Corel Painter 8

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Fundamental changes to Painter's interface and brush handling help tap the program's existing natural media strengths.

Painter 8

Throughout its long and chequered career - first under the Metacreations banner, then Procreate and now Corel - Painter has always stood out as the artistic and creative computer application bar none. The reason is simple: Painter's unique range of natural media brushes. Of course these days other software developers have realized that they can jump on the bandwagon simply by making a brush stroke grainy and calling it "charcoal" or darkening its edges and calling it a "watercolour" - but Painter is different. It looks closely at the original media, at how the brush, paint and paper work together to produce their effect, and then does its best to replicate that on the computer.

The trouble is that the interaction of natural media is inherently complex. To produce a watercolour brush that diffuses and interacts realistically with the pigment already on the canvas involves controlling factors such as wetness, drying rate, evaporation threshold and wind direction! And these are only the parameters that are unique to the watercolour. Add in shared parameters, such as opacity, angle, resaturation and grain, and there are dozens and dozens of parameters at work. In other words, Painter's natural media power comes at a price.

The real problem though is the way that Painter has always foregrounded this underlying complexity. The user has been bombarded with the different brush and material controls as if you have to understand the engine before you can drive the car. Painter's desperate attempts to undo the damage and make the environment more friendly, by grafting on the odd pull-out drawer and throwing in some large but unrecognizable painterly icons, have just made things even more confusing. "Idiosyncratic" is one word for it, but "dog's dinner" is closer to the mark.

The end result has been a strangely paradoxical program: fantastically creative but at the same time intimidatingly technical - the one thing guaranteed to put off the intended artistic audience. Thankfully, Corel has recognised this fundamental problem and has completely overhauled the Painter interface. In fact "overhaul" doesn't do it justice; it's like opening a completely new program. The first thing that hits you is the space opened up by removing all the old Metacreations clutter. The second thought that hits you is: but where is everything?

Painter 8's new interface is unrecognizable.

The first change is to the toolbar. In the past this was a free-floating horizontal palette with scratchy icons in any old order that almost seemed like an afterthought. Now the toolbar is central to your work in Painter and docked vertically down the left of the screen. It's also been rationalized and split into separate sections dealing with image editing, vector editing, formatting and display. Below these are the current foreground and background colours, and below these are small thumbnails for the current Paper, Pattern, Gradient, Nozzle, Weave, and Brush Look libraries. Click on the thumbnail and you can choose from a dropdown list of presets or call up the associated palette for greater control. Compared to the old Art Materials palette it's amazingly streamlined, but it would be even better if options that aren't relevant to the current brush were grayed out.

Once you've selected your tool, you set its main parameters with the new Property Bar that runs under the menus. This is very handy for swapping between major tool variations such as the various node editing options and for controlling text without having to open the Text palette. For the different brush tool variations it means that you can quickly set size, opacity and other context-sensitive settings such as resaturation, grain and bleed (though this would be even easier if the settings were provided as sliders). There's also a very useful Reset button so that you can set any tool back to its defaults.

Running down the right of the screen is the area intended for Painter's palettes. In fact there are now more of these than ever as each of the previous palette sections such as the Colour Variability and Colour Info, have been promoted to palettes in their own right. Now though each palette can be grouped and ungrouped and hidden and revealed and you can also save and reload particular arrangements so that you can set up the environment exacty as you want it. The end result is much cleaner, more efficient and more inviting.

By default, Corel has brought all those palettes together that deal with colour which makes a lot of sense though the sheer range can still be offputting. In fact Corel has added yet another in the form of the Colour Mixer. This is designed to mimic a real artist's palette offering a choice of primary colours, a Brush and Palette Knife to mix them and then an Eyedropper tool to pick up the colour that you want to use. Many Painter users already worked in a similar way using a separate image for colour mixing, but it's certainly handy to have a dedicated palette, especially with the ability to save settings and to automatically generate colour swatches.

So far so good, but something important's missing: where on earth are Painter's brushes? These remain fundamental to Painter but Corel has chosen to downplay their central role with the understated Brush Selector hidden away at the end of the Property Bar. Essentially this takes the form of two simple dropdowns - first you select the category and then the actual brush variant. The dropdowns can take the form of visual thumbnails or even sample strokes, but it's simplest just to choose from the list of names.

Realistic artistic natural media are the secret of Painter's success.

The choice of brushes is straightforward but the range is astonishing. This is especially so as Corel has added no less than 400 new brushes spread across a total of thirty categories of which nearly half are completely new! It sounds a revolutionary increase in power but in fact there's been some creative accountancy at work here. Many of Painter's former categories have simply been split, such as the Dry Media brushes which have been divided into Chalk, Charcoal, Crayons and Pastels. And within each category the new brushes are usually just basic variations of shapes and sizes.

In fact there's really only one category of brush that's completely new - Digital Watercolour. This in itself is strange as watercolours have always been one of Painter's strongest areas and no-one could say that the new brushes are as realistic as the old ones. In fact this is hardly surprising as there are only two dedicated parameters at work here - diffusion and wet fringe. In a way though that's the point. Painter's existing complex watercolours can only be used on their own dedicated "wet" layers and take time and processing power to apply. The new Digital Watercolours are much simpler, faster, can be mixed with other brushes and still produce attractive results.

By providing a much wider range of brush presets along with the Property bar for setting the most important brush parameters, there's no shortage of creative power that users can tap immediately. But there are still plenty of occasions where you want to take greater control. That's where Painter's new Brush Creator dialog comes in. In its main Stroke Designer tab, you can select one of the 16 control "sets", such as General, Well, Liquid Ink or Impasto, and the associated parameters appear next to it (trust me this is a lot simpler than the former Brush Controls palette's outlinable and scrollable system). What really makes the difference is that to the right of the dialog there's a large preview canvas where you can try out changes before using them in earnest. Best of all, the dialog stays open so that you can seamlessly swap between your current image and the Brush Creator whenever you want to fine-tune your brush.

Of course it's still asking a lot of users to expect them to understand what they can do with each of the sixteen control sets, let alone each of the hundred plus parameters spread between them. That's where the Brush Creator dialog's additional tabs come in. Using the Randomizer tab, Painter generates random variations on the current brush which are displayed visually as preview strokes. Using the Transposer tab, you have more input and control as you select two brushes and Painter automatically creates intermediate variations. The results can be unexpected but that's often an advantage and, once a variation takes your fancy, you can always fine-tune it back in the Stroke Designer. Be warned though: use of the Brush Creator can be addictive.

The Brush Creator is where you take absolute control of your brushes.

In fact this can be a serious problem as, if you customize a brush and don't save it, it can be virtually impossible to recreate, but that's often exactly what you have to do if you decide to rework an area of your image. That's where Painter's new Brush Tracker palette comes in, recording each of the last 25 brushes that you've used. It's certainly very handy for quickly swapping between recently used alternatives, but the system would be much more useful if it only tracked those brushes actually used on the current image rather than every variation that you try out in the Brush Creator. It would be better still if these brush settings were stored in the image file itself.

Painter 8's main focus is clearly on its interface and brush handling, but there are a number of other important improvements. The first of these are apparent in Painter's layer handling which now supports layer groups, which are useful for keeping on top of complex compositions, and also layer masks, which enables non-destructive masking. Selection handling has also been updated with the ability to save up to 32 selections as alpha channels in the all-new Channels palette (though disappointingly this doesn't let you work on the separate colour channels).

Both these changes are especially significant as they are clearly inspired by Photoshop and indicate Corel's determination to make Painter the natural artistic partner to the market-leading photo editor. Most important in this regard is the ability to open and export to PSD format though this doesn't extend to full support for Photoshop's adjustment layers or Painter's dynamic plug-ins. No one could say that Painter was a mainstream application - after all that's its strength - but at least it no longer seems willfully perverse.

Photoshop compatibility is boosted with support for layer groups, masks and alpha channels.

Painter 8 has one final trick up its sleeve. With each new release Painter tends to include at least one major eye-catching effect such as the ability to create mosaics or woodcuts. This release is no different and introduces the Sketch filter which is designed to automatically turn existing images into hand-drawn drawings. Using the filter's small preview you set the sensitivity, smoothing and thresholds and Painter then pulls out the outlines accordingly. It's a useful tool but don't expect it to work miracles - ultimately, as Painter knows only too well, nothing can replace the eye and hand of the artist.

Paint8sketch.png: The Sketch filter turn images into artistic drawings.

For those users willing to put in the effort, Painter has always provided rich rewards and with this release Corel has not only boosted Painter's power but made it much more accessible. There's just one problem - reliability. Painter's natural media approach is inherently complex and demanding and the program has always had a tendency to crash. Sadly this release is no different, except that this time the program doesn't crash; it simply disappears taking any unsaved work with it! As is stands, this initial release of Painter 8.0 isn't ready for production environments. However, assuming that Corel improves reliability in a service update, Painter 8.1 should be the release that finally opens up Painter's amazing creative power to everyone - especially at its new attractive pricing.

Features

5

Ease Of Use

5

Value For Money

5

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Painter 8

Tom Arah

June 2003

Painter
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System Requirements : Pentium III, 128Mb of RAM, 200Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98 SE, ME, NT4 (SP6), 2000 (SP3) and XP, CD-ROM, 1024x768 display


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