Hands on with Painter 7

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My daughter Katie is the artist in the family, but darned if I don't feel pretty artistic with Painter 7, one of the new procreate products from Corel. (procreate is Corel's branding for a line of products for creative professionals.)

Painter 7 is a cross-platform application that simulates the realistic subtleties of an artist's style through "Natural-Media" such as watercolors, inks, oil paints, colored pencils, felt pens, chalks, pastels and more. And since it's "Carbonized" it runs natively in Mac OS X.

It looks better, has many user-friendly enhancements (such as an increased use of sliders for viewing and previewing images), and sports options for reducing screen clutter.

The Natural-Media features and enhancements of Painter 7 are, for me, its most alluring attributes (well, along with its Mac OS X support). The new version boasts two new watercolor and liquid ink technology, perspective grids and two new effects. The watercolor technology recreates the medium of natural watercolor with surprising flexibility and control. The watercolor technology recreates the diffusive nature of pigment suspended in water and lets you control the "wetness" and "dryness" evaporation rate of the paper. You can blend colors while they're still "wet" or wait for them to dry. The interaction of these physical components stimulates the diffusion and drying of a waterborne dye.

The watercolor features of previous versions of Painter were good, but now they're great. You can adjust every aspect of the brush, resulting in some impressively realistic results. You have the best of both worlds: the feel of traditional watercolor techniques and digital manipulation.

Painter 7 keeps the main canvas layer clean by confining watercolor strokes to special watercolor layers. This frees you to experiment to your heart's content without messing up a project.

The Liquid Ink layer does an excellent job of mimicking the viscosity of a thick, gluey medium like ink or paint. Applying Liquid Ink strokes to images in close proximity to one another makes them appear to congeal and bind together like they do in the traditional medium.

You can apply a negative, resistive variation of Liquid Ink to carve away or remove Liquid Ink from an image. Plus, you can apply Liquid Ink to serve as an invisible layer that resists normal Liquid Ink strokes. You can also simulate a variety of other artistic media using Liquid Ink technology, including ink and wax resist painting, scratch board, glass scraping, enamel, encaustic painting, intaglio, woodcut, linoleum, deckle-edges and erosion.

When using grain-sensitive media, covering an area completely in color requires a back-and-forth wrist motion to make sure that all surface areas are completely covered. To make grain-sensitive art materials function more like their real-world equivalents, Painter 7 supports directional grain shading. When you apply strokes to the image in one direction, the surface won't be completely covered. However, apply strokes to the image in several directions, and the surface becomes totally covered.

Adding to the Woodcut effect introduced in the previous version of Painter, there are now two new effects: Distress and Seriagraphy. The Distress effect lets you give images an antiquated look by applying the current paper grain to show the tones and highlights of the original image. With this effect, you can also perform custom halftone screen and line conversions.

The Seriagraphy effect lets you simulate a seriagraphic breakdown of a continuous tone image to a reduced set of colors. The effect offers a way of manipulating the various color areas that comprise the color reduced image -- and it offers a high degree of control. Since each color reduction is saved as an individual layer, an image can be made up of as many layers as you choose -- with each layer representing a color area.

Perspective grids offer a non-printing array of lines that converge as a single vanishing point to help you create 3D images. You can turn on vertical or horizontal lines or both. You can specify the color for these lines, adjust the grid spacing, and modify the location of the vanishing point and the horizon line.

Designed to work as a standalone product or as a complement to Adobe Photoshop, Painter 7 lets you save files in PSD format or open PSD files created in Photoshop while still keeping layers intact. Plus, you can choose from two save options: Red-Green-Blue (RGB) and Cyan-Magneta-Yellow-Black (CMYK). Of course, the fact that there's no target release date for Photoshop for Mac OS X sort of puts in a crimp in all this.

Painter 7 also beefs up the app's color management features. It packs a redesigned interface that simplifies color management by combining all the necessary options in one dialog box. You can utilize three predefined color management styles (the Web, desktop printing or professional output). Or you can create and save your own International Color Consortium (ICC) profiles. Plus, the new color management technology offers import and export options. What's more, you can change the internal RGB space to obtain more consistent color between applications.

If that's not enough color tweaks, Painter 7 lets you create color sets from an image, active layer or active selection. You can do this automatically in one step. Before the new version, you had to use the Eyedropper tool to add individual colors to the color set.

I also like the new usability enhancements. The new brush library architecture lets you make custom brush libraries with ease. Before Painter 7, there was no way to easily move brush variants from one brush category to another within the same library or to different libraries. Brush libraries were stored in a single file and a brush mover was needed to move brush categories from one brush library to another, and a Copy variant was required for moving brush variants from one brush category to another.

Now, however, the process of moving and sharing brush libraries, categories, and variants has been simplified. Brush variants are maintained as individual XML (Extensible Markup Language) files, making it relatively easy to delete, rename, move and share individual brush variants the same way you share individual data files. Want to create a new brush library? Just create a new folder and add brush categories and individual brush variants as you wish. You can then load your brush libraries from the Brushes palette.

If you created custom brushes in previous versions of Painter, don't worry. They can be imported and loaded into Painter 7. The brush library automatically converts them to the proper folder and file structure of the new XML-based brush library.

A new continuous and variable zoom lets you zoom in on an image in a continuous motion at a user-defined value. It replaces the integer-based zoom, which was restricted to a set of specific zoom factors. The new zoom technology boasts a scale slider that lets you zoom in and out of an image in a single, continuous motion. It also has an editable text box that lets you input an exact zoom factor.

Painter 7 also features customizable palettes, context menus, beefed-up keyboard shortcuts and enhanced previews of JPEG and GIF files. The context menus let you access common controls specific to the palette or tool in use at the moment. If you have a two-button mouse, you can access the context menus by clicking the right-mouse button. If you don't have a two-button mouse, you can access the context menus by using the CTRL + click command. When it comes to enhanced keyboard shortcuts, you can create ones that are similar to other image-editing applications, such as Photoshop.

Plus, the shapes-based text tool and dynamic text features have been integrated into a single tool. Also, the text enhancements let you copy, cut, and/or paste text from another application and export text layers into shapes or default editing.

Painter 7 ships with libraries of new brushes, paper textures, photo objects, patterns and Pantone color sets, as well as archives of the libraries that were supplied with Painter 4, 5 and 6. Corel also throws in three KPT 5 sample filters; FraxFlame (for recreating fractal natural phenomena); ShapeShifter (for distorting images by applying refracting glass edges), and Smoothie (for cleaning up rough masks).

All this power is surprisingly easy to get a handle on. However, Painter 7 isn't for older Macs. You can make do with an older G3, for example, but things will go sluggishly. The older, and simpler, effects (such as airbrush and regular paint brushes) work okay on older systems, but the new goodies, such as watercolor, aren't zippy on older systems.

You'll also want a drawing tablet. Working with Painter 7 with a mouse is do-able, but not nearly as fun or smooth as using a Wacom tablet.

Otherwise, the only complaints I have is that I experienced an occasional application freeze when using dynamic plug-ins. Thankfully, this doesn't result in a system crash under Mac OS X, as often happened with the traditional Mac operating system.

Finally, since it's Mac OS X compatible, it offers full support for the new Aqua interface. In other words, Painter 7 looks gorgeous. If you want to really paint using your Mac, this is the only way to go.

Painter 7 requires Mac OS 8.6 or higher (including Mac OS X), a Power Mac G3 or higher, 64MB of RAM (128 MB for Mac OS X), and a 24-bit (800x600) color display (1024x768 for Mac OS X).

Painter 7 has a suggested retail price of US$499. Registered users of previous versions of Fractal Design Painter 4 and 5, MetaCreations Painter 5.5 and 6 or Corel Painter 6 are eligible to purchase the upgrade version of Painter 7 for $199.

This story, "Hands on with Painter 7" was originally published by PCWorld.

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