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  • Price: £259 plus VAT

  • Company: Laurence King

  • Our Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10 We rate this 9 out of 10

It’s fair to say that when it comes to natural-media-style artwork in the digital realm, Painter has it sewn-up. There never has been a 2D package that could rival it in terms of features and usability, and much like Adobe Photoshop, the program enjoys perfect status as the leader in its field. This version is the second release by Corel, having purchased the program from MetaCreations when that company decided to abandon the graphics market. Corel finds itself in the enviable position of having in its possession some great graphics applications, including KnockOut, Bryce, and CorelDRAW. It’s interesting that Painter is marketed under the broader Corel name rather than the offshoot Procreate banner, despite the latter having a roster of products aimed squarely at the creative design market. ‘Photoshop’ boost On launching Painter 8, it’s clear that Corel has made an important choice about the user interface. The decision seems to have been make it look and feel as much like Photoshop as possible – and indeed, that’s certainly the first impression you get. Photoshop users who have used earlier versions of Painter will be struck at once by the changes made to the interface, but will feel right at home with them, too. Across the top of the screen is an options bar, just like in Photoshop, where you can access parameters of the currently selected tool. At the far left is a vertical tool-palette containing the various tool buttons, foreground/background swatches, and so on. Sound familiar? Painter and Photoshop have always been companions, yet neither has stepped on each other’s toes much through their development. It makes total sense for Corel to make the Painter-Photoshop experience as seamless as possible, while also improving the Painter workflow. Previous versions of the program have suffered from a surfeit of palettes, but the new scheme in version 8 seems at last to have gotten things under control. If you haven’t used it before, the folding palette system is excellent. All the palettes can be stored in a single scrolling list, which can become a trawl when many are open at once. But clicking on a palette name in the title bar opens the palette and closes the rest. In this way, scrolling is minimized, as is the size of the palette. If you want more than one palette open at once – the Colour dial and Colour Variability, for example – you can use the triangle in the title bar to unfold the ones you want to show. You can even drag the title bars to arrange their order, tear them off into separate floating palettes, and drag floating palettes into the stack to dock them. Floating palettes are magnetic, too, which makes it easy to organize your screen neatly, and seems to work better than in Photoshop. In fact, the palette scheme as a whole feels a lot better than in Photoshop: Corel is certainly on the right path in combining the best of both packages. Brush browser What we’re not so sure about, though, is the new brush-browsing system, which, again, is a mirror image of that in Photoshop. In previous versions, there was a floating, tabbed palette for brushes, which was compact and easy to navigate. In version 8, it’s a pop-up menu that sits in the Brush Selector bar next to the Properties bar (though you can move it). It’s a matter of personal taste, but we preferred Photoshop’s old Brush palette over the later pop-up system – and it’s the same with Painter. It would be nice if Corel offered an option to switch the Brush Selector back to a palette if you so desired. There are some great new features in Painter 8 that natural-media artists will love. One of the best is the new Colour Mixer palette. It’s so simple you wonder why they didn’t implement it ages ago. It’s a digital version of a traditional painter’s palette where you can add and mix inks interactively until you get precisely the right colour. Imagine squirting blobs of primary colours onto the four corners of the palette, then switching to the mixer brush and dragging in the palette, mixing and adding just the right amounts of colour you want. Alternatively, it allows a more intuitive way to create and store a range of colours and tones with which to work, allowing quick access to a palette of harmonious colours that can be sampled from as you paint. It works brilliantly – plus you can save the mixture to a file for recall in another project. Palette-tastic You can also share palettes with other Painter 8 users. The only limitation is that you can make the palette very big. It’s OK as it is, but it gets a bit cramped if you want to mix lots of tones together. It would make sense to have a hotkey set-up when using the Paintbrush tool (hold Cmd for mix, Ctrl for the eyedropper, and so on) so that you could mix and sample colours from the mixer without having to click on the tools below it. If you want brushes, Painter has just about as many as you could wish for. Bundled with the application are about 400 presets, ranging from inks to pencils, impasto effects, watercolours, image hoses, and more. However if you’re still unsatisfied with the defaults, the new Brush Creator gives you total freedom to customize the presets and design new brushes. The panel consists of three tabs. The first is the master tab containing all of the parameters including options for pen control, and so on. The options on offer are extensive; you could easily waste a day just playing with this feature alone. Brush types The other two tabs are more interesting, with regards to workflow. The first – Randomizer – takes your current brush setting and produces variations on that theme (more variations are available if you make the palette bigger). It resembles a feature often found in other MetaCreations programs, notably Kai’s Powertools and Bryce, where you can randomize a setting to generate new ones. The degree of randomization can be varied from small to large using a slider. However, it doesn’t randomize between brush types – only the parameters therein. This requires the Transposer tab. Here you can choose one brush type at the top and a second at the bottom, and have Painter 8 blend between them. This is an excellent way to have some of the qualities of one brush and some of another without having to spend ages tweaking parameters in the Designer tab. There are limitations to this feature, of course. You can’t transpose a digital watercolour brush and a liquid-ink brush since both of these types work on special layers specific to their type. Painter lets you set this up in the Transpose tab, and will attempt to transpose the two, but the result will not combine qualities that are mutually exclusive and specific to the layers. A new Sketch effect can be applied to photos or artwork to create an outline, sketch effect. Used as is on a photo, the results are so-so, and it actually makes more sense as a utility for converting an existing image into an outline for tracing purposes. Layers have been augmented with proper Photoshop-like masks. Just create a layer mask, select your brush, and paint to mask out part of the layer. You can blur the layer, use selections to fill it, and load it as a selection, as in Photoshop. Ease of use Corel has made a number of simple improvements that will help with general usage. Those used to Photoshop will be happy to see that, at long last, brushes display their size as you paint. This had long been a big oversight and it’s a wonder why it took so long to sort out. A new Tracker palette also makes an appearance in version 8. The Tracker simply stores your most recent brushes for easy access – an elegant solution that helps speed workflow. In use, Painter 8 is pretty much what you’d expect, and quite a bit better than you might have been used to. Veterans accustomed to the program’s foibles may need time to adjust to the changes made to the interface, but that’s to be expected. It’s clearly a better design than before. Painter is a bit of a memory hog, though. Realistically, forget trying to work on a machine slower than 1GHz: the more-complex brushes (such as the watercolour layers) just bog the processor down. You’ll also need a chunk of RAM: 512MB is good, but more is better. Whereas Photoshop can chug along on a slower machine so long as it has plenty of RAM and scratch disc space, Painter really needs a fast processor too. What you don’t want is to be waiting for strokes to complete while your creative juices boil over and evaporate. There are some issues with speed – especially working at high resolutions, and we found some responses glitches when using a Wacom tablet, though we’re not sure whether Painter or the Wacom driver was at fault. But despite this, Painter 8 is a great upgrade to a great program.