Wacom's next-generation Intuos drawing tablet will find Painter 6.0's new Airbrushes respond to Intuos' finger-wheel, which simulates a needle-control adjusting ink-spray. It's now also possible to simulate a drawing tablet using a mouse - pressure, tilt, bearing and wheel settings can be set via a Mouse section in the Brush Controls palette. Also new to Painter 6.0, is the ability to save and re-use recorded strokes, using the Use Stroke Data option in the Brush palette menu. You can use a drawing tablet to create the stroke, save it and re-use it via a mouse. None of this is as subtle - or anywhere near as intuitive - as using a drawing tablet, but at least it means you don't have to fork out for a tablet to get passable results from Painter.
Texture-vultures will love the new Impasto technology in version 6.0. Impasto, a method of building up deposits of paint on a canvas to give textured, slightly 3D results, is controlled by two factors - the settings you apply to an Impasto brush, and the values you set in the Impasto Lighting controls. It yields a surprisingly convincing effect, especially when you build layer upon layer. But, much of the skill is in setting the Lighting controls, rather than in the painting itself. Artists who are more accustomed to real-life paint, than digital paint, may find the idea of having virtual control over their viewers' ambient light a little bizarre.
Painter 6.0 also features a new Dynamic Text feature, that allows the sort of flexibility with text you normally only get in vector-based drawing programs - you can edit, rotate, stretch, tilt and scale type on a curve, or a straight line.
While the "pen-to-paper" aspect of version 6.0's interface has been nudged towards a more life-like feel, paradoxically, the on-screen controls owe more to modern software design than any version of Painter previously. The now-dockable palettes have been restructured and rationalized, and the result borders on elegant - now there's an adjective I never thought could be used to describe Painter's interface.
Behind a new master Brush Control palette, lurks every other individual-function palette, accessed by a single click. And, the version 6.0 interface has some time-saving power-user features - like the ability to click directly on a value displayed in a palette, then edit it on the keyboard instead of dragging a slider, and the Current Setting Shortcuts on section bars, that allow you to change key settings without opening the section. This last feature can be a bit clumsy - in the Brush Controls palette, for instance, Painter assumes you're adjusting the most frequently-used control, so you can find yourself giving the intended value to the wrong control.
Painter has always been a source of frustration, on account of its slightly limited layout editing capabilities - it's not unknown for Painter-created objects to be exported from separate files, and positioned on individual layers in Photoshop for easier editing. In version 6.0, MetaCreations has at last reworked the floaters metaphor, of previous Painter versions, into a full-blown layers feature, similar to that in Adobe's Photoshop. You can make selections, apply a current selection to a different layer, and cut, copy and paste between layers. This is a major plus for Painter, and it's about time it was included. What's the point of simulating natural media on a computer, if you don't take full advantage of the editing capabilities that working digitally affords?
Digital artists who have nursed grudges against Painter for its space-consuming, and over-complicated interface, will find much solace in version 6.0. The only real complaint that could be made about Painter 6.0, is the fact that it still requires you to keep a screwdriver in your pen-tray to lever the lid off the tin. But in exchange for all the improvements in this glorious new version - well, you can live with that.
The Painter 6.0 upgrade is fairly expensive - 50 per cent of the full package price - but, the number, and quality, of fundamental improvements you get in version 6.0 are still outstanding value for money.