capsule review

Painter 7

Adobe Photoshop may be the current image-editing program of choice, but when it comes to painting, nothing compares to Procreate's Painter, which has long been renowned for natural-media tools that convincingly simulate the look and feel of real-world painting and drawing tools. Painter 7 adds realistic new watercolor brushes to its predecessor's already impressive toolbox, and it's the first fully Mac OS X compatible version of the program. But while the ability to run a major graphics application in Mac OS X is exciting, the program's lackluster performance in the new operating system will likely drive you to reboot in OS 9.

More of the Same

With version 6 (4.0 mice; Reviews, January 2000), then-owner MetaCreations gave Painter a streamlined new interface--a marked improvement on its predecessors' huge, screen-gobbling palettes. Procreate (a division of Corel) has Aquafied version 7's interface for OS X users, but overall the program's look has changed little.

If you've never used Painter before, getting started can be daunting; learning your way around the palette-driven program, with its hundreds of tools, may take some time. For example, Painter includes 17 brushes, each with variants that change how the brush performs. In addition, each brush has a slew of parameters that allow you to create custom variants.

Fresh Watercolors

Painter has had watercolor brushes since its first release, but version 7 sports a completely rewritten watercolor engine that produces incredibly realistic results. In previous versions, watercolor brushes painted onto a single "wet" layer of a document. This layer stayed wet--meaning that watercolor strokes could interact with each other--until you chose the Dry command. With version 7, you can create as many wet layers as you like. You can even use the new watercolor tools to manipulate imagery created with "dry" tools, by moving the contents of dry layers onto wet layers.

Real-world watercolors consist of granular paint pigments suspended in water. As you move your brush across paper, these particles diffuse into water spread by the brush, as well as into water already on the page, mixing and bleeding into other colors. Painter 7's new watercolor engine simulates this process and includes several new parameters that let you control how "water" spreads, dries, and evaporates.

To use the watercolor tools, you simply grab a watercolor brush and start painting; Painter automatically creates a new wet layer for your strokes. By controlling the Wetness and Pickup parameters, you can change how a stroke expands across your virtual paper, as well as how your current color mixes with and leaches into existing wet colors. Other parameters let you control the speed at which paint spreads on the page.

In addition to yielding startlingly realistic results, Painter 7's watercolor tools are fun to use. Select a really wet brush, and you can watch the virtual water and pigment drip and spread across your page in real time. Because Painter actually simulates the physics of water and pigment, the program includes special Wind parameters that you can use to alter the gravity of your canvas. These controls let you tilt your canvas and blow on your strokes to spread the colors.

All this sounds processor intensive, and it is. Procreate recommends a G3 or higher, and you'll want the fastest clock speed you can afford--and at least 128MB of RAM--if you plan to do a lot of high-resolution watercolor work.

Liquid Inks and Other Effects

Painter 7's other major addition is the Liquid Ink feature, which lets you paint with a thick, gooey ink. Like watercolors, Liquid Inks go on their own layers. As strokes pass near each other or intersect, color blobs and spreads, as real ink does. And Liquid Ink goes on in layers, like a thick oil paint, so you can create realistic built-up strokes. This feature is similar to Painter's Impasto tools, but there's no limit to how many layers you can have or how high the ink can build.

The Liquid Ink and watercolor tools are the biggest new features in Painter 7, but this version offers other additions (such as nonprinting perspective grids) and many improvements. For example, while Painter has always allowed tools to interact with an underlying paper texture, version 7's tools are sensitive to the direction of the paper's grain: a stroke in one direction (with the grain) might lay down more ink than a stroke in the other direction (against the grain).

The Text tool is also greatly improved. A single palette lets you control everything from fonts to drop shadows to text on a curve. Painter's main weakness in terms of text is its continued inability to apply colors to individual characters.

The program can now open and save RGB or CMYK Photoshop files with full layer support; it also offers JPEG and GIF preview options for selecting compression parameters. Perhaps the best enhancement is that you can now use Painter's scripting feature to execute a stroke repeatedly in a selection, giving you a quick and easy way to add cross-hatching, textures, and patterns.

Fast, Accurate, and Under Control

Painter 7's updated color-management facility offers full support for ICC profiles. The single Color Management dialog box makes it easy to select scanner, monitor, and printer profiles and to specify a document color space; a separate dialog box lets you control the handling of documents saved in other color spaces. When you're printing or moving documents from Painter into an image editor, version 7's new color-management tools should make it much easier to maintain consistent color.

Although we were very pleased with Painter's performance on a 400MHz G4 PowerBook running Mac OS 9.2.1, we were eager to see if the program would run even faster in OS X 10.1. Alas, using Painter 7 is a very different experience in the new OS: brush strokes are slow to render, tools respond sluggishly, and the program is generally less tactile than in OS 9.

For example, Painter's Sharpen filter took almost twice as long to work in OS X as in OS 9, as did the Apply Surface Texture and Rotate commands. Script performance was particularly bad in OS X, ranging from three to six times slower than in OS 9. Oddly, when we launched Painter 7 in OS X's Classic mode, performance approached normal OS 9 speeds. Procreate is aware of the problem and is working on optimizing the program to bring it up-to-speed in OS X.

Although Painter 7 is usable--and very stable--in OS X, the performance hit OS X causes is too great. For now, you're better off booting directly into OS 9 or running Painter in Classic mode.

Macworld's Buying Advice

With its new watercolor tools and dozens of other enhancements, Painter 7 doesn't disappoint in the painting department. And if you already rely on Painter, the new tools and improvements make this upgrade worthwhile. But for Mac users longing to make the transition to OS X, version 7's performance in the new operating system is a big deterrent.

Stroke of Genius Painter 7's watercolor engine has been redesigned to yield amazingly realistic results.
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