Corel Painter 9.0

Painter is still the best natural-media artistry program you can buy.

Painter offers natural-media artistry without the mess that accompanies real-world art tools. No other program can touch its exceptional range of brushes and special effects, though the sheer breadth of features and the Byzantine interface make for a steep learning curve. Version 9.0 of the program is better than ever. Its performance is somewhat sprightlier, the interface is cleaner, and the new Artists' Oils are just plain cool. To get the most out of Painter 9.0, you should also spring for a Wacom tablet, which will let you draw on your computer with precision. But be prepared to shell out the big bucks. Painter 9.0 will set you back AU$799 for the full version (AU$429 for upgrade), and a professional-level Wacom Intuos3 tablet runs AU$500 or more.

Installation and interface
Painter's sheer breadth of features has given it a notorious reputation for difficulty. But with this version, Corel focused on improving performance and ease of use. Previous versions of Painter occasionally exhibited annoying lag time, especially with complex brushes and images. Corel has fixed those problems in this version and added some nice features to boot. For example, the clunky four-step process for setting up cloning -- tracing over an underlying image with Painter's brushes -- can now be performed with a single click. The confusing array of drawers and toolboxes has been simplified to a neat group of logically arranged palettes. All materials, such as pencils, brushes, and image hoses, can be found in the Materials toolbar, which contains a pop-down Variants menu to access saved brush styles. All of the Brush Controls have finally been consolidated into a single Brush Controls palette. You may go nuts fiddling with the zillions of settings available here, but at least you don't have to hunt through multiple windows to find what you need.

This compact toolbar minimises the materials confusion that affected earlier versions of Painter. The Brush Controls palette is the heart of Painter. It's nice to see all the adjustments in a single place.

Painter 9.0 is more understanding of -- and compatible with -- Photoshop. It now recognises layer sets, layer masks, and alpha channels. In fact, the new Layers palette looks and behaves just like the one in Photoshop, letting you import and export files with little or no alteration. Note that some Painter effects, such as wet watercolour layers, are meaningless to Photoshop, so don't assume that everything in your image will translate perfectly.

Painter's upscale Layers palette is a little more colourful than Photoshop's but contains the same powerful set of controls.

You'll also find image rotation in version 9.0 as well as the ability to save numbered versions of a single file -- useful for experimentation and archiving. But we would like to see something like Photoshop's History palette, which tracks every move you make and lets you go forward and backward in the list. Painter does contain a Brush Tracker palette that stores information about the brush strokes you use, but a true History palette would be more useful. We would also like to see more than 32 undo levels in the next version.

If you're a longtime Painter fan looking for a bonanza of new tools in version 9.0, you'll be disappointed. But there is one interesting new brush category called Artists' Oils. Although Painter already offers an impressive array of realistic oil-painting brushes, Artists' Oils add a new twist in the way the paint mixes and interacts with the canvas. Like traditional oil painting, where the artist squeezes tubes of paint onto a palette, mixing and adjusting colours with a palette knife or a brush, Artists' Oils let you mix colours using pigments that simulate real tubes of oil paint, such as the familiar Venetian Red and Deep Mars Violet. As you stir the paints on the Mixer palette, you can load your brush with one or more colours by swiping an area of the palette. If you select the Dirty Brush option, the old paint mixes with the fresh brush and loads just as it would with the genuine article, streaks and all.

The new Artists' Oils let you realistically mix oil paints on a palette and paint with a single colour or an area of colours.

Corel tweaked a few other tools. The Watercolour feature has added control over edge bleeding, and paint will now stay wet between sessions -- nice for picking up where you left off. Corel also added some KPT filters such as ShapeShifter, Reaction, Pyramid Paint, Gel, Goo, Lens Flare, and Lightning, all of which are fun to play with and add interesting special effects to your images.

If you like finger painting, you'll love the squishy feel of the KPT Gel filter.

Some artists work in Painter with an inspired frenzy; others are more systematic and often scan a sketch to use as a basis for the finished work. The new Align To Path feature will be especially useful to those in the latter category, as it forces brush strokes and type to adhere to the edges of paths. This feature makes it relatively easy to produce concept art -- for example, stylised renderings of engineering drawings or type.

The ability to snap brushes to paths can quickly produce interesting type effects.

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