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All photo-editing software packages provide a handful of paint tools that mimic natural media, such as brushes, chalk, pencils and calligraphic nibs. But none can match the realism and versatility of Painter, a program dedicated to the fine artist who wants to draw and paint on a computer without the results looking computerized. Painter’s rocky history of ownership (Fractal Design, then MetaCreations, then Corel) has left some users worried about its future, but this first full upgrade release from Corel should once again re-affirm the package as the best in its class. Anyone new to Painter will welcome a quick introduction to what the program’s all about. While other bitmap editing software focuses on photo manipulation, Painter is a paint package in the classic sense. Using fractal techniques, brush strokes are given detailed colour, texture, and edge attributes that look as if you had created them with natural-media art tools. Oils look sticky, crayons crumble, felt-tips blotch and blacken when scribbled, and so on; the canvas itself can be given custom textures to react with the tools you are using. The theory is that fine artists can transfer their skills from easel to computer, yet still maintain the style and visual integrity of the results. This is especially useful to illustrators who regularly submit their work for commercial print in books and magazines. It means no more board-mounting, no more specialist couriers, no scanning, and no risk of loss or damage. The artwork, although looking like it was created with natural-media tools, remains digital from start to finish. For this reason, Painter is also popular with jobbing designers who need to incorporate occasional natural-media effects within other work created with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Macromedia FreeHand, and so on. As well as reproducing natural media, Painter takes advantage of modern graphics techniques. You can build your artwork over layers, for example, choosing to show, hide, re-order and alter the opacity of the layers as required. You can apply brushes over a photo, using the colours in the original photo underneath each stroke to load the brush, so gradually turning the image into something that looks painted. Painter can also be used with a frame-based approach to mimic cartoon animation technique, or you can open existing movies to permit limited manual rotoscoping in the traditional paint-it-on fashion. You can even set Painter to record your brushstrokes for playback within the program or to a QuickTime movie – for education, for animation, or for fun. If you always wondered how Painter differs from its low-end cousins Sketcher or Dabbler, now you know. A quick fix Painter 7 is Corel’s first major release under its recently launched ‘Procreate’ umbrella for professional creative graphics software. Current users expecting a complete Corelified rehash of the program will be relieved – or disappointed – to find nothing of the kind. Instead, Painter has been treated to a clutch of desperately required fixes and simplifications within the existing interface, plus a number of new paint tools, special effects, and program features. Although available for Windows and Mac users alike, it’s significant that the Mac version is now fully ‘carbonized’ so that it will run correctly under Mac OS X. You can still install and use the program under Mac OS 8.6 and 9.x of course, but the Mac OS X installation lets it work natively within the Aqua look-&-feel. Our only problem here was that Wacom’s native Mac OS X tablet drivers still weren’t ready in time for this review, so we were forced to test Painter 7 under Mac OS 9.1. Using Painter without a graphics tablet is like driving a car without a steering wheel. The biggest new feature in the upgrade is a much-improved watercolour action in dedicated watercolour layers. Now the strokes interact with each other rather than just overlap. This is controlled from a new Water section in the Brush Controls palette, where you can adjust the wetness of the stroke – how much it re-wets and picks up other strokes underneath. Added to this are sliders for controlling how the paint spreads and soaks into the paper. Most importantly, these effects can be progressed over time thanks to evaporation and dry-rate sliders, which mean your strokes can continue to soak in, break up, and disrupt other strokes for a period (determined by you) after you’ve painted them. You can even set what Painter calls a ‘wind direction’ angle for the soaking, by default pointing downwards to impersonate normal gravitational dribbling. In practice, the watercolour brushes need to be treated with care. The subtle enhancements work very well indeed, but an over-zealous tug on some of the sliders can cause the brush strokes to break up and congeal in an unrealistic, pixelated fashion. Another key upgrade feature is Liquid Ink. It’s a new medium that acts like thick, viscous, gluey – but ultimately runny – paint. The best analogy would be DIY emulsion or gloss paint, applied with thick, overloaded brushes or slapped on with a palette knife. If you make several splodges adjacent to each other, they may blob together; or you can apply a smoothing swipe to run them into each other after you have already laid down the initial paint. The effect can be interesting when different colours run into each other, and looks quite effective when you enable Painter’s impasto view. Cleverly, Corel has ensured that you can use Liquid Ink as an erase function too. This means you can push other Liquid Ink strokes away, or even lay down unpaintable areas, rather like you can with white wax crayons. As with the watercolour brushes, Liquid Ink strokes exist in their own dedicated layers. For our money, Painter 7’s third most important upgrade feature is its perspective grid, which can be called up and dismissed quickly. The grid is simply a set of lines that converge at a vanishing point to present an illusion of three-dimensional planes, but it’s very easy to adjust. It’s considerably more intuitive than FreeHand’s perspective grid, and doesn’t hide the artwork as much either. You don’t have to keep the grid open, of course: more typically, you’ll use it to help with the base pencil sketch, then hide it before carrying on. A small collection of other new features has been included, although these have less impact. A couple of extra colour reduction effects – Distress and Serigraphy – add to the existing Woodcut effect. Serigraphy is an interesting one, causing one selected colour range in a photo image to flatten to a single spot colour. Although it’s conducted one colour at a time, it doesn’t actually change the original image but adds a layer with the spot colour areas on it. This means you can run the effect several times to built up an unusual stack of cartoony spot layers, and erase bits that run over too far. The only problem we found is that the whole effect is difficult to control. A less cluttered interface Corel has also taken the opportunity to simplify some of the cluttered parts of the Painter interface. Zooming in and out is now as easy as dragging on a slider, replacing the old system of having to type in a zoom percentage every time. The program’s brush architecture has been redesigned so that you can create custom brush libraries, move brushes between them, and share the sets with other users just by moving files around – no more need for a special utility program to do it. Painter’s support for Photoshop-native files has been updated to include special layers (text and so on), although be warned that clipping paths get lost on the way in, and impasto effects get lost on the way out. Support for Adobe Illustrator native files is limited to plain vectors, and does not extend to layers or Illustrator 9 format. We also like the way you can capture the colours used in an image, or a selection, to a palette in an instant so they can be used immediately in other artwork, and even saved for re-use later. We found this especially useful for obtaining fleshtones, which are extremely difficult to locate using Painter’s colour wheel. And therein lies one of Painter’s core problems – the interface. Despite all the work put into the package over the years to try and pack all the tools and options into collapsible palettes, the whole interface is just awful. Even with Painter 7’s ability to switch off certain sections of the floating palettes, there are so many of them that your screen is filled regardless: we had trouble even at 1,600-x-1,200 on a 22-inch monitor. Often the controls for a particular brush are split over more than one palette, which isn’t terribly helpful. It may make perfect sense to a programmer how the Brush Controls palette differs from the Controls: Brush palette and (our favourite) Brushes: Brushes palette, but it’s insane from a user’s point of view. At the very least, you’d think the interface could follow a natural-media analogy. When drawing with coloured pencils, an artist just picks them out from a box; Painter expects you to mix colours with a wheel-&-triangle gadget and copy them laboriously one by one to a floating window of tiny squares. When painting with oils, an artist squeezes blobs of paint onto a piece of wood and blends them as required; Painter sends you back to that damn colour wheel, not just for the initial blobs, but for all blended mixtures too. So Painter 7 represents a dilemma in graphics software. It isn’t easy to learn, and can be annoying to use. But nothing else is as powerful or effective for producing such realistic natural-media art effects. The interface is god-awful, but the program is the best there is, and Corel has just made it that little bit better.