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Painter X

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I’ve honestly never thought of software as organic; however, if I had but one word to describe Painter X, that’d be the one. Though it no longer comes in a paint-can package (save for an exclusive limited edition), the new features in Corel’s Painter X (version 10.1) are sure to curl the toes of artists everywhere.

For years, Painter has been revered by fine artists, commercial designers for concept art, and entertainment artists for everything from special effects to character and set design. But is it only for artists? With this major release, the first in over two years, Corel has answered with a resounding no.

Painter X includes features specifically for pro photographers and budding fine artists, including a beefed up photo-painting system, an impressive array of composition tools, and a set of brushes you’ve got to see to believe.

900 brushes and counting

Designed by artists for artists, Painter X is truly the digital equivalent of a traditional art studio, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the new RealBristle Painting System—a technology that allows you to see the bristles of each brush.

When you push a RealBristle brush onto the digital canvas, the bristles splay exactly as they would in the real world. Like the other 800-plus brushes, RealBristle brushes are fully customizable, and you can create as many as you want: Change brush tips, how much paint is applied to the page—the list is endless. When used in conjunction with a graphics tablet (I used a Wacom Intuos3 6x11 for this review), you can control brush pressure, tilt, and barrel rotation, creating a real-world painting experience that very nearly defies words.

Take the experience a step further and mix your own paint with the Mixer palette. Mix, blend, and load a single color, or many (if you're using a RealBristle brush), onto your brush, using the Mixer’s Sample Color tool (which looks like an eyedropper).

For artists, choosing a brush, loading it with paint, and applying it to a canvas is second nature. For the rest of us, there’s a learning curve. You’ve got to try all the brushes, change their properties, see the effects, and experiment with changes in pressure and canvas material in order to get it.

New composition tools

Also referred to as the Golden Section or Mean, the Divine Proportion is a mathematical ratio developed over thousands of years that enables you to create aesthetically pleasing, harmonious compositions. Resembling the spiral of a nautilus seashell, Leonardo da Vinci used it during the Renaissance to figure out where, exactly, to place Mona Lisa’s head.

To the joy of art teachers everywhere, the Divine Proportion guide can be placed atop any Painter document, be it a blank canvas or photo in dire need of cropping. Choose Window: Show Divine Proportion, click on the Enable button, pick an orientation (vertical or horizontal), change the overlay’s size, and move it around using the swirl-shaped Divine Proportion tool in the Toolbox.

Also new in this version are the Rule of Thirds and other compositional layout grid options, which work the same way.

Enhanced photo painting

Digital photographers will surely find impressive the ability to have Painter paint a photo for them. Oh, sure, you can do it in Adobe Photoshop, but it’d take many more steps and still wouldn’t look real.

With Painter, it’s simply a matter of opening a photo, choosing the Smart Stroke brush set, picking a variant, turning on a couple of options in the Auto-Paint palette, and clicking on the Play button. Watch in awe as Painter rapidly applies brushstrokes of varying size and direction to the photo (halt the process at any time by clicking on the Stop button). Depending on the photo’s contrast and subject matter, you’ll likely need to try several brush variants to find one that works best.

Pro photographers will also appreciate the addition of Dodge and Burn tools to the main Toolbox along with improved Photoshop layer support.

More sharing, more resources

Other additions in this version of Painter X include the ability to customize and share workspaces, and a handy Secure Saving and Auto-Backup feature. Veteran users will also notice an overall performance boost now that the software is optimized for Intel Macs.

People new to Painter will appreciate a compilation of learning resources online, plus two hours of free video training by digital artist Jeremy Sutton (the DVD is included with software). Subscribe to the Painter newsletter for tips and tricks, as well as updates. Let it never again be said that there’s no training for Painter.

Macworld’s buying advice

If you’re an artist, using Painter X (version 10.1) is natural and intuitive. For the aspiring artist, Painter is a great way to learn—the digital advantage being that every canvas, brush, and tube of paint is free. If you’re a professional photographer, you’ll love the ability to transform photos into beautiful paintings with little effort; and, as your skills increase, so may your fees.

However, an investment in Painter is just that—an investment, in both time and money. The learning curve for nonartists is fairly challenging and aside from the software cost, you’ll need a graphics tablet.

If you’re not a painter and you’ve got some time, download the free trial and give it a whirl. It’s fully functional, and the worst that can happen is that you’ll have fun exploring. On the other hand, you just might find your inner artist.

[ Lesa Snider King, founder of, is a freelance writer, chief evangelist of, and coauthor of the forthcoming Photoshop CS3: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O’Reilly, 2007). ]

Drag a RealBristle brush across your screen, and it’ll behave as a real painting brush would. I used a fan brush variant to create the long stroke, and then switched to a round brush while experimenting with various pressures as I dabbed.New composition tools such as Divine Proportion can help you compose a new painting or crop a photo. After sizing and positioning the overlay so the focus is on Tiffani’s eye, I can use the Crop tool to create an aesthetically pleasing composition.Photographers will appreciate the new preset Layout Grids, which greatly aid in cropping.The Auto-Painting System has also been improved with new Smart Stroke brush technology. Using a modern color scheme and the Acrylics Captured Bristle variant, Painter applies strokes of different sizes and directions, thus turning a subpar image into something beautiful, complete with feathered edges.
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