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Corel Painter IX.5

Nearly every graphics or visual effects artist has a mastery of Adobe Photoshop. Most video editors, even if they’re not quite masters, have learned to rely on it as the Swiss Army Knife of graphics tools in the edit suite. I’m sure few are as familiar with Corel Painter, but if you skim a Photoshop user or photography magazine, you’ll find that Painter is often the application these photographers turn to when their image needs an artistic touch.

Rather than a competitor, Painter is an ideal complement to Photoshop. Painter has been around since 1991 and has lived under various corporate roofs. Painter was originally developed for the Macintosh platform by Fractal Design Corp. Fractal Design later merged with RayDream, then with MetaTools to become MetaCreations. After a brief existence at ViewPoint, Painter was acquired by Corel in 2000.

In addition to Painter, the Corel portfolio includes CorelDRAW Graphics Suite-a powerful competitor to Photoshop in its own right-and Paint Shop Pro (formerly from JASC), which many PC owners have used for years as an economical, bread-and-butter graphics conversion utility and design application. Whereas Adobe Photoshop is recognized as a powerful graphic design and compositing tool, Corel Painter (now in version IX.5) is the de facto standard for the reproduction of natural painting media in a software application. By “natural media,” I mean that, in the right hands, the result of Painter processing can actually look like the artist used real watercolors, chalks, oils, textured paper and other tactile media.

Natural Media

To the experienced Photoshop user, Painter can be a little confusing at first due to the similarity of its user interface. Painter also has docking palettes, tools, layers and a composition window, though its tools are different enough from Photoshop to cause uncertainty at first. For many of the tools and menus, Painter uses slightly different terminology than one would expect from Photoshop, so it takes a bit of playing around in the interface before you can get comfortable.

Both Painter and Photoshop let you paint on surfaces and apply surface textures and colors. The key difference is that your paint selection in Painter works like a material (like watercolor or ink) and not simply a color choice, so it will interact with the surface you are painting on. For instance, watercolor paints in real life bleed into the paper if there is too much water. That sort of real-world interaction can be dialed in as you use the equivalent software tools. Different textured papers yield varying absorption results, and so on. The net result is that if you have any experience with real drawing or painting, then Painter’s tools are a closer match to the experience you’ve had when your hands were working with the real deal.

Corel Painter is available for Windows 2000/XP and Mac OS X with relatively low system requirements. Although Painter ships with a strong plug-in filter set, it is also compatible with Photoshop plug-ins. The general features of Painter break down into brushes, papers, animation and scripting tools. There are more than 30 brush categories ranging from crayons, chalk and charcoal to acrylics, watercolor, artists’ oils and liquid ink. Brush settings can be modified, so an artist can create and save custom brushes according to his individual style. Almost all of the watercolor brushes interact with the canvas texture and are ideal if you use a Wacom tablet, since stylus pressure affects the width of the stroke, just as with a natural brush.

In addition to a wide set of brush categories, Painter includes a special category of cloner brushes. In Painter terms, cloner brushes pick up their color information from a clone source (a copy of the same image, another image or a pattern) instead of the colors palette. Cloner brushes are often used to create the look of a classical painting style. For example, the Van Gogh effect alters an image so it appears to have the same brush or palette knife strokes as a Van Gogh painting, like his famous Starry Night.

Of course, brushes interact with the grain of the paper texture, which can be controlled by the designer. Colors can also be mixed, via the mixer palette. If you can’t find just the right color in the color palette, then swirl several together in the mixer palette until you get the right one. With the artists’ oils brush, you can sample and use multiple colors in the same brush stroke.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Image Hose, one of Painter’s more interesting features. The Image Hose brush paints with replicated images “sprayed” onto the canvas according to a grid. Painter comes with a library of Image Hose files, and users can add their own photos, graphics or doodles to the database.

Plug-Ins

In addition to the typical color adjustment and distortion plug-in filters, Corel Painter delivers more exotic effects via the KPT (Kai’s Power Tools) Collection. That collection includes KPT Goo, Gel, Lensflare, Lightning, Pyramid Paint, Reaction and Shapeshifter. Most folks have seen KPT Goo, which lets you smear sections of the image as if you were dragging your finger in wet paint, but KPT Gel is like painting with liquid metal.

KPT Reaction integrates organic textures like zebra stripes, complete with various lighting attributes, into the image. KPT Shapeshifter can be used to add lighting, color and material effects (like bump mapping, shadows and embossing) to flat, high-contrast shapes or objects, turning them into 3D objects like interactive menu buttons. For the most part, the color and image adjustment filters work in similar ways to those in Photoshop, but they have a very organic look, including a really sweet depth-of-field blur effect.

I started out my review with Corel Painter IX, but Corel recently released a .5 update that comes with an aggressive trade-up offer. The upgrade is free to registered IX owners and may be purchased at the upgrade price by owners of older Painter versions, selected Corel graphics products-including CorelDRAW Graphics Suite-and even some competitors’ software, like Photoshop CS.

New and improved features in Corel Painter IX.5 include even more automatic effects to give photos a hand-painted look, additional design tools (eraser, rubber stamp, clone), dual-monitor support for Windows, support for Corel Paint Shop Pro files, iPhoto and Spotlight support in Mac Tiger and extended support for new Wacom pen tablets (Intuos 3, Cintiq 21UX and the 6D Art Pen).

One of the most useful features with a Corel Painter IX.5 purchase is 11 hours of free training in the form of 50 movies on two training CDs. Painter IX includes a number of free training movies to registered owners, which I found to be very helpful in getting comfortable with the interface. The training gave me the confidence to try to paint like an artist with the software. I would certainly welcome a full 50 hours of training with Painter. That should be enough to help even the least artistically gifted turn out great results. If you’ve got any artistic talent at all, this product might darn near turn you into a master.

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