Metacreations Painter 5

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With a host of new brushes and amazing artistic effects, Painter 5 is far and  away the most creative software around. However the power it offers is by no  means intuitive so be ready for a steep - and continuous - learning curve.

Metacreations Painter 5

Fractal Design Painter is determined to be different. To establish its fine-art credentials the program arrives not in the ordinary cardboard box, but in a metal paint pot. It certainly gives the program a strong identity and helps to make it stand out from the crowd, but it also has its drawbacks. Now in its fifth version, the manual has grown so large that it took me five minutes just to prise the CD out from the tin! At least when the software is finally up and running - and it takes a full four minutes to load on a fast system - Painter more than lives up to the marketing hype.

What really distinguishes Painter from the competition is its art-based approach and its accurate simulation of the various tools of the traditional artist ranging from airbrush and charcoal through to ink and oil paint. When using a tool like the watercolour brush, for example, the colour, width and opacity of the stroke all change according to on the pressure of your stylus, or the speed of your mouse. More than this, the paint diffuses to the edge of the strokes, picks up the colour below it and interacts with the grain of the paper just as it would in real life. Many other programs now offer so-called "artistic" tools, but none of them even comes close to Painter's realistic interaction of brush, paint and canvas.

With over two hundred variations on the main brush tools, and the ability to customise each to your own requirements, Fractal Design has always promoted the program as the only art materials you'd ever need. Obviously that wasn't quite true, as they now want you to upgrade to version 5 to get access to another hundred. These new plug-in brushes are not incorporated directly into the core brush set as Painter's memory requirements are already very demanding - hence the loading time. Instead they are accessed as they are required by clicking on shortcut icons in a new onscreen palette.

Never having explored all of the options already on offer, I was worried that the new brushes would be gimmicky and unnecessary. I'm glad to say that this isn't the case as each of the new tools is more than worthy of its place. For example there are a range of five new natural-media tools including a palette knife and dry brush. Even more welcome are the new photo brushes for dodging, burning, tinting and so on, which are essential for basic image retouching. Painter still isn't ready to compete with dedicated photo-editors like Photoshop but, with unique tools like the grain brush for adding detail to shadows, it's certainly a useful complement.

The other new brushes all tend to fall into the special effects category. The "super F/X" brushes allow realistic fire and neon-style effects to be applied while the "super cloning" brushes allow a section of an image to be copied and transformed at the same time. This could be used, for example, to fill a field with slightly different variations of a cloned sheep. The various "gooey" brushes are particularly effective allowing deformation effects, such as stretching, pinching and pulling, to be interactively painted onto an image. These are great fun when used on photos of friends - or better still enemies - but are also very useful for creating realistic clouds and waves.

Perhaps the most important new tools are the "layer" brushes. These enable brush strokes to be added as if they were being painted on a sheet of glass overlaying the canvas. The beauty is that the interaction of the strokes with the image below can be retrospectively changed, for example to vary the level of transparency. More importantly, because the underlying image is not affected in any way, the layer can be infinitely and non-destructively fine-tuned until you get exactly the effect you are looking for.

Unfortunately there is a major problem - complexity. To create a layer the user must first create a canvas-wide transparent floater using the Objects palette. This must then be selected from the palette's list of floaters together with a layer brush. Only three of these are originally provided, but any existing brush can be converted into a layer brush by expanding the Brushes palette and changing the method option to "plug-in" and the subcategory option to "transparent layer brush". This is hardly intuitive, which is a huge pity as the power and control that the intelligent use of layers can open up is immense.

While Painter's implementation of painting layers is disappointing, this is more than made up for by the new "dynamic floaters". As with transparent layers, these new plug-in floaters are objects that overlay the image. What makes them different is that they dynamically interact with the image below to produce exciting effects. Photoshop recently introduced a similar idea with its adjustment layers, which are used for applying colour correction to an image. Again, because the data in the underlying image is actually left unaffected, the effect can always be called up again for creative fine-tuning.

Like Photoshop, Painter offers dynamic floaters for adjusting brightness, contrast, equalization and posterization, but then takes the idea into completely new areas. The glass distortion and kaleidoscope floaters, for example, are floating lenses that refract and reflect the underlying layers. As they are moved around the image they automatically update. The bevel world floater, on the other hand, gives an impression of depth and dimension to effectively produce movable buttons. The possibilities these offer for web and multimedia work are obvious and Painter allows each button to be associated with a URL for the creation of image maps.

For each plug-in floater Painter gives the user complete control over the final effect. For instance with the burn dynamic floater there are controls not just over the width of the burn margin, but of the flame breadth and strength and even wind direction. It is even possible to ensure that the singeing reflects the current paper texture. More importantly, if you decide that you want to fine-tune the effect at any point in future, you only have to double click on the floater name in the Object palette list to call up the dialog for editing.

Such power is pretty mind-boggling, but pales in comparison to the Impasto and Liquid Metal dynamic floaters. Rather than being object-based these work through a combination of layer-based settings and interactive painting. With the Impasto plug-in, for example, it is possible to set up a depth layer. When you then paint on the floater the brush stroke is automatically given the appearance of a 3-D texture. Even having read the manual and help file I can't pretend that I understand exactly what is happening, but the end results are amazing. I used to think that the basic oil paint brush was convincing enough, but in the Impasto version you really do feel like you are pushing thick paint around the canvas.

The Liquid Metal effect is even more amazing. Normally I'm suspicious about any effect with "metal" in the title as the only practical use I can think of would be to design a Yes album. The Painter implementation, however, is very different and is capable of producing effects that are not just stunning but beautiful. With the dialog open it is possible to use any brush to add droplets to an image. Using the refraction control it is then possible to set these droplets to reflect an external image to look like metal, or to refract the underlying image to look like rain. This is amazing enough, but my jaw dropped in amazement when I came to edit the effect. The droplets really do have surface tension so that if one droplet is smeared too near to another it is automatically soaked up.

Painter's dynamic floaters represent a huge advance in image processing to add to existing strengths such as the program's cloning, image hose, video editing, Net features and the use of vector-based shapes. When added to the unmatched - and unmatchable - core engine offered by Painter's brushes, there's no question that the program is the only real choice for anyone seriously interested in computer-based art.

Unfortunately there is a problem. At the best of times artists tend to be computer-phobic, but Painter is their worst nightmare come true. With separate palettes, or palette options, or palette menus to control brushes, papers, gradations, patterns, weaves, floaters, plug-ins, masks, scripts and nozzles, it's all too easy to get hopelessly lost. Admittedly new features like the introduction of ToolTips and the ability to tear off and customise palettes are some help, but the entire interface needs a serious overhaul.

Of course, with the sheer range of power and customisation on offer, some level of complexity is inevitable. Painter is never going to be as simple to use as Paintbrush. The real problem though is that Fractal Design does nothing to protect the user from the worst complications, but instead seems to revel in them. Just the phrase "plug-in brush method subcategory" could push some sensitive users over the edge and there is no real excuse for it. Fractal Design has to work much harder at hiding the computer-based work involved in producing its effects to enable the user to take full advantage of them.

Overall Painter 5 is a superb program, but it's not just the packaging that needs to be made more accessible.

Ease of Use

4

Features

6

Value for Money

6

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

December 1998


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