Painter IX Test Drive

Photoshop has made major gains in reproducing brushes, and it is the cornerstone of most digi-matte departments. Does Painter still have role to play? Is Painter just a weekend app, or can it reposition itself?

Corel has moved to make Painter a more professionally focused tool for concept art, matte paintings and illustration work, in so doing they are moving away from the “Santa Fe” casual artist. Fxguide took version IX for a road test and spoke to

Painter is known industry wide as the best tool for the digital replication of natural media brushes. It is estimated to have over 500,000 users worldwide, 85% using the software in a professional environment, – but it is most well known as a tool for people to use to experiment rather than a hard core production tool. Part of this was the direct result of Corel’s earlier marketing efforts which focused on matching natural brushes such as water colours and oils. It did this by demonstrating the product on painterly artistic interpretations of vegetables and fruit – A ‘still life’, no matter how painterly, is hardly the stuff of visual effects.

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Underwater concept art by Mike Seymour for LG oil Korea

With Painter IX the focus is to shift the product to a much more professional user. Have they succeeded ? Well partially, some artistic visions of Bell Peppers are still to be found in the “what’s new” introduction section of the product, – but the product has definitely moved in the right direction, all be that it probably needs to move further, if it hopes to grow as a product.

The main difference version IX has over the previous version is speed. The brushes are vastly faster – the marketing quotes ten times faster but in some cases it is closer to 60 times faster. The developers at Corel mapped every single brush in the system and graphically tracked their performance. Red indicated perviously slow performance, moving through yellow to green when the brush became responsive. This html page was monitored as the version was developed and the engineers aimed to get every single brush moved all the way to the green zone. The result is a much faster product, which is more responsive and easier to use. There are still some annoying lags in changing brush sizes with some of the more complex FX brushes, but on the whole a set of brushes people used to avoid – due to their non interactive response – can now be used freely. These speed improvements came mainly from hard core code tweaks and rewrites and some new coding options. Corel works closely with intel and Apple as well as the GPU manufacturers to “offload to the GPU as much hard-work as possible” explained Corel’s Sean Young when we spoke to him this week in California. He adds “for example the G5’s ‘Square root’ and ‘cube root’ calls made a great direct improvement’, although Young was quick to point out he isn’t a programmer and exactly how the team made such vastly great improvements was often a mystery to him too.

painterix/introIn an effort to show the product’s new focus, 9 professional concept artists and illustrators are now featured in the start up screen for Painter IX. Artists such as Ryan Church and Dan Milligan are featured, and these artists will also be contributing more tutorials to the on-line teaching aids Corel has set up. Lynda.com – who’s previous training CD-ROM proved very popular for Painter 8 – also provide quicktime downloads and tutorials. All this is complemented by new magazine style email news letters.

Material such as the lynda.com CDROM are excellent tools for new users and students, but there is a gap in high end training on techniques for complex matte painting and concept art, especially for those moving over from Photoshop. The Gnomon Workshop does excellent DVDs on concept art and matte painting – many of which feature Painter software, but often these DVDs skip application specific tips- so if Corel can deliver on these promised senior tutorials they will be most welcomed by experienced Photoshop users wanting to try Painter.

It is also interesting to see on the Gnomon DVD how many artists work with previous versions of Painter. It is this army of loyal Painter version 4 users, for example, who drove much of the priorities for version IX. Prior to this release some people felt the constant addition of new features and brushes had only slowed down the product over all and hence the need for a major performance rewrite.

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For Photoshop users, Painter IX has improved its ability to open layered Photoshop documents. Although layer effects is still not supported, we asked Sean Young if this was perhaps coming in version X. “Well that would require us to support every effect in Photoshop,” says Young, ” so not at the moment unless customers really want that.” General layer support is vital for being able to move easily between Photoshop and Painter, something one still does need to do given Painters lack of complex colour correction and grading tools.

The new version also features improved colour management, hot key customization and improved layer handling. Clearly Painter is used for a variety of different projects, often it is just used as a quick digital sketch pad for layout and matte painting ideas as well as for concept art and production art.

painterix/fave_brushesThere is a 30 day trial version available from the Corel web site. To help get you up and running quickly, you can download a simple custom Palette here with our favorite brushes for fast mock up work. A Pallette is a user-created window in which you can keep your favorite brushes. Over time we will be providing more Palettes and more tutorials on how to use them. One of the difficulties that artists have with Painter in general is the vast array of choices, since there seem to be almost too many brushes. Of course choice is good, but most matte painters we spoke to end up with a relatively small set of half a dozen key brushes they use for most of their work.With version IX you can also lock brushes in the ‘Tracker’ Menu -so the brushes your are constantly going back to are at the top of the last used brush list.

painterix/trackerThis brings us to some of our biggest complaints about Painter and one of the largest battles they have in working in a mixed professional environment. While Painter reads other file formats such as Photoshop, it continues to use very non-standard naming conventions for menu items. As an industry we are all very comfortable with terms such as tracking or cloning, but in Painter these items refer to completely different things. The Tracker is a menu that tracks which version of the brush you used last, and a clone tool are closer to a reveal brush. This coupled with terms which are all correct in their art school context makes Painter very difficult for casual users to manipulate. Corel walks a tight rope in this area. All the imperfections of natural media are accurately modeled and all their faults reproduced for realism, yet often when using a computer you want the faults removed for you. A marker will bleed on paper, but often this is very annoying in the real world and so too in Painter. Clearly Painter’s strength is it’s modeling of natural media, but shouldn’t there be an easier way to isolate tools which are similar and artifact free? It is often hard to use traditional media as they are so unforgiving and the terminology is alien to many digital artists. If Corel is serious about moving into a more professional mixed-application environment, users would benefit if Painter were able to bridge the divide between these two worlds a little more and be a tad more accessible.

Painter IX is really a faster more robust version of Painter 8 which is worth the price of the upgrade. Painter is a brilliant tool and incredibly versatile. The work produced with Painter is often natural and stunning, but as a software program it needs to come half way if it wants wide acceptance in the visual effects world.

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underwater concept art by mike seymour for LG oil Korea