Corel Painter X review

£229
Price when reviewed

Painter’s reputation has been made by faithfully reproducing the way that traditional art materials and underlying canvas interact with each other. With brush handling key to this, version X brings a new category of RealBristle brushes, which Corel claims represent “a major milestone for digital painting”. But while Painter has always offered bristled brushes with advanced control, these extra options tools do still break new ground. Open their control palettes and you’ll see options to manage factors such as rigidity and fanning, as well as choose between a range of brush shape profiles, length of bristle and overall roundness. It’s like swapping between similar physical brushes to fine-tune the effect of their painting.

It proves particularly effective when used with the new Universal Colour Mixer, which extends multiple colour sampling to a much wider range of brush types. Loading multiple colours onto a brush is a big step forward, and with the smoother results that RealBristle brushes offers it further blurs the distinction between traditional and digital painting.

The Brush tool and its many variants remain the secret of Painter X’s success, but there are now four new options in the Toolbox. Two of these, Dodge and Burn, have simply been promoted to be more accessible, but Layout Grid and Divine Rectangle are new and help set up a pleasing image from the outset. The Layout Grid divides the canvas into sections, most obviously into nine equal areas that comply with the common Rule of Thirds for image composition, while the Divine Rectangle lets you add guides based on the ratio of approximately 3:5, recognised for centuries as pleasing. They’re handy options but, between the dedicated tools (limited to basic repositioning) and associated palettes, Corel certainly makes a meal of them.

Alongside the creation of original works of art, Painter also enables existing photographs to be given an artistic treatment. The recent (and free) 9.5 upgrade introduced two dedicated palettes to manage the preparation and automatic application of brushstrokes, both of which have been enhanced here. The Under-Painting palette now lets you choose an overall colour scheme, as well as control factors such as contrast and brightness. Presets include those suited for watercolours, sketches, chalks and so on, or you can choose from any open image. Alternatively, take advantage of the new Match Palette command, offering greater control over the matching process for both colours and luminance.

But it’s the Auto-Painting palette that breaks important new ground. Previously, you’d set how the current brush’s strokes should be laid down by choosing a preset style – diagonal, scribble, swirly and so on – and then introduce randomness to make it seem less obviously computer generated. These options are still available, but there’s also the much more effective Smart Stroke Painting. This analyses the image and changes all brush settings dynamically to follow the forms in the picture, as a traditional artist does.

The results can be stunning, especially if you select the Smart Settings option, with its range of dedicated brushes (from Acrylic to Watercolour), which start off as broad brushstrokes and then resolve down to smaller dabs to capture detail. In fact, the results are so good that it’s almost disappointing – it’s a bit like running one-off filters with little scope for creative input. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that Painter X’s Smart Stroke Painting is very different to photo-to-art filters, in that the range of possible end effects is virtually unlimited. And, crucially, when the process is finished, you’re left holding the brush that created the artistic reproduction, so you can always add your own defining human touches.

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