• Price When Reviewed: 249 . 99

  • Pros: Much-improved performance with no more sluggish brushstrokes. Authentic feel to Artists’ Oils brushes. New Snap-to-path brush paints along vector paths.

  • Cons: Scrolling docked palettes act unpredictably. Occasional glitchy display needs refreshing. Special layers (for example, for watercolour brushes) offer confusing error messages.

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

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When Painter 8 appeared in April 2003, it was hailed as the breakthrough version that finally transformed Painter’s ghastly interface into something usable. The changes in Painter IX are less dramatic, but it’s still a good upgrade. Corel has put a great deal of effort into the documentation, help, and tutorials, in order to encourage new users to pick up their styluses. There are some attractive features for existing users, too – new brushes and palettes, and more functionality and shortcuts.

Painter, if you haven’t seen the program before, is a paint package that convincingly mimics the effect of real art tools and media. Brushstrokes look bristly, crayons look crumbly, and felt pens look blotchy, and the marks you make take on the texture of virtual materials underneath, from cartridge paper to coarse canvas. Oils are shiny and can be laid on impasto with a palette knife tool if you want, and overloaded watercolour washes spread out and absorb into the paper. A fine artist looking to go digital should buy Painter first, Photoshop second.

The main impetus for existing Painter users to upgrade to IX will be the faster brushes. Corel claims the brushes have been treated to a speed boost of anything between twice the speed to 10 times the speed of past versions. We can’t be precise about it, but can confirm that the old sluggish feel to many of the more complex brushes seems to have gone completely. In Painter IX, there is no waiting around for the brush to catch up with your strokes. All the brushes begin to slow down at very large sizes, but only with unfeasibly massive brush heads that you would never use on a real job.

Artists’ Oils

Looking beyond the improvements in brush responsiveness, Painter IX introduces a new set of brushes known as Artists’ Oils. These are pretty much the same as the standard oil set, except the paint coverage appears to get thinner towards the end of each stroke. The idea is to mimic real oil brushes that begin each stroke loaded with paint but end it with very little left in the brush. This forces you to paint in the same way as you would in the real world using separate brushstrokes rather than one artificial digital stroke that goes on forever until you release the mouse button or lift the stylus. With Artists’ Oils, you can still rub over the still-wet oils on the canvas even after there is no paint left in the brush, allowing you to merge the oils together.

Snap-to-path is a new painting mode to join the existing freeform and line modes. When you click-&-drag over a vector path – drawn with the Pen – a brush assigned to this mode constrains the stroke to that path. This approach is not as quick and precise as vector-based art programs such as Creature House Expression, but it is a perfectly workable compromise with the advantage of not forcing you to paint over the complete paths if you don’t want to. This presents interesting possibilities for opening Adobe Illustrator graphics, painting over the paths that you want to paint over, and then hiding the vector layer.

The program interface looks and feels much the same as for Painter 8, although Corel has consolidated all the brush-adjustment functions throughout the program into one enormous Brush Control palette. Every attribute or brush type has its own little collapsible section – 17 of them, ranging from Bristle shape to Image Hose settings – thus making up one tall mother-of-all-palettes. With more than two or three of these sections open at once, the Brush Control palette will
no longer fit on-screen. You can tear off individual sections to make them float as separate palettes if you like, otherwise Painter’s palette scrolling system kicks in.

Being able to scroll up and down a tall palette containing multiple sections is a good idea, but in practice there are some problems. Opening a section sometimes caused the palette to scroll automatically the wrong way, so that the controls you’re currently working on suddenly scrolled out of sight. The Layers palette still feels clumsy, too – it still can’t be resized when docked.

The reconstruction of the brush adjustment controls hides the fact that many of these controls have been changed from plain numeric fields to interactive sliders. This definitely makes it easier to adjust settings. For example, you can paint with the Digital Watercolor brushes, then drag on the Wet Fringe slider and watch your existing brushstrokes change accordingly on the canvas.

Unfortunately, the ‘special’ layer error message from previous versions has survived into Painter IX. Certain brushes, such as Watercolor and Liquid Inks, can only exist in their own special layers. These special layers are created automatically when you start painting with these brushes, but for some reason the program is not so clever if you switch to an ‘ordinary’ brush. Instead of creating a new layer like it did before, it turns stupid and pops up an error message to warn you that you are using the wrong brush. This is especially confusing when you switch from a Watercolor brush to a Digital Watercolor brush – the resulting error message reads like nonsense.

Clone wars

As usual for a graphics software upgrade, the main new features are backed up with a long list of smaller additions and enhancements. The most significant is the Quick Clone command that carries out multiple tasks before applying Clone Brushes to a photo. It will clone the image, and set the tracing paper transparency level all in one go.

Talking of photos, the upgrade now supports more functionality within native Photoshop PSD documents, including layer sets, layer masks, and alpha channels. It still doesn’t support adjustment layers or layer effects, though. The Iterative Save is another useful tweak. It’s a command under the File menu which saves your document with a number added to the end of the current filename, and this number increases in value with each subsequent save – all programs should do this! Painter now finally supports custom keyboard shortcuts, too.

Corel has added a friendly Welcome screen that appears when you launch the program. As well as prompting you to create a new file or open recently edited artwork, it provides Web links to online tutorials and provides one-click access to the colour management and brush sensitivity settings. It also contains a mini gallery of Painter-created art samples that changes randomly each time you open it. Corel has produced a much more welcoming pack of learning materials than Painter 7 or 8 too, with well-written help, a handbook, and video tutorials for beginners to accompany the user guide. Finally, Painter IX fully supports Wacom Intuos and Graphire graphics tablets, including the latest Intuos 3 line.

Despite our initial reservations about the roman numerals (it’s just an excuse to get the hip letter ‘X’ into the name), Painter IX is a worthy upgrade. The improvement in brush speed alone means you’ll find yourself using the program much more frequently than before.

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