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Painter X: A Maturing Tool Kit

Fred Galpern opens up a copy of Painter X and tells us if its matured into production environment worthiness or its just like working with chalk and safety scissors.

Corel's Painter has really come into its own and is finally getting its due recognition not as a replacement for the industry behemoth that is Photoshop but as the unique companion it truly is. All images courtesy of Corel. 

Digital artists have it great these days. Along with maturing into production environment worthiness, the digital artist's tool kit gets better and better at creating a wide variety of imagery, all while becoming more user friendly every year. In addition to brand new software that allows us to get our jobs done better, faster and easier, we are also the beneficiaries of robust updates to some of our existing favorites. A perfect example of this evolution of digital art tools is the new version 10 of Painter, or the Roman numeral X, as publisher Corel calls it. Corel has been the home for a Painter for a while now. The app that was something of a confused middle child for previous publishers has now become a central point for Corel. It has taken time for Painter to really come into its own, but it is finally getting its due recognition, and not as a replacement for the industry behemoth that is Photoshop but as the unique companion it truly is. For every photographic technique where Photoshop excels there is an analogous traditional media offering that is particular to Painter's tool set, making it the leading digital painting software.

When creating images that have a traditional look to them, whether the goal is oil paint, watercolor or pencil sketch, the only option that is truly worth considering is Painter. This may sound like a line spewed from a forced marketing off-site trust-fall day in the country, but the truth is there aren't any other software applications on the market today that deliver the richness of materials and interaction that Painter does. For those who have never tried it, the simplest way to view Painter is as a supporting app for the digital artists mainstay workhorse, Photoshop. Painter offers much of the same functionality as Photoshop but it is the extras that Photoshop does not offer that make it so essential. First and foremost, Painter includes a wealth of natural media brushes, tools and materials. These functions are the heart of the program and what sets it apart from other digital image manipulation tools.

Considering that painting with natural real world materials is the central offering of the app, it is no surprise that one of the highlights of the new Painter X is the new RealBristle painting system. This system does a much better job of simulating the interaction between the artist's brush, which by default is either a mouse or tablet and pen combination, and the canvas. Although a bit of a non sequitur, it is worth noting here that Painter has a wide range of canvas capabilities ranging from gesso coated standard canvas emulation to coarse or smooth varieties of paper. RealBristle brushes come preloaded with Painter X and can be accessed from the Brush toolbar, just like any other Brush set the app offers. Previous versions of Painter took a more singular viewpoint in getting the digital equivalents to appear as close as possible to their traditional counterparts. This new system takes a more holistic view and considers how those brushes and materials react and feel to the artist. The end result is a painting system that feels more like working with real paint. Of course, clean up is a whole lot easier with Painter, no turpentine necessary. The RealBristle system is somewhat limited, offering only 16 RealBristle enabled brushes out of the box. This limitation is mitigated by the ability to tweak settings on those brushes as well as transform a handful of the standard Painter brushes into RealBristle brushes. Corel has done a good job in the past with their Painter updates so it is likely that if the user community responds well to this new system they will offer additional RealBristle enabled brushes in future upgrades or as extras outside of the standard upgrade path.

When creating images that have a traditional look the only option worth considering is Painter. The truth is no other available software applications deliver the richness of materials and interaction that Painter does. 

Another new feature in Painter X almost steals the thunder as the most welcome improvement from the RealBristle system. This very close runner up is the Divine Proportion tool. Anyone who has studied art, photography or art history will be familiar with the notion of divine proportion. For centuries, artists of all kinds have used principles such as Divine Proportion to create rich, stimulating compositions. The implementation of the tool is great and takes very little time to learn. Users simply select the palette from a menu or expand the palette if it is already visible. After checking the check box to Enable Divine Proportion, a step that could be removed in future versions, the user will see a new set of guides displayed over the image. These guides show the divine proportions scaled appropriately to that particular image, and are handily color coded to help distinguish between sections. Once expanded, the palette gives the viewer a wide range of options. The guides can be flipped horizontally and vertically as well as freely rotated and scaled. The guides are divided into three colors, which can each be changed to prevent conflicts with your particular image. In addition to the direct usefulness this tool provides there is the almost automatic learning and improvement that will come by using it. Seasoned artists and beginners are always struggling with creating strong compositions; having this tool at hand should help a great deal. The Divine Proportion tool is so well done here that it is a surprise it hasn't shown up in other apps sooner.

The new Layout Grid tool is a nice companion to the Divine Proportion tool in that it helps the user to compose the image well in advance of actual painting. This tool uses the Rule of Thirds as its starting point, another principle that should be familiar to those folks with some professional training or experience. Using this tool is similar to the Divine Proportion tool; expose the panel from the menu or expand the panel if it is already visible. Once the panel is open, the user has to check the Enable Layout Grid box, which could easily be discarded in future versions. The next step is to select from three presets in a drop down list: Rule of Thirds, which divides the image into three equal sections with two blue vertical lines and two green horizontal lines. The other preset options are 3x5 grid and 5x5 grid using the same color differentiation. Colors can be changed to resolve conflicts with specific images and each set of guides can be rotated and opacity adjusted.

If you haven't used Painter in a few years now is a good time to try it again. In addition to new features and polish on existing features, Corel has done some great work on performance, which is now significantly improved in Painter X. The application itself launches way faster than previous versions. Opening native Painter files is quicker, Corel claims twice as fast as before. The most noticeable improvement is file saving speed. In the past large files took painful amounts of time to save. In Painter X they are saved much faster, possibly even faster than the 40% improvement Corel claims. The layers palette was long considered to be one of the weak points of Painter, but it too has been revised in recent years to more of a Photoshop standard approach.

A highlight of the new Painter X is the new RealBristle painting system. This system does a much better job of simulating the interaction between the artist's brush (which is either a mouse or tablet and pen combination) and the canvas. 

Users with experience in other digital art programs should find getting up and running, producing production ready images with Painter as straightforward as it gets. Old time stories of Painter requiring significant ramp up time are no longer relevant. Painter X is a great upgrade or a great jumping on point for new users. If you are interested in playing around with digital painting or need to use more traditional images for a particular project or even if you want to try a new toolset, something other than Photoshop, Painter X is a wonderful, mature program that should be in every digital artist's arsenal.

Corel sells Painter X in a variety of flavors and prices. Full versions, in a box, sell for $429, while the same software in download form sells for $419. Boxed upgrades sell for $229, while download upgrades sell for $219. Last but not least is the very cool, very limited, paint can edition that sells for $499. There are only 500 units available of this paint can edition, get 'em while you can. The download versions of the software are identical to the boxed versions, minus the following extras: extra brushes, gradients, image hose nozzles, paper textures, patterns, weaves and stock photos. A Wacom tablet is essential for every artist who uses Painter, and Corel and Wacom have teamed up to offer special discounts for folks purchasing a tablet and the software. Details can be found on Corel's website.

Fred Galpern is currently the art manager for Blue Fang Games, located just outside Boston. He is also a Maya instructor at Northeastern University and a co-creator of the game development program at Bristol Community College. Since entering the digital art field more than 10 years ago, Galpern has held management positions in several game and entertainment companies, including Hasbro and Looking Glass Studios. He began his art career in comic books and also has interactive, print and web design experience.

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