capsule review

MetaCreations Painter 6

At a Glance
  • MetaCreations Painter 6

When you need a set of powerful, versatile painting tools, nothing comes close to MetaCreations Painter. Version 6 is the program's most significant upgrade in years, offering important interface changes and a completely rewritten brush engine that provides an extraordinary new level of realism.

Lay It On Thick Painter 6's new Impasto tools create thick, viscous 3-D ink you can push and smear around the canvas.

Painter's infamous palette-heavy interface hasn't become a model of spareness, but MetaCreations has streamlined and consolidated the program's vast number of options. It now divides the bulk of controls among the Objects, Brush Controls, and Art Materials palettes. Subcategories, stacked atop each other, expand to reveal each palette's controls. For example, the Brush palette's 14 subcategories include Size, Spacing, and Angle controls. This may sound complicated, but it's much better than in previous versions, which contained separate palettes for many options.

Other improvements include new Adobe Photoshop-like Layers. Painter has long let you maintain separate elements as floaters but has never made it possible to organize a painting into discrete layers. Now you can rearrange, lock, hide, and group layers, as well as open and save layered Photoshop files.

Painter's interface still has its cumbersome moments, however. For example, although the Brush Controls palette contains most of the controls for configuring a brush, a few options are hidden under a menu bar in the Brushes palette. We'd prefer to see them in the main menu bar.

Painter doesn't have a learning curve so much as an experience curve. To really understand and appreciate all the program offers, you'll need to use it–a lot.

Painter's defining feature has always been its set of natural-media tools, mimicking real-world media. With the brushes in previous Painter versions, as in most paint programs, you applied dabs of colored pixels to the online canvas. To get the appearance of paint strokes, you put dabs close together. Although this technique looks fine at a glance, it can present problems such as broken lines and repeating patterns. Moreover, this method cannot emulate some real-world effects.

Painter 6's completely rewritten brush engine uses new algorithms that eschew paint dabs for real, continuous lines. Although some brushes still use dabs of pixels, many new ones render separate lines for each brush hair. This technique reduces the artifacts the previous brush method created, and produces smooth, antialiased strokes that rotate to follow the direction of your brush.

Real-world painters accustomed to loading their brushes with paint (that is, letting their brush absorb colors already on the canvas) will love the new Brush Loading feature. With it, brushes can create smooth, realistic blends and smears that interact with underlying colors. Of course, such real-time calculations can tax your Mac. Painter 6 did a good job following our paint strokes; however, even our 350MHz Power Mac G3 turned rather sluggish with the large brushes.

If you hold Painter's airbrushes in one location, they now continue to deposit paint; if you're using a tablet, the airbrushes respond more realistically to tilt and bearing. Where previous versions always applied paint in a circle, Painter 6's airbrushes understand that if you tilt your pen to the side, they should apply paint in a cone-shaped fashion with less-even distribution. The effect is incredibly realistic.

Painter 6 supports Wacom's Intuos tablets, and more tools respond to tablet controls. The Image Hose, for example, lets you scale and orient nozzle images through pressure and tilt.

Although Painter's brush control and variety are unsurpassed, we would like to see a few additions, such as Photoshop-like brushes for simple retouching and for quickly filling in areas with a solid color. And after six revisions, Painter still won't allow you to use the shift key to restrain your brushstroke to a straight line–a standard Mac convention that has been around since MacPaint.

The Dynamic Text feature adds a complete text environment to Painter. Along with full scaling, shearing, tracking, and leading, it provides excellent text-on-a-path controls. Interactive Bézier handles bend and curve text easily. The various curvature styles let you choose whether to curve only the baseline or both the baseline and the tops of letters, for example. Automatic drop shadows and blurring are also available. Unfortunately, there's no Undo in the Dynamic Text feature, nor can you kern individual letter pairs.

Perhaps the program's coolest–and funnest–new feature is the set of Impasto tools, brushes that lay down thick, viscous 3-D ink you can build up, push down, and mush around the canvas. Full specular highlights and visible brushstrokes create a realistic, dynamic image.

January 2000 page: 34

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Improved interface
    • Much improved brush controls and brush performance

    Cons

    • Interface still somewhat disorganized
    • Overwhelming number of controls
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