Metacreations Painter 6

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With a simpler interface, enhanced brushes and industry-standard layers, Painter 6 should be a must-have upgrade - but bugs are a problem.

Painter 6 layers

With the recent releases of Photoshop 5.5, PhotoImpact 5 and Paint Shop  Pro 6 there are plenty of options in the bitmap editing market, but  there's one program that stands out from the crowd. While the majority  concentrate on photo-editing and web graphic creation, MetaCreations  Painter has carved out a niche for itself by focussing on artistic image  origination. Based on its amazing brush technology, designed to accurately  mimic traditional media, Painter has become the natural choice for those  interested in creating art on the computer.

Painter might be aimed at traditional creative artists but it has never been the right program for technophobes. The sheer range of options for controlling the behaviour of brushes has always been bewildering and MetaCreations has always seemed to revel in the program's complexity rather than trying to minimize it. It's not just the interface that has been idiosyncratic and intimidating. While just about every other program under the sun opted for layer-based composition, Painter went its own way with its "floater" system. It wasn't only the name that was ugly - just trying to paint on a floater was a nightmare involving creating a new brush variant and setting its method to "plug-in" and its subcategory to "transparent layer brush"!

Thankfully, with version 6, MetaCreations has seen the light and, as well as enhancing its core brush handling, has tackled Painter's interface and image composition limitations head on.

The first sign of the changes is that the previous overabundance of floating palettes has been rationalized and integrated into just three: the Brushes palette for controlling every aspect of Painter's tools; the Art Materials palette for selecting colours, textures, gradients and so on; and an Objects palette for handling everything else. Each palette starts off as a list of expandable section titles so that the Brushes palette, for example, is made up of fourteen sections such as General, Size, Spacing, Angle and so on. Click on the heading and the relevant options appear ready for customisation.

Painter 6 interface

The Painter interface has been seriously rationalized into three main expandable palettes.

The new system is a huge advance on the old and begins to bring the program under some sort of rational and even streamlined control - but it's by no means perfect. To begin with, although users will at least now know where to start looking when they want to change something, there's very little feedback to help them make the right decision. Click on the Well section, for example, and the Resaturation, Bleed and Dryout sliders appear - but with absolutely no indication of what effect they will have on the brush. Painter's help system isn't a great deal of help here either as all it offers is access to an Acrobat version of the user manual.

Some level of complexity is inevitable with the sheer range of variables Painter offers, but MetaCreations could certainly do more to make the system of controlling brushes more visual and intuitive. It could also rethink its bizarre expandable palettes. It's a pretty safe bet that when you expand a section, you're interested in looking at it. Currently, if the section title is near the bottom of the palette, the section will only partially appear, so that you have to scroll the palette to see the options you want. In other words each of the three main palettes acts as a window onto a scrollable list of all the former palettes!

Painter's new expandable palettes are a typical case of two steps forward and one step back. The same is true of the other interface changes in Painter 6. Welcome improvements include the introduction of alphabetized variant lists and a recently opened files list - at last. Less welcome is the new automatic saving of any changes you make to the current brush. This will be particularly dangerous in the hands of non-experts who will inevitably make undesirable changes when experimenting and then find that they have become permanent.

Painter's interface remains as idiosyncratic as ever, but there's no question that it's a lot better than it was. In terms of new brush-based power, version 6 initially looks a big disappointment. The 150 new nozzles for the image hose will certainly prove useful, for example, but there aren't any obviously headline-grabbing must-have new brushes. Dig a little deeper though and you'll find that many of tools in version 6 have been given a radical overhaul thanks to a major reworking of the underlying brush engine.

The first sign of the new level of control is the ability to set a minimum size for your brush as a percentage of the full size. Painter has always had the ability to vary width according to pressure but now this can be precisely managed to produce much more elegant and realistic variation along the stroke. Rather more programming effort must have gone into the new brush loading feature. In the past Painter's brushes interacted with previously applied colour by sampling underlying pixels and then averaging them to load the brush with one new colour. Now with brush loading activated you can pick up colours bristle by bristle producing much more accurate colour interactions and better cloning results.

The biggest change in Painter 6's new brush engine is its introduction of "computed" brushstrokes. Previously most brushes were dab-based in that they were actually laying down a series of individual impressions. These dabs couldn't usually be seen unless spacing was set to over 100% or the brush moved too quickly, but it inevitably led to rough edges to the line. Now, with the new computed brushes, strokes are completely smooth and continuous - you can't paint fast enough to leave dabs because they just aren't there. Even better, rather than just applying colour, these new brushes can apply gradients and patterns to produce some incredible eye-catching effects.

Painter 6 computed brushes

The new range of computed brush strokes can be used to apply gradients and patterns.

Rather more subtle effects are possible thanks to Painter's new support for tilt and bearing from modern digitising tablets such as the new Wacom Intuos range. In the past to produce the effect of painting with either the face or edge of a flat brush, for example, you had to directly modify the brush shape. Now, with an Intuos stylus, you can simply rotate and tilt your pen just as you would in real life. The biggest practical difference is apparent with the airbrushes which are no longer limited to painting in head-on circles but instead produce conic sections depending on the angle at which you hold the stylus. With the realistic pooling offered by the new Continuous Time Deposition feature it really does feel like you are using the real thing. Mouse users haven't been completely forgotten either and can manually change pressure, tilt, bearing and wheel values with the new Mouse section of the Brushes palette.

Painter 6 has also seen a complete reworking of the Impasto effect which produces the appearance of textured and three-dimensional brush strokes. In previous versions this was handled by a dedicated "dynamic plug-in floater" but now it's possible to turn just about any brush into an impasto variant simply by setting it to paint not just as colour but also as depth. All the depth information is stored separately for the image as a whole which means that the impasto effect can be temporarily hidden or permanently deleted. Alternatively, by calling up the Impasto Lighting dialog, you can set up multiple coloured lights to customise the way in which the depth in your picture is brought to life.

All told, the changes to Painter's underlying brush engine prove fundamental and impressive. Other bitmap editors are increasingly throwing in natural media brushes to their feature sets, but version 6 again puts clear water between Painter and its rivals. Most impressive of all is the fact that, thanks to performance and file handling optimisation, Painter 6 manages to offer its new power without grinding to a crawl. Moreover, on those occasions where Painter can't keep up with your strokes, the new multi-stroke spooling means that you aren't left twiddling your thumbs. Perhaps the most welcome changes of all are two minor tweaks that users have been absolutely crying out for: the onscreen cursor now reflects your current brush shape and, when you resize a brush, Painter no longer asks if you want it to be built for you!

After tackling its interface and brush engine, Painter 6 turns its attention to how its images are built up as compositions. In the past this was handled through the use of floaters which were effectively bitmap objects floating above the main canvas. These floaters have now been turned into Photoshop-style layers that act like a stack of acetate sheets across the image as a whole. To an extent the shift from floaters to layers is largely semantic as layers now fulfil much the same function as the floaters used to.

Painter 6 layers

Painter now supports industry-standard layers for creating photomontages.

However, the fact that new layers ready for painting on can be created with a single click makes a huge difference in practice as does the fact that you can now handle selections on each layer. The new Photoshop-style Layers section of the Objects menu also makes it much easier to change the stacking order, opacity and blend mode and to temporarily hide layers. The difference in terms of the ability to experiment and be creative is immense. In short, as soon as you see layers in action, you wonder how on earth you managed to create compositions with Painter in the past.

In fact of course most users did so by constantly swapping between Painter and Photoshop. Now, with its layering system, that's no longer necessary and Painter is finally able to emerge as a true standalone package - especially now that it supports outputting to TIFF in CMYK format. The switch to layers is even better though for those users who continue to use both packages as Painter can now open and write to Photoshop PSD files while maintaining layers intact. Having both packages working in fundamentally the same way is a huge boost to productivity.

Painter hasn't just copied the idea of image layers, it has also reworked its former plug-in floaters as new "dynamic layers" which act very much like Photoshop's adjustment layers. Painter doesn't offer the same range of non-destructive colour correction adjustments as Photoshop but does provide the basics with its Brightness/Contrast, Equalize and Posterize options. Rather more impressive are its special effect dynamic layers. The Bevel World option offers even greater customisable control over the production of Web buttons than Photoshop 5.5's layer effects, while its existing Burn, Glass and Liquid Metal dynamic layers chart completely new creative territory.

That's only the beginning. Draw on your image with any of Painter's rectangle, oval, pen, quick curve or text tools, and you'll see that each shape or letter is automatically added to its own layer. In fact each object is being stored on its own vector layer which means that it can be resized, rotated, slanted, distorted, reflected, recoloured, restroked and node-edited - and all with no loss of quality. Painter even supports cut and paste from Illustrator and enables shapes to be blended together. This ability to interweave vector and bitmap components in a single image gives a huge boost to both flexibility and creativity and Painter 6's advanced implementation leaves Photoshop looking seriously underpowered.

One of the major uses of vector handling is for the handling of text,  but Painter's default text handling of one letter per vector layer hardly  makes for simple re-editing. The solution is to use Painter's dedicated  text dynamic layer. This allows lines of text to be entered, sized and  positioned and then, at any time in the future, the dialog can be recalled  for re-editing simply by double-clicking on the layer name. The one major  disappointment is that Painter 6 is not able to read Photoshop's text  layers and keep them editable.

This is more than made up for, however, by the formatting power that Painter's revamped dynamic text dialog offers through its three main tabs. The first of these, Baseline, allows you to choose a curve style to automatically produce text on a fully editable path. The second, Adjustment, allows you to control the point size, aspect ratio, angle, skew, kerning and angle of your text. Finally the third, Appearance, allows you to change opacity, choose any pattern or gradient fill and apply a blur effect. Even better, you can then do exactly the same for an offset shadow.

Painter 6 text on a curve

The text on a curve controls are especially impressive.

The end result is the most creative text on a curve system that I've come across and one which exemplifies the benefits of Painter's combined vector and pixel-based layer handling. It's not all good news, however. MetaCreations makes a great deal about how its new layers are industry-standard. They largely are - but not quite. The handling of layer masks and selections are idiosyncratic, for example, and there are no controls over blending thresholds. Much more worrying is the internal inconsistency - I repeatedly found that temporarily hiding a dynamic layer also mysteriously hid all underlying layers.

Sadly this was only the beginning of the problems with Painter. Just trying to keep the program running long enough to produce screenshots was a nightmare. Even the simplest action, such as changing brush size or colour, was potentially disastrous as it could easily crash the program and demand rebooting. Worse, when you then tried to reload the program you'd find that a crucial Painter file had been corrupted so that you had to reinstall! Worst of all, exactly the same happened on different system running both Windows 95 and 98 and, from the mail I've received, it's clear that my experience is pretty typical.

All in all, Painter 6 is much the flakiest program I've ever had to look at and MetaCreations should be ashamed at letting it out on an unsuspecting public. The good news is that the company has recently posted a 6.0.1 bug fix that seems to have cured the worst problems. The bad news is that it's still by no means perfect. A buggy program is irritating enough at the best of times, but with Painter 6 it's especially infuriating as I really want to be able to get at its unrivalled creative power. If Painter 6 was rock-solid it would deserve a recommended award but, until MetaCreations has sorted out the problems, the best advice is to be careful.

Tom Arah

Features

6

Ease Of Use

2

Value For Money

5

Overall

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

November 1999


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