• Price: £262.50 plus VAT . Upgrade from £132 plus VAT

  • Company: Corel

  • Pros: Excellent replication of traditional media; Intuitive improvements; Good Photoshop and Wacom support; Affordable.

  • Cons: Sometimes a bit slow despite performance updates; Can be a steep learning curve for new users.

  • Our Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

Painter is the best tool for digital painting available – but is Painter X3 a worthwhile upgrade?

As long-term users know, Painter can't be beaten for its tools, which really do mimic traditional materials in an exceptional manner. It is in a separate league from Photoshop’s painting tools, which are great for photo-retouching but less so for digital painting – as they lack the depth and realism of Corel’s tools. If you’ve not used Painter and you want to know whether you should upgrade from Photoshop, the answer’s a very simple yes – so for the purpose of this review I’m going to look at whether Painter X3 is a must-have upgrade from previous versions.

At first glance, X3’s interface isn't a big change from Painter 12 – but there are a few significant additions to the toolset that will attract you to spring for the upgrade. Personally, I still work with Painter IX.5 so testing the latest version was quite an eye opener for me – so much has changed.

Contextual Brush controls in action, which are probably the most welcome feature in Painter X3.

The best thing that has been brought in are the contextual brush controls (which, on a side note, I wish more applications had). A button on the main toolbar brings up a palette called Advanced Brush Controls, which groups together the options available for the current brush.

Painter has so many controls for every single tool, and all those palettes can be pretty confusing – especially as, depending on the tool , only a handful of those options may be relevant to the brush you’re using. Grouping the available options together and highlighting the panels is a great help.

The Brush Search feature is something I'm less impressed with. Yes, it’s nice to be able to put in a search term if you're looking for something specific and maybe – like Corel says – this may help you choose something other than the tool you were looking for in an aid for experimentation. However, for anyone who works with Painter on a day-to-day basis, we all know that custom palettes are great for keeping track of your favourite tools – it just makes for quicker selection of your favourite brush.

That said though, the implementation of the search is well done, and the dab and stroke preview you get rolling over search items is very handy.

The Brush Search engine, showing the dab and stroke preview.

The inclusion of the Reference Image palette is something that seems to have taken Corel an age to catch on to. This is one of my favourite aspects of ArtRage, – having reference images around your work area and being able to quickly take sample colours helps a hell of a lot.

It’s a real shame that with its inclusion into Painter, Corel only saw fit to allow you one reference image. Obviously you can comp together a moodboard-style image and then use that as a reference image – but still, with any luck a future upgrade will step this feature up a bit. 

Inspirational Mixers’are a very useful addition to the Mixer palette. You can select from a series of colour mixers produced by various artists and more importantly, you can create and import your own.

You can still use the palette like a traditional mixing palette of course – saving and storing them – but being able to bring in an image in a variety of formats is a great idea. I can really see these mixer palettes being shared out amongst the Painter community.

Another small tweak to the Mixer palette is that the eyedropper tool in now selected by default. It’s a small thing but I've always found it really irritating to have to select the eyedropper first, before i start painting. I've lost track of the amount of times I’ve forgotten and accidentally painted a colour into my carefully blended skin tones on my mixer pad.

The Mixer panel's eyedropper tool is now selected by default, which helps avoid digital spillages of the wrong colours when mixing.

One extra relatively small but useful item is the new Stroke Preview panel. It doesn’t sound like much I know, but having a little palette showing you a live update of how the stroke changes with your option changes – or even just so you can see at a glance what you have selected – is a really welcome addition.

There are a variety of other improvements to Painter: universal jitter options, perspective guides and the ability to snap the stoke to those guides are all very useful. There's also the inclusion of multi-touch support for Wacom tablets such as the Intuos5 line or Cintiq 24HD Touch; improvements in brush sharing; multiple layer transformation; better Photoshop file support and being able to utilise more memory for Macs.

If you're looking to upgrade from a previous version, there are some pretty enticing improvements to X3 that may well be worth it – but like all upgrades, it’s whether you feel that the additions will be of use to your own creative process. Personally, the contextual brush controls alone are a pretty good argument to get the update. 

If you currently use Photoshop – or even ArtRage – it really is the case you can't get a more ‘traditional’ painting application than Painter and you should get your wallet out now.

See more of Tom Bagshaw's work on his website.

Correction: review updated to reflect that the Cintiq 13HD is not a multi-touch tablet.