Low End Mac Reviews

Review: Painter 7.0

- 2002.06.19

Last week I looked at the new version of Adobe's Photoshop, the industry-standard software for, as the name suggests, editing digital photos and scans. Among its new features are painting tools, beefed-up to make digital art look less like digital art and more like paint or charcoal on paper or canvas.

When it comes to creating images onscreen that look like they were done with real-world tools, though, Photoshop's new features don't come close to matching those found in Painter 7 (about US$500, $200 upgrade), the latest version of a program that has passed through many hands and is now released under Corel's new Procreate (get it?) brand name.

From its beginnings, Painter has ignored Photoshop-like tools to enhance photos in favour of "natural-media" tools, simulating the actions of an ever-increasing range of brushes and other artists' tools applied onto simulated textures of paper and canvas. The new version offers newly realistic watercolour brushes and very nifty Liquid Ink.

Also improved are the text tools and scripting functions, making it possible to automate repeated strokes, simplifying, for example, cross-hatching. The new version also offers increased support for Photoshop-formatted files and previews JPEG files prior to saving, making it easier to select an optimal amount of compression, balancing file size against picture quality.

Painting realistically onscreen won't come easy, however. Painter provides a dizzying array of palettes and brushes, each with a slew of options. The previous version streamlined the user-interface, making the wealth of choices look a little less overwhelming. The updated watercolour brushes, for example, gives the user options to control how digital "water" spreads, evaporates, and dries. Luckily, you can ignore most of these options and just select a watercolour brush, choose a colour, and start to paint.

Behind the scenes, the software is doing its best to simulate the physics and chemistry that affect what happens when paint hits canvas. The new version makes digital ink spread differently depending on the direction of the grain of the digital paper, for example. As a result of all this calculating, the software needs reasonably hefty hardware. For reasonable performance, double the recommendations on the side of the box (64 MB of memory and a 200 MHz processor).

Although you can paint with your mouse onscreen, Painter (and Photoshop's painting features) really benefit from a graphics tablet and pen. Most users find it more natural to draw with the tablets' digital pens than with a mouse. As well, like using a paintbrush or felt pen, Painter's brush strokes are pressure-sensitive: pressing down harder with the digitizer's pen spreads more colour on screen. Wacom's small but affordable (US$110) Graphire 2 graphics tablet or the company's bigger and better Intuos 2 (prices starting at $300) both include older versions of both Photoshop and Painter to get users up and running.

Like the new Photoshop, the new version of Painter comes in Windows and Mac versions, and like the new Photoshop, the Mac version offers support for both the classic Mac OS and the new Mac OS X. But unlike Photoshop, Painter's OS X version needs fine-tuning; it runs noticeably slower than under OS 9. The OS X version is stable, but it's just too slow for most users to find it worthwhile.

Classic Mac OS artists and artist-wannabes will find the new versions worthwhile, however. According to Procreate, artist Warren Manser created designs for costumes for the recently released Spider-Man film using Painter 7.

You'll still need talent to produce art, but Painter makes it easier than ever for any of us to use a computer to produce digital images that don't look like they were made on a computer.

You can order Painter 7.0 from Amazon.com for US$395. The upgrade sells for US$195.

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