procreate Painter 7

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Improvements to Painter's watercolour and ink handling help boost creativity while changes to its brush, text and colour handling help boost productivity.

Painter has always been an unusual program. Where other bitmap-based applications concentrate on editing photos, Painter has always majored on creating art. Rather than the usual colour correction and photo-composition approach, Painter has gone its own way offering a range of artistic tools, from chalks and pencils through to felt pens and oil paints, all designed to accurately mimic traditional artistic media. The program has never reached the audience it deserves however, because its unmatched creative power has been hidden behind an equally eccentric, sometimes wilfully perverse, working environment.

It's not just Painter's approach and interface which are remarkable - the program's history has been pretty unusual too. The program was initially developed by Fractal Design, then MetaCreations and has now been taken over by Corel. It's a situation that has caused some concern as the main criticisms of Painter have always revolved around its interface and buginess, neither of which are Corel strengths. Recently though the company has pledged itself to refocus on its professional graphics core and, as a sign of this new commitment, has launched Painter under a new brand, "procreate".

So does this first version of procreate Painter show new professionalism and creativity or does it fulfil the doubters' worst fears?

When the program first loads, it looks as if nothing has changed - which is seriously disappointing. Look a little closer though and some welcome changes appear. To begin with there's a new view slider at the bottom of the document window offering a continuous zoom rather than the previous fixed levels. When working on three dimensional drawings there's also the new ability to set up customisable perspective grids. Best of all is the new right-click context menu support which - at last - lets you quickly access relevant commands or change brush type and size.

Interface improvements include new text and view handling and context-menu support.

Painter's bizarre expandable and scrollable palette system has also seen some reworking (though not as much as many would wish). The Material palette's Colour Set section now offers the ability to generate palettes based on the current image, layer or selection - a big improvement on manually adding colours with the Eyedropper. The Object palette's former Dynamic Layers section has now been incorporated into the main Layers section and you can now customise each palette to remove sections that you rarely use such as the Weaves and Net Painter sections.

The biggest rationalization and change to the palette system is seen in Painter's new text handling. In the past this was handled either through vectors, with every letter you typed added to its own shape layer, or through an awkward "dynamic plug-in layer" controlled by its own dialog. Now all text is automatically added on editable text layers which appear in the Object palette's Layers section and are controlled with its new Text section. The change is largely cosmetic - each layer is effectively a dynamic layer that can be converted to shapes where necessary - but the simplicity and familiarity of the new handling boost usability enormously.

Another case of a relatively minor rationalization leading to a big practical improvement is Painter 7's new brush architecture. Each of the hundreds of brushes that Painter provides and which users create is defined as a unique combination of parameters. In the past all brush settings were stored in huge unwieldy library files which had to be controlled with Painter's awkward Mover dialog. Now each variant is stored as an independent XML file so that you can manage brushes simply by copying files to their own directories, exchange favourites with other users and even edit brush files externally.

It's not just the underlying brush architecture that has changed, Painter 7 also offers some serious new creative power. In particular it comprehensively tackles the important area of accurate watercolour handling. This is far more complicated to simulate than normal paint because here the colour pigment is suspended in water. This means that to look realistic strokes have to bleed together, pigment must diffuse into the wettest areas particularly the edges of strokes and then finally the pigment should dry out in patterns influenced by the paper grain.

New brush technology mimics the blending, diffusion and drying of real watercolours.

Existing users might well be thinking that Painter has always offered water colour handling with its dedicated Wet layer, but the new system is leagues ahead in terms of realism. Where previous versions offered limited diffusion and fringing control, the new system offers control over wetness, pickup, drying rate, diffusion, evaporation threshold grain soak and even wind direction! It might sound complicated but all you have to do is begin painting with one of the wide range of provided brushes and you'll be able to see your computerised brush strokes bleed, diffuse and dry in real time just as they would in real life. Even better, you can now have any number of water colour layers so that you can keep maximum control and editability.

The same is true of Painter 7's second new layer-based media, Liquid Ink. Again Painter has long offered impressive ink-based brushes and pens, but these new layer-based versions are in a completely different league in terms of realism and creative effect. In particular Painter now mimics the viscosity and surface tension of ink which means that strokes congeal and bind together and that edges form irregularly just as they do in real life.

The viscosity of the new Liquid Ink tools adds to realism.

As you would expect Painter provides plenty of pre-supplied brushes and each can be customised by fine-tuning parameters such as Smoothness and Random Brush Size in the Brush Control palette's new Liquid Ink section. The results aren't only better as you draw, you also have new control over the ink you've already applied. By changing the Ink Type to Colour Only, for example, you can recolour existing strokes, while the Resist option lets you realistically carve away at existing ink. As well as boosting control this opens up numerous special effects such as the creation of wax resist painting and lino and woodcut images.

You can also create impressive woodcut effects automatically, using one of Painter 7's new Surface Control effects. The Woodcut filter lets you control the detail and erosion of the black edge around objects and even lets you create coloured variations where you can set the number of colours that are generated along with their smoothness. The new Distress effect works in a similar way to produce an antique effect based on either paper grain or the image's original luminance.

The third of the new colour reduction filters is likely to prove the most useful. The Serigraphy effect lets you break down continuous tone images into a series of customisable spot colour layers. All that you have to do is select colours from the original, control the resulting image selection by managing factors such as hue, saturation and luminescence weighting and then, when you're happy with the result, hit the Create Spot Layer command. You can create as many layers as you want and then control features such as layer blend mode to quickly turn any photograph into a screen printed poster.

The Serigraphy filter is ideal for making images look like screen prints.

Three further effects come courtesy of the fact that Corel didn't only pick up Painter from the MetaCreations break-up, it also snapped up the KPT 5 filter collection. FraxFlame generates fractal textures, ShapeShifter works to turn image selections into pseudo-3D objects and Smoothie comes in handy for smoothing the edges of masks. Each filter should prove useful on occasion but they aren't exactly dedicated art effects and act more as a taster for the full KPT collection.

The rest of Painter 7's new functionality is focused on output. With its image slicing and HTML capabilities Painter has long portrayed itself as a dedicated Web tool, but this impression has always been undercut by the program's abysmal image optimization. Now at last this has been addressed with image previews in the Save As JPEG and Save As GIF dialogs so that you can finally see what effect your settings are going to produce. Sadly though the previews are still too small to be really useful, there's no feedback on resulting file size and there's still very little control on offer.

Frankly Painter is still out of its depth for Web work - but that was never really its purpose. Painter is all about producing art and so what really matters is that it should fit in with professional print-oriented workflows. Here there have been serious improvements with Corel importing the same ICC profile-based Kodak colour management system that it uses in Corel Draw and Photo-Paint. Rather more importantly this means that Painter 7 is able to work much more closely with Photoshop without the serious colour shifting of the past - a tighter integration that is cemented by Painter's new ability to both open and write CMYK-based PSD files.

All in all, Painter 7 manages to move ahead on two fronts. The eccentricities of the past are gradually being rationalized and working practices brought more into the mainstream (thankfully it looks like the bugs that plagued version 6 have also been brought under control). At the same time new features such as the watercolour and liquid ink handling show that this new conformity hasn't come at the cost of lost artistic innovation.

With improvements in both productivity and creativity it's a good start for the procreate brand.

Features

6

Ease Of Use

3

Value For Money

5

Overall

5

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

September 2001

Painter
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System Requirements : Pentium 200 or higher, 64MB RAM, 275MB disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 or NT 4, SVGA, CD-ROM


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