Corel Painter Updated for Natural Media Painting

While Adobe dominates the image editing, publishing and web development sectors, there are two graphical areas in which it is somewhat surprisingly absent — 3D and natural media. There are many providers of 3D applications but when it comes to natural media, Corel's Painter stands alone as a professional-grade tool. It has found favor with a wide spectrum of illustrators, comics and manga creators,designers and concept artists but it's also popular with digital photographers, in part due to its photo transformation functionality.

After more than 20 years of development, Corel Painter continues to evolve. Version 12 added some notable enhancements to its Real Bristle Painting System, which mimics the bending and splaying of traditional, real-world brush bristles on the canvas. Painter is known for the finesse and responsiveness of its brushes and textures. In that vein, the new Real Watercolor and Real Wet Oil brushes realistically mimicked the liquidity and viscosity of flowing and blending paint, water or solvent. Also worth mentioning were the new Gel and Digital Airbrush brushes.

Then prior to version X3 (aka 13) Corel released several free updates, which added non-trivial functionality. Version 12.1 provided support for 32-bit Mac and 32- or 64-bit Windows Photoshop plugins, as well as the ability to easily share brushes; an enhanced live brush stroke preview; moving or copying a brush variant to any category; an enhanced Color Mixer Palette; and improved drag and drop support for panels. Version 12.2 added flow maps, which help direct the flow of paint by producing less saturation at the peaks of textures and more saturation in the valleys. Also new was the ability to dock palettes to the vertical edge of the application window by dragging and dropping. Finally, multi-touch support was added to Wacom Intuos5 touch pen tablets and Cintiq 24HD touch interactive pen displays. This made it possible to perform such touch movements as panning, spinning and pinching.

A willingness to provide free updates between versions is quite refreshing and shows that a subscription model, à la Creative Cloud, is not a requirement to provide customers with ongoing new functionality — instead, a developer simply has to be generous enough to commit to it. But business is business and so the time for paid upgrades must inevitably arrive. Version X3 came with almost 1,000 brushes in 30 categories, so the addition of brush searching capabilities was welcome news, along with a preview of the found brushes. Also new was the ability to display a reference image, which is handy not only for inspiration but to sample colors from it. Colors could also be sampled from four new "inspirational mixers," and files in several graphic formats, including Photoshop PSD, could be imported for use as a custom Color Set Library.

Version X3 provided 25 jitter brush variants, as well as universal jitter, the idea being in both cases to add an irregular nature to brushstrokes. Also worthy of note was enhanced Wacom multi-touch support; improved flow maps for creating the irregular effects common to watercolor work; perspective guides for drawing accurately in 1-, 2- or 3-point perspective; contextual brush controls; an enhanced image cloning workflow; improved support for Photoshop file import; the ability to transform across layers; and memory optimization for 64-bit systems.

Corel then thankfully abandoned its X-based version naming system and released the next iteration as Painter 2015 (version 14). The most striking new inclusions were Gravity, Flow and Spring Particle brushes. These physics-based brushes, as Corel puts it, "produce rich, chaotic strokes by emitting particles from a central point that create lines and patterns as they move across the canvas." More precisely, flow variants emit short-lived particles that flow out from the center of the brushstroke across the canvas and gradually fade. Each of the three types has its own behaviors and can be controlled by such real-time input factors as pressure, bearing, tilt or velocity. Fun stuff! Some will say that such brush effects aren't a fit for a natural-media application but I think it makes perfect sense for Corel to explore just what a painting program can do. Also new was Jitter Smoothing, said to enhance the realism and randomness of both traditional and Particle brushes, while custom user interface palette arrangements simplify switching between tools and optimize the painting environment. Also added was the possibility to control and customize pressure-sensitive memory for virtually any brush. Performance improvements included a native 64-bit Mac version, and enhanced brush accuracy.

Central to the release of Painter 2016 last summer was the inclusion of 131 additional brushes, some of which were quite novel. The Audio Expression brushes, for example, react to sound, so users can play music to modify the size, angle and color variability of any brush. Then there were Dynamic Speckles. The idea here is that particle system physics combine with brush thickness control, allowing users to create unusual brushstrokes or splatters, complete with dynamic speckles that are generated as the user paints. Leaving the fanciful behind, new "dab" types use particles and either Liquid Ink, Watercolor or Impasto to add increased realism to brush strokes. It was also possible to change the angle of paper textures and flow maps to generate even more brush stroke variety, all in the Holy Grail of reproducing the effects possible in the traditional art world. Also new in this release was claimed improvements in speed and stability; improved blending across layers and media types; Adobe Photoshop brush file import (finally!); enhanced workspace customization; and augmented context-sensitive brush hints.

What's New in Corel Painter 2017

So much for history — if you need a more granular view of the evolution of Painter, a version comparison is available. But after 20 years is there really much room for innovation in a mature natural media application? With Painter 2017, Corel's response would once again seem to be yes, with significant new functionality showing up across the program. For example, an Interactive Gradient tool allows users to drag and drop a gradient and then edit the color and opacity in the context of the painting, with the ability to modify the transparency and smoothing, as well as merge nodes. In addition, a Gradient Express paint feature makes it possible to quickly fill a large area with stroke-filled paint. One of the most significant new features is Texture Painting, which allows users to import texture sources and blend them into the artwork, with control over the texture color, luminance, location and distortion. This adds an entirely new dimension to Painter to the point where one wonders why this functionality wasn't added sooner.

Texture Painting makes it possible to apply imported or custom-created textures to characters and objects via brushstrokes.

A number of interface enhancements stand out, such as Palette Drawers for freeing up the painting area by combining panels, brush variants and custom palettes in groupings that can be opened and closed as desired. In a similar vein are Artist Layouts, which provide one-click access to display just the essential tools and controls for particular workflows, such as concept art, fine art, illustration, photo art or manga creation. Completing this is the enhanced Eyedropper tool, a tweaked Brush Selector and a more efficient Property Bar.

But what about the new brushes, you ask? It's true, no release of Painter is complete with a slew of new brushes and brush functionality, and 2017 is no exception. The Dab Stencils feature, for example, sounds promising thanks to it masking a brush dab before paint is applied to the canvas, with the ability to choose from a variety of stenciling media. And when it comes to the brushes themselves Corel has added 106 of them, including 12 new Texture Cover brushes, 23 Texture Source brushes and 46 Dab Stencil brushes.

Users can employ Glazing Brushes to apply translucent paint transitions to their work.

Dab Stencils can be used to mask brush dabs before applying paint to the canvas. Users can pick from a range of stenciling media, from basic blending brushes to impasto.

To learn more, useful PDF documents include a User Guide, Introduction to Painter and a Reviewer's Guide. There's also a solid collection of tutorials on the PainterTutorials YouTube channel.

Corel Painter 2017 for Mac and Windows can be purchased for $429 on the Painter site. A trial version is also available.