Best Buy
  • Price: £1,210 plus VAT

  • Company: The Foundry

  • Pros: The ultimate high-end texture painting system. Supports textures up to 32K. Paint directly onto models. More powerful texture painting than Mudbox or ZBrush.

  • Cons: New layers system quite complex. No sculpting. Navigation take some getting used to. Limited file import. Expensive as a pure painting tool

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

CG-focussed painting software Mari was originally developed when Weta was working on the graphics onslaught that was Avatar. The tool came about because none of the texture painting tools of the day could cope with the enormous textures required. 

That goes some way to explaining why the minimum spec for running Mari 2.0 are a quad-core CPU, 4GB RAM and an nVidia or AMD graphics card with 1GB of RAM (Quadro card preferred) and OpenGL 3.2, though you’ll need OpenGL 4.0+ in order to use the displacement preview option.

The Foundry says Mari 2.0 is designed for Windows 7 and Linux 64-bit – though it should also work on Vista and Windows 8 – just don’t expect any official support. There’s also Mac version going into beta, which was announced alongside Apple’s new ‘Daft Dusty Bin’-shaped Mac Pro and should ship whenever that comes out.

At its core. Mari is a texture painting app for artists that enables you to paint directly on a model’s surface. As well as supporting lots of texture maps at once, each one can be up to 32,000 pixels square. For comparison, Mudbox 2013 supports up to 8,000-pixel texture maps, though for most purposes 4K maps are fine for hi-res models.

A new lick of paint

The interface is a modern dark grey with clearly laid out sections, tools along the left, the main painting window in the middle and a range of features like brushes, painting elements, shaders, brush editors, channel manager, layers and the like on the right.

Starting a new project consists of loading the geometry mesh (OBJ and PTX formats only and with or without UVs) and then deciding what texture channels to create or load like colour and displacement. You can define the resolution of the textures to be created and can load elements entirely separate from the mesh.

Once loaded there’s standard perspective or ortho views to start painting on but you can also see the individual UV patches from the model as well.

Over on the right are the channels and layers as well as assorted other functions. One thing that takes some getting used to is the navigation, requiring Alt and mouse and movement, or Alt+Shift+mouse to pan. To zoom in you hold down Alt, right click and then rather than push or pull, move from side to size. The navigational aspects are configurable though and you can mimic the Maya orbiting system if required. In fact a lot of the interface is customizable with dockable windows though it takes some effort to do so. If you’re coming in from Mudbox you’ll find it powerful, but complex.

The biggest change in Mari 2.0 from the original is the introduction of a new layer system where each channel becomes a non-destructive layer stack. You can import Photoshop PSD files and shaders now use the channels to create the look of the textures through diffuse, displacement and specularity.

The addition of a complex layers system complete with a wide variety of blending modes has increased the power of the package significantly.

The layers system goes a lot further than you might have been expecting though. You can use a procedural engine to create patterns, noise and projections that blend in with the painted details. A really neat feature is that after painting you can then manipulate it with stretching and deforming to make it fit or cover an area better.

Any paint effects can be deformed to fit the surface better using a deforming grid.

The layers also feature masks, but not in the traditional one mask per layer sense. Instead each layer mask is also a layer stack in itself which entails being able to use blending modes, adjustments and grouping, all within the layer mask.

This is powerful stuff, making it easier to add very complex elements, though the drawback is that the more you load it up, the harder it is to keep track of. 

There are also shared layers, which can be used numerous times within the same stack or in different stacks. The key advantage is that whenever a shared layer is adjusted somewhere, it updates in all occurrences. It’s a powerful tool, but there’s potential for mishap if you decide to change an element on it that doesn’t suit where it is being shared. Keeping track of the layering system therefore becomes crucial and here there are filtering options like Photoshop, as well as groups and tagging.

There’s a decent selection of standard and pattern-based brushes which can be edited and tested before use.

At the heart of the matter though, it’s down to the actual painting and here there’s a range of brush types, starting with the basic ones. There are hard surface brushes for effects like rust, oil drips, scuffs, dirt, metal scratches and cracks.

Then there’s the organic ones and these cover some great ideas like hippo skin, wrinkles, veins, sand, freckles etc. Finally, there’s a collection called, unashamedly, Brad’s New Brushes,  where you can try out fur, frost, rust, and membranes.

Any brush that you use a lot can be tagged as a favourite and then appears in the Favourites tab. The painting can be done on any of the channels and can used a wide variety of blends modes to paint with. Bringing up the brush editor allows a lot of fine tuning to be done and the result can then be tested in the scratch pad below.

One of feature is that there are a number of filter effects than can be applied to the painted layers, even if it’s just something like blurring the effect. There are also gradients and cloners to use as well.

The best 3D paint tool

There’s no denying that Mari 2.0 is a capable texture painting system, set up to create very complex layered effects. The interface is very customizable but there’s an idiosyncrasy to the system that means although you can pick up and start quite easily, there’s a learning curve to getting the best out of it that makes it harder going than Mudbox for example.

If you need to paint highly complex textures at high resolutions though, Mari is an expensive but essential app for 3D artists.