Metacreations Painter 5.5

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Modern web tools add to Painter's traditional artistic strengths, but usability is still poor.

Painter 5.5 screenshot

In its previous five releases Fractal Designer Painter has built up an unrivalled reputation as the leading application for creating art on the computer. This half-point upgrade - the first version under the new MetaCreations label - is designed to build up a similar reputation for unrivalled web creativity and control.

The heart of Painter's success has always been its natural media brushes and, as with every previous release, the range on offer has again been expanded. To keep memory overheads down the two new sets of brushes aren't loaded automatically, but are made available through the Shortcut to New Brushes palette. The first group of over thirty new Calligraphic brushes is typical of the way Painter's brush technology mimics traditional media. The new "Wet Extreme Diffusion Calligraphic" option, for example, produces a wash of colour with in-built colour variation that interacts with itself and the underlying paper texture and in which the paint seems to diffuse to the edge of the stroke.

The results look completely naturalistic, like a Japanese watercolour, and it is difficult to believe that they have been created on a computer rather than with pen and paper. The problem is that much of the naturalness of the effect is due to subtle variations in colour. That's not an issue for print, but for Web use it means higher file sizes and for 256-colour GIF work it is also likely to lead to unwanted posterisation effects. In fact in many ways the demands of continuous-tone naturalistic art and the demands of Web graphics are diametrically opposed.

MetaCreations solution is to offer a new set of over fifty dedicated Web brushes divided into five main groups. What sets these brushes apart is that they are not anti-aliased which means that their edges are completely hard with no subtle shading off. This cuts down on colour variation and so on file size, but inevitably it also leads to cruder effects so that the airspray, for example, is more like a sugar duster. Even so the brushes still interact with the paper grain and still look much more natural and creative than the basic tools available in other packages. Beware though, Metacreations couldn't quite resist offering some Web brushes, such as the Big Loaded Oils option, that are built on colour variation. The only way to make these Web safe is to use the clumsy Posterize Using Colour Set command.

Floaters and Text

Successful web imaging also makes unusual demands as far as traditional bitmap programs are concerned in that it requires advanced handling of features such as objects, buttons and text. In fact, despite Painter's emphasis on brushes, version 5 was already ahead of much of the bitmap competition in these areas with its vector-based Shapes technology and its use of image objects or "floaters". Using the plug-in Bevel World floater, for example, it offered unrivalled creation of 3D-style buttons with control over everything from lighting direction to cliff and rim slope! This is undoubtedly powerful, but it would be even more useful if it was simplified and made easier to access.

One area that was very weak in version 5, and which 5.5 addresses, is text handling. In the past every letter you typed in Painter was managed as a separate floater, now it's left to a dedicated Dynamic Text plug-in available from the Object palette. Again the dialog for controlling text is unnecessarily intimidating but offers basic control, over typeface, size, leading, and so on, together with advanced features, such as pattern fills and automatic drop shadows. Painter's dynamic text still isn't suited for long sections of text and doesn't offer local formatting, but its great strength is that it offers future editability - just double-click on the floater name in the Objects palette and you can change both text and settings.

Painter's flexibility when it comes to the creation of web graphics isn't in the same league as vector-based solutions, such as Corel Xara and Macromedia Fireworks, but it still puts most of the bitmap competition to shame in terms of end results if not of ease of use. However, the creation of the graphic is only half the story, it must also be saved to a web format and then integrated into your web page. Most important of all is the process of image optimisation that compresses the file as much as possible without making the quality unacceptable.

Image Optimization

Surprisingly, Painter 5.5's web optimization is very disappointing. To begin with there is no Export option so you have to use the much less convenient Save As command. When it appears, the Save As GIF dialog looks comprehensive, but it is actually very limited. You can limit the number of colours, for example, but the only way to choose a particular palette is beforehand with the Posterize Using Colour Set command. Moreover, as there is no automatic preview in the dialog, you have to click on the Preview command to see the effect of any changes you make. This is clumsy and time-consuming but at least it's better than the Save As JPEG dialog which has no preview command at all so you have to guess what effect changes to quality and smoothness will make. Again this is still one step up on the Save As PNG dialog - there isn't one as Painter 5.5 still doesn't support the format!

The lack of acceptable optimisation is a huge drawback, but Painter attempts to make up for it with its HTML support. Floaters can be given URL links with the Floater Attribute command and server or client-side image maps can be created when the image is saved. Much more powerful is the ability to automatically create HTML tables. Again this is achieved through the Objects palette and a new plug-in - the Image Slicer. This allows guides to be added to the image to slice it into sections, each of which can be given different output settings. When the file is saved, separate graphic sections are created together with an HTML table which is used to reassemble the complete image in the browser.

Advanced Rollovers

The main advantage of image slicing is that it squeezes the download size to the absolute minimum, but another important use is for the creation of rollover effects where the underlying image changes as the mouse moves over it or clicks on it. This is a complex task which most dedicated web imaging programs, such as Adobe ImageReady, don't even attempt. Painter 5.5 makes it possible through the ability to set an image state, mouseover for example, and to then use the Export Settings for Current Image State command. Painter will automatically generate not just the HTML table, but also the JavaScript necessary to make the effect viewable in version 4 browsers.

The power is impressive, but you have to be dedicated to make the most of it. The main difficulty is that you have to prepare your image for each of the rollover states. The only way that this can be controlled consistently is by temporarily hiding and revealing different floaters. Make a mistake or decide to change an image element and you'll have to repeat the whole process from scratch. The logistics are a nightmare and if you are likely to want to create rollovers regularly then you would certainly be better off with a dedicated program like Macromedia Fireworks which can manage each image state as different frames.

In many ways Painter's rollover capabilities are typical of the program as a whole. It offers impressive power and some unique effects, but the practicalities have been forgotten. I for one would certainly trade the advanced JavaScripting for an automatic export preview. Hopefully the whole question of usability throughout the program will be addressed in a complete overhaul in version 6 as currently only the truly dedicated and determined will be able to make the most of Painter's huge power.

In the meantime, although Painter 5.5's new web controls are welcome additions - and certainly worth the upgrade price for Painter's existing art-based userbase - they aren't enough to make the program the web tool of choice for the average user.

Features

5

Ease Of Use

3

Value For Money

5

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

April 1999


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