Highly sophisticated and rewarding, Corel Painter is worth the expense for technically minded artists.
Corel Painter specialises in digital painting, with emulations of natural media such as pastels, oil and watercolours, plus brushes that have no real-world equivalent.
It’s a bitmap editor, with brushstrokes saved as pixels on the virtual page rather than vector co-ordinates. The only time you’re likely to import photos is to use them as a basis for a painting – applying colours to a photo produces quick digital paintings.
There are superb, cheap painting apps for iOS and Android, such as Procreate, ArtRage and Brushes, so why pay $405 for Corel Painter? The answer lies in the sophistication and customisation of its brush technology.
The property bar at the top handles the basics, including size, opacity and others, depending on the brush. Delving into the 40 brush control panels reveals hundreds more options such as bristle rigidity, brush wetness, water viscosity and evaporation rate. There are jitter settings to randomise parameters, and the ability to vary parameters according to the speed, pressure or direction of brushstrokes.
Corel Painter must be used with a pressure-sensitive input device, as the ability to respond to pen pressure breathes life into strokes. Pressure-sensitive touchscreens are few and far between unless you want to splash out for one of Wacom’s high-end Cintiq displays, but Wacom’s Intuos drawing tablets and Microsoft’s Surface Pen are other options. Corel has worked with Microsoft to ensure that Surface and Painter work well together. I was also able to resurrect an old Wacom Graphire4 graphics tablet, which did the job nicely.
Painter 2016 introduces a new input type called Audio Expression. It uses an audio input, such as a microphone, or the system audio – most likely music – and turns the volume envelope into a controller. This can be mapped to a wide range of parameters including size, opacity, grain, angle and colour variation.
But I’m not convinced that this channels the emotion of music into an artwork. It’s also disappointing that there’s no smoothness control – the tracked audio volume jumps from one value to the next at a low sample rate. Even so, making noises into a headset microphone while painting added a welcome extra level of control. With opacity mapped to pen pressure and brush size mapped to the audio input, I took precise control of brushstrokes.
It’s a relief to find a well-organised collection of brush presets. There are 800, including 131 that are new in this version and 438 legacy brushes that are hidden but remain available for backwards-compatibility. The 362 others fall into 27 categories such as Artists Oils, Markers and Liquid Ink.
An Audio Expression category shows off this feature. A few of these brushes are disappointing, but we liked the four that employed the particle feature from Painter 2015. These use multiple points – particles – that move in complex ways as they apply colour to the canvas. They’re similar to the particle generators used to create smoke and fire effects in animation software such as HitFilm Pro. They can produce sparks and explosions, and come in handy for fur effects and other rich textures. Combining particle brushes with Audio Expression produces richly dynamic and expressive brushes that are a real pleasure to use.
Other new brush types combine particle technology with more conventional Painter features such as bristle thickness. The Dynamic Speckle brushes are some of the best I’ve seen for natural effects.
There’s a revamped interface too. Brush Hints are extremely welcome, providing an explanation for a control as you hover over it, but it’s a shame these are only included for the newer and more complex controls. There’s a Presentation mode that clears the screen to show the canvas, plus the ability to change the interface colour.
The interface is good rather than great. Technically-minded users will appreciate direct control over a vast number of parameters, while others will be content with the brush presets and basic controls in the property bar. However, I’d like to see a middle-level control system, where the parameters are managed via a graphical control panel that lets users select brushes and paint, mix colours, add water and wash brushes like the real thing.
Still, Painter 2016 is impressive. The new particle-based brushes are great for computer-game production, and fine artists will be kept very busy. It’s a big investment, but the 30-day trial should reel people in.