Corel Painter X Corel Paint Shop Pro Review

No oil painting himself, Duncan Evans sets out to create a masterpiece using Corel's natural media painting program.

|  Corel Painter X in Corel Paint Shop Pro & Painter
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Impressionist cloner
Using the Impressionist Cloner brush to create artwork from a photo.

So we're up to version X, or 10 to you and me, of what was Fractal Design's Painter and latterly has become Corel's Painter. Painter has always been a brilliant program, even if Fractal Design took the occasional wrong turn in its development. When a release went off on a tangent, the next version invariably brought it back in line. Now with Corel at the helm, the interface is less the creative outlook of old, and more consistent with other Corel programs, and to be honest, more corporate looking. This, in itself, I have no issue with, if it makes the program easier to navigate and pleasant to use. However, it isn't. It's even more idiosyncratic, less intuitive and harder work and yet looks bland. This isn't a good start.

So, to start, what's new in this version? Well there's a new bristle system, to go with all the others, which it complements, not replaces, the Divine Proportion and layout grid composition systems, there's a new Photo Painting system, an auto painting function, some palette matching and tweaks to the Mixer palette, then performance and productivity enhancements. On the latter score the program claims that this is the fastest Corel Painter yet. It may be, but I'm doubtful that it's the faster Painter ever, and certainly, when using something like Gloopy impasto - the program can't paint it live, it has to trace the path then render it, which was the case with previous versions. Otherwise, painting is relatively instantaneous as long as very large brushes aren't being used.

Applying surface textures
When applying a surface texture, the paper stocks are listed elsewhere, only allowing you to use the one currently selected.

How deep is your paint?

One of the great features of Painter in later incarnations was the introduction of impasto, which is the term used to describe depth of paint. Doing this digitally gives the image an illusion of depth and makes the picture come to life if using the right materials. The only trouble is that how this now works is scattered about the system. There is a specific category of Impasto brushes, but also other brushes like the Oils use impasto as well. Selecting an impasto-specific brush will automatically turn the effect on, at the picture layer. This is indicated by a tiny star icon in the frame that changes from flat to 3-D to show that impasto is go. How the impasto effect then works is determined elsewhere. You need to Windows > Brush Controls > Show Impasto. That brings up the Impasto control window, along with a host of others, unasked for, but they can then be closed off. Now the depth of the paint and how it is applied can be tweaked, but also, this is affected by the brush design, which is the Bristle window.

One of the options that anyone painting over photos to create artwork will find most useful, is the Pick up Underlying Colour tick box in the Layers palette. The idea is that instead of manually changing and selecting the colour, the brush will automatically sample the colour of the photo and use that as the paint colour. This is great, when it works, because with some brushes it doesn't and there's no obvious reason why not. The actual reason is that other brush presets are over-riding this option, but then finding out where is yet another hunt around the system.

Bristling with brushes
One of the new features is the RealBristle system, as opposed to all the other bristle systems. This mimics the actions of real brushes, so that the harder a brush is pressed down, the different effects it will have. Obviously, this is dependent upon using a pressure-sensitive device like a tablet and pen, and indeed, if you are going to paint anything, rather than turn photos into artwork, this is essential. Why though, is this a different class of brush? To go with the SmartBrush class and the dozens of other brush types. Why wasn't it simply an option - click here for real brush dynamics, that could be set on or off for all brushes. Or even, why wasn't it applied automatically across all brush types to make them more real. As it is, not only is it a new class of brush, which may work the way you like, but doesn't cover all the categories that all the other brushes cover. The Corel answer is to convert your other brushes into RealBristle brushes and save them.

Close up showing brush strokes
A close up show brush strokes and the Underpainting palette that prepares the colour scheme.

The unnecessary complication continues when the new Photo Painting system comes into play. This is aimed at helping you create more realistic paintings from photos, but the process is disjointed and badly explained in the documentation. The first part of the process is to apply underpainting, which creates a version of the colour palette that is more sympathetic to specific, user-selected, styles of painting. The photo can also be tweaked at this stage, but it should be remembered that this is not for correcting the photo, it's for manipulating the palette and contrast. The photo should be ready to go before it's loaded into Painter. After this stage a clone of the photo is created and this can then be worked out with the relevant brushes. Related to this, the auto-painting system can also be selected now - from the mass of the palettes, and this will start automating a painting style. The strange thing is that it runs and runs, and the user needs to shout stop. This would be very easy but what you are looking it has very little resemblance to the image that appears when you do stop the process. It makes it complete guesswork. However, once past the point where all the image has initially been painted over, the results are always similar. This automated image then appears in a third file to be opened, which, again, is somewhat unnecessary. However, the point is that don't think that you must use this Photo Painting system because you don't have to. You can just paint over photos, create blank layers and paint onto those. If Corel was going to introduce a system to cover a specific task like this, it needed to be more coherent, user-friendly and better organised.

Now, there are plenty of painting brushes and types, covering oils, gloopy stuff, ink, watercolours, chalks, acrylics, airbrushes, blenders, pencils, crayons, pens, distortions, image hosing, you name it. While many of these are fantastic, an equal number are unimpressive and don't look very realistic. The airbrush for example, doesn't continuously squirt, it only paints when the cursor is moved, the chalk and sponges are simplistic patterns and look more like they have wandered in from Paint Shop Pro, not Painter. Also, when using the impasto paints, sometimes the effect has far too much contrast - and that's not because a huge a mount of paint has been applied - and weirdly, small artefacts appear in the paint which I've never seen in the Fractal Design versions of the program.

Auto-painting in action
The Auto-painting facility is a little random, turning Rebecca into a mouse, and creating unnecessary screens.

Adding a canvas

The contrast problem can also show up when applying surface textures. This is one of the two main post-production exercises that can be applied - lighting is the other. What's strange is that on the option to apply the surface texture, it uses luminance, 3D brush strokes or the paper type. The paper type being the most useful option, but stupidly, it doesn't show you all the paper types available, it just uses the one that has been selected in the floating toolbar palette on the left. That contains a number of paper types, but the one you want must be selected first, before coming to Apply Surface Texture. The stupid thing is that you may want to have a look at how different textures work out, which involves cancelling and going back and forth between the palette and the Texture dialogue box.

So to layers then, and yet more complexity. In order to use either the ink or the watercolours, you need to have a specific layer for each one. Layers can be chopped and changed between formats, which will affect what's in them, but this shows flexibility. What is initially confusing is some of the terminology. You don't merge layers here, like you would in every other imaging program known to man, you drop them. Same thing, different names to be pointlessly confusing.

All of this is just touching the surface of the variations and tweaking that can be achieved. The results that some of the brushes can achieve are fantastic, but then, they always were and the program wasn't as utterly messy as it is now. In introducing more variables to adjust, the experienced Painter now has the power and tools to create gorgeous artwork, and will love the amount of fine-tuning on offer, but for those new to the program, the complexity, idiosyncracy and inconsistency will provide a very steep learning curve. A pen and tablet are essential, and despite the interface, Painter remains the number one program for those wishes to create artworks digitally.


A finished image
Even artistically challenged people like myself can create reasonable artworks - here with a paper texture applied.

Plus points:
Great oil painting brushes
New, realistic brush system
Impasto paint depth
Photo painting system
Serious tool tweaking options
Generally quick


Minus points:
Idiosyncratic interface and operation
Some materials unconvincing
Impasto can be too contrasty
Strange artefacts in impasto paint
Steep learning curve
Gloopy impasto still not live








Corel Painter X is available in a number of formats:
Limited Edition Painter X Can £304.33
Painter X Full - Box £269.08
Painter X Upgrade - Box £139.83
Painter X Full (Windows/Mac) - Download £242.05
Painter X Upgrade (Windows/Mac) - Download £125.73

Corel Painter X is priced at around £269 and can be bought from Warehouse Express:

Corel Painter X.


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