Artist and illustrator Tom Bagshaw finds out the latest version of Corel's digital painting software is great for some, not for others.
Corel Painter's natural media painting application gets an update with the launch of Painter 2015. It’s not a huge improvement over the previous version (X3) but it does introduce some interesting improvements, whether they are going to be vital for your workflow is another matter. And there’s big hurdle to leap when upgrading that will put some users off upgrading at all – and at least means you have to be careful about when you upgrade and set aside time to do it. Don’t upgrade in the middle of a project – or, at least if you’re always in the middle of projects, don’t upgrade during a big or tight one.
To my mind the best things in this latest incarnation are the Jitter Smoothing, Brush Tracking and performance updates – but before we come to those, I’ll get into the new brushes. New brush sets are usually the headline feature of every major upgrade to Painter – it’s they extend what the software is capable of, rather than just finessing what’s already there.
Painter 2015: Particle brushes
Painter 2015’s big new brush set is the new Particle Brush category. These are cool physics-inspired brushes that can have a myriad of uses. The most obvious is painting elemental effects like fire and smoke – but they also help speed up creating fur, hair, grass and other materials that may be horribly time-consuming.
There are three main types of Particle Brush: Gravity, Flow and Springs – and each reacted appropriately to input from my Wacom Cintiq Companion stylus’s pressure, bearing, tilt or velocity.
Like all of Painter’s brushes, there are dozens of controls to affect their behaviour – which could be overwhelming, but Corel have helpfuly added a few information palettes in order to explain how some of the Particle brush settings work (which can be found under Window > Info Palettes).
These brushes are a great extension to Painter’s painting tools, but I would say they're going to depend on your style as to how much they get used. What they lay down always has a slightly synthetic, CG feel to it. For my work, I always want a hand-made texture as if it was painted using real brushes – so I’ve not found much use for them. However, I've got a feeling some of my concept artist friends are going to be really happy with them.
Painter 2015: Interface changes
Corel hasn’t made any major changes to Painter’s interface for Painter 2015, but there are some well-thought-out design improvements that make it easier to use.
You’ve long had the ability to arrange Painter’s palettes – of which there are many – and save them as custom workspaces. 2015 introduces some new palette presets, which are pretty handy.
From Window > Arrange Palettes there are five preset arrangements designed to display more relevant palettes and tools to your task. The presets included are: New Brushes – presumably just so you can test out the new ones – Simple, Photo Art, Illustration and Default.
You can create your own arrangements, and you also have the ability to select your favourite two and quickly switch between them.
One addition to the palettes I liked was the new Command bar. This is one of the palettes you will get if you select the 'Simple' layout – but it can also be accessed directly from the Window menu. The Command bar gives you quick access to basic commands like New, Save, Undo/Redo, Cut/Copy/Paste, Layer Stack and Brush Tracking. It doesn't sound like much but if you want to minimise the amount of clutter on your screen – especially if you're working on a smaller display like a laptop or a tablet PC – this is really handy.
Effects filters have been tweaked so that you can now preview them across your whole artwork – making understanding what they do a lot easier and quicker than with the little preview thumbnails of previous versions. The design of dialog boxes has been improved, making them larger and easier to manage.
Lastly for the interface spruce-up, there’s a perspective guided strokes button on the properties bar, which allows you to quickly toggle the perspective grids (which have also been updated) and constrain your brush strokes to it.
Painter 2015: Jitter Smoothing
One of the best things to be added in Painter 2015 is Jitter Smoothing.
If you have X3 you will be familiar with Painter’s Universal Jitter option, which adds jitter to the brush controls. If you didn't know, jitter is what gives your brush strokes the hint of randomness that mimics reality.
One of the main problems with digital painting is that – even though you can have all sorts of setting to vary brush pressure, direction and the like – each brush mark will look very similar without jitter. No real brush will make exactly the same mark every single time you use it.
Universal Jitter added that randomness across all of Painter’s brushes. The new Jitter Smoothing pulls it back a bit, tailoring the randomness to reflect the way that here in the real world, the level and type of randomness in how paint is laid down by a brush strokes varies across brush types based on the material they’re made from and even their size.
Jitter Smoothing helps to create more natural looking marks: especially better spacing and flow for airbrushes, fluctuating depth when using impasto brushes and better colour transitions when you use the colour variability settings. Jitter can also apply to the brush size, opacity, grain, colour expression and angle of most brush variants (including the new Particle brushes).
Brush tracking has always been a useful feature in Painter. Accessible through the software’s Preferences, with brush tracking you could use your tablet to draw a brush stroke and have Painter record that information as your preferred brush pressure and speed.
With this latest version we now have the ability to perform tracking adjustments very quickly and apply them to your selected brush variant. There is now a Brush Calibration palette available, along with a button to quickly toggle the Brush tracking utility: you can now make a mark in the tracking scratchpad and practice that stroke on the canvas to see how it really responds before applying the changes.
These changes to brush tracking are really useful: for example, the tracking used for the oils may not be the best way to treat the chalk brushes – so having the option to change the velocity and pressure of the pen input on the fly is a big help.
Other new features include new papers, textures and flow maps.
Painter 2015: More like Photoshop
Painter has finally caught up with Photoshop with the addition of the new ‘Adjust Selected Colour’ effect. It’s best used on areas of flatter colour rather than subtle blends but it is a welcome addition to the Painter workflow – combined with the live previews, edits to paintings can be made much quicker now.
The Crop tool has been improved, so again – it appears and behaves much more like Photoshops, other bugs like the selection tool issues and copy and paste have now been sorted out as well.
Painter 2015: faster than before
Along with these tool improvements, Corel has also done a good deal of work under the hood, boosting performance across the application. Painter 2015 is [noticeably faster] on operations like opening documents, zooming, panning and rotating documents – especially on the Mac where 64-bit support is possibly worth the upgrade price alone.
Painter 2015 also introduces better support for tablet PCs. X3 would run fine on this Cintiq Companion – and Painter 2015 does too – but 2015 adds support for the Real-Time Stylus used by Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 (which surprisingly is an exceptional tablet for creating digital paintings and other forms of artwork).
Alongside Painter 2015, Corel has also released Painter Mobile – a severely cut-down version of the main app for Android tablets and phones (though an iOS version is in the works apparently). I don’t have an Android tablet so didn’t get a chance to test it but, with only some of Painter’s basic tools, I could only see it being useful for roughing a project on a phone or tablet and then importing it into Painter to work it up. And for many artists the lack of an iPhone or iPad version means it’s not even on our radar.
Painter 2015: upgrade problems
The biggest problem I’ve found with Painter 2015, the one thing that really bugs me, is the difficulty I had importing custom and variant brushes from the previous version.
In the past, when you upgraded you would simply export your favourite brushes and palettes from your old version and import into the latest version. With 2015 – apparently because of the introduction of Jitter Smoothing – you have to recreate them all scratch by having both versions of Painter open and painstakingly creating new brushes to match the old ones.
There’s is a work-around that makes it slightly less time-consuming, but as this is something that will affect all users, I’m left wondering why Corel couldn't sort this out.
Should I upgrade Corel Painter?
That said, Painter is still the best application for digital painting out there. If you're currently painting using Photoshop or ArtRage or some iPad-based tool, be assured that there’s nothing better than Painter. But if you're thinking of upgrading from Painter X3, consider whether the additions to this version are going to help your workflow.