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Corel Painter IX

Natural media painting and 2D animation suite By Dave Nagel
My relationship with Painter hasn't always been a friendly one. From the start I've loved the concept of Painter--a drawing and painting suite designed to emulate the appearance and behavior of natural media with the advantages of a digital workflow--but I've been less than impressed with its implementation. Despite its wealth of innovative tools, Painter's clunky performance and poor interface design kept me from using it regularly. That is, until now. With the release of Painter IX, Corel has done this software some serious justice, transitioning it--at long last, in my mind--from a great concept to a great creative tool.

That's the first time I've ever referred to Painter as "a great creative tool." It's had its moments, yes. For example, it has great impasto brushes, some extraordinary wet paint emulation, nice chalk and charcoal tools, the ability to simulate subtractive color blending, etc. But it's also had its deficiencies. And when I mention these, I'm not just referring to those issues that carried over from the program's days at MetaCreations, which apparently had an agenda to make things as un-Adobe-like as possible at all costs, resulting in programs that could do neat things, provided you had the patience to figure out how to get them to do those things. Quite aside from those issues, Painter was sloooooooow. Painter was buggy. And Painter was unwieldy.

But that's over. Whatever problems Painter had, Corel has fixed them. Performance is way up; the interface makes perfect sense; workflow is improved; and bugginess is down considerably. As a little added bonus, Corel has thrown in some new and great creative tools, which we'll get to a bit later. If you use a previous version of Painter, it's time to upgrade. If you've just been curious about it, waiting to hear about a release that sounds good enough to invest in, this is it. Without a doubt.

Painter basics
Before we get into the new features that I think have brought Painter IX into the realm of greatness, I'd like to bring in a little background for those who might not know too much about this program. I'm not going to go over everything, since, after all, people write whole books on the subject. But I do want to give newcomers an idea of the program's capabilities. (If you already know a lot about Painter, you can skip ahead to page 3 for the details on the new features.)

From the start, Painter, like many other graphics programs, has been plagued by a perception issue that can be summed up in one question: "Is it better than Photoshop?" The problem is that this isn't even a relevant question. It's like asking if a hammer is better than a screwdriver. (And don't get me started on that argument!) The fact is that these are two distinct tools with distinct purposes. Photoshop is a general-purpose image-editing, compositing and effects package; Painter is a painting program.

Now, of course Photoshop has painting capabilities. And, in fact, Photoshop's paint engine has become quite sophisticated compared with what it was prior to version 7. But it's still remedial compared with the capabilities of Painter. Here are two examples of some basic brushes in action in Painter to show you what I mean. (Click the Play button to watch.)

An impasto brush

A watercolor brush

Painter doesn't just put pixels on the canvas. It creates texture and depth and allows for interaction between the brush, the canvas and the media on the canvas. And it has just a ton of parameters for modifying and creating brushes to get the job done.

The image above shows the Brush Creator window, a special tool for generating new brushes and mingling together the properties of multiple brush types. (For long-time Painter users, you'll be happy to know that in addition tot he Brush Creator, Painter IX brings back the Brush Controls palette. I'll get to that in the next section.) And Painter also includes a wide variety of pre-defined brushes to get you off to a quick start. The image below shows the Brush Selector Bar, where you can choose a brush category and then select from the many types of brushes in each category.

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