• Price: $49.40 (around £33)

  • Company: Ambient Design

  • Pros: Natural media watercolours and oils; uncluttered interface; cheap

  • Cons: Tools aren’t as sophisticated as Painter’s; can be slow; lighting weak

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

Up until recently, the digital painting world was split between those working miracles with Photoshop’s limited tools and those enduring headaches with Painter’s overbearing complexity. When ArtRage arrived it was like a breath of fresh air, and here with version 4 it has stepped up to rival either, more expansive package, for your digital painting needs.

ArtRage is like Painter in that it is a proper, natural-media painting package. That means that paint on the paper has depth and mixes with the underlying colour or watercolour spreads and dries on the paper.

In terms of what’s new in this version, it’s all about supporting and making best use of tablets and pens, though most features are supported by mouse control as well. There’s bristle stiffness and head aspect control when using the oil paints, colour and brush sizes can be stored as presets, your own colour swatches can be saved and there are coloured canvas patterns.

For direct Wacom stylus support there’s new support for the Stylus Tilt, Airbrush Wheel and Art Pen Barrel Rotation, stylus properties can be defined and tools can be assigned to specific styluses.

Using a trace layer means that the tool used automatically picks up the colour from underneath, making it easy to create a new image

There are lots of other enhancements, the most notable of which are the paint symmetry options that will help speed up painting by duplicating brush strokes. These include mirroring, adjustable axes and rotation and symmetrical strokes. Although ArtRage is fairly robust there’s now automatic backing up of files when saving so there’s always another copy on hand.

If you were hoping for lots of new media brushes then look away, the focus here is on making everything work better. Previously you could pin reference images to the canvas, well now you can pin scraps for colour mixing or making test paintings. There are also independent viewports that can be zoomed and panned and references are easy to drag directly off the canvas when no longer needed.

A number of the enhancements are workflow related, so that the workspace can be collapsed to provide a tight, focussed area and there’s a single panel for gathering custom resources. There are some new tools though, with the addition of a cloner, gradient and pattern fills and a noise filter.

There’s support for multiple layers and easily using reference images and scraps of images for test purposes

If you’ve never used ArtRage before, then the minimalist interface will come as something of a surprise, but it’s all about making the tools easy to use and concentrating on the painting. This release continues that progress making it a compelling, low-cost alternative to the natural media overload of Painter. The oils and watercolours aren’t as sophisticated as Painter, but they are definitely better than Photoshop’s tools, and they do act and react in a natural media fashion. This makes creating those styles of artwork much easier.

Easy to recommend ArtRage, the latest improvements make it more flexible and powerful. While it isn’t on a par with the tools available in Painter, it has a massively shorter learning time and can be producing excellent results in very little time. With a bargain price as well, ArtRage 4 can sit happily alongside your more expensive software, ready to be picked up and used quickly.