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Painter has been a problem for all its owners since the early 1990s: first Fractal Design, then MetaCreations, and now Corel. Loved only by the faithful few, and merely toyed with briefly by people who buy small Wacom tablets, Painter has never enjoyed massive sales. Yet no other graphics package comes close to the versatility and sheer realism of Painter’s digital impersonation of art tools and media. So with version 8, Corel attempts to turn Painter into the kind of program you’ll really want to use. We think it’s been a success.
More than just applying pixel colours to a canvas, the program produces fractal-edged brushstrokes that really do look like crumbly pencils, waxy crayons, thick impasto oils, dribbly watercolours, and so on. The paints and pen-marks mix realistically, ranging from blotchy felt-tips to transparent washes to the rough scrapings of a palette knife. Additionally, you can create artwork using other graphics as your digital paint, build illustrations over layers, record your brushstrokes for playback, and even create animated sequences.
The most enduring problem holding Painter back from being universally popular was its dreadful interface. With Painter 8, all this has changed. While following the overall visual styling of Painter 7, the new interface has shifted complex controls to the back, giving you unobstructed access to the two things that matter – what you’re painting with, and how it looks.
From the new Brush Selector bar’s simple pop-up lists, you choose a ‘brush’ (oils, pencils, etc) and ‘variant’ (shape and behaviour). Further controls – such as size, opacity and bleed – appear along a context-sensitive Property bar akin to Photoshop’s Options bar. With no other knowledge than the location of the Brush Selector and Colors palette, even a beginner can start painting immediately.
Also important is the way that palettes are drag-&-drop-manageable on an individual basis. The interface no longer dominates screen space, instead shifting the balance back to the canvas. There are still issues that seem inconsistent, such as putting paper textures and brush- nozzle patterns together at the bottom of the main Toolbox, but at least they’re out of the way, yet easy to call up.
The controls for designing new brushes have been collected into a new Brush Creator dialog. As well as letting you customize the strokes, the Brush Creator features a clever Randomizer that allows experimentation in an automated fashion. An even niftier Transposer lets you combine aspects of two existing strokes to produce unique brushes. If only building brushes in Photoshop could be as easy as this.
Two other new palettes are worthy of mention. There’s a Tracker palette, again similar to Photoshop, which keeps a list of the various brushes and their settings that you’ve used in the current session, so you can go back to any of them quickly. Best of all, though, is the Mixer palette which is simply an on-screen version of an artist’s paint palette – see left. Here you dab on spots of paint and mix them with a brush or knife, then use them intuitively instead of the Colors palette.
Besides the interface changes, Corel has thrown in a number of new tools and features. The common process of using an edge-finder filter to turn a photo into an outline drawing has been given its own Sketch command. There are 400 new ready-made brushes available, including a set of Digital Watercolour brushes that are intended as a speedier, if less realistic, alternative to the still excruciatingly slow existing watercolour media.
Another important enhancement is the way you can work with layer masks and alpha channels. This makes it easier to repaint single objects without affecting the rest of your artwork, as well as letting you combine objects and effects across layers in original ways. Painter 8 continues to open and save to Photoshop-native format if you want, supporting basic layer constructions, masks, and even vector shapes. However, some Photoshop features – adjustment layers included – aren’t supported.
Be similarly warned about Painter’s support for Adobe Illustrator native format, since this applies only up to Illustrator 8 files: artwork created with Illustrator 9, 10, and the forthcoming 11 are not compatible. Ironically, CorelDraw and Corel Photo-Paint formats aren’t supported at all.
Despite successfully tackling the program interface, Corel hasn’t fixed all its peculiarities. Our pet hate is the error messages that appear when you try to paint with the ‘wrong’ brush onto a watercolour or liquid ink layer. Since the program automatically creates these special layers when you use watercolour and liquid ink brushes, you’d think it could just as automatically realise you no longer want to paint in them when you switch to a different brush. Even a prompt to select a different layer would be better than the dim-witted error message you get instead.
Corel has done a great job in turning Painter into a usable and easy-to-learn program. If you’ve been challenged by Photoshop’s brushes or liked the look of the tools in Painter Classic, we recommend Painter 8, not least because both these programs make you eligible for the standard upgrade price. Our only concern is that at £149 plus VAT, it’s an expensive upgrade for existing Painter 7 owners.