Corel Painter 2018, First Take: The state of the natural-media art

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There are plenty of digital painting tools, but what makes Corel Painter stand out is the quality of the digital paints and brushes, and the resulting range of options.

For oil paint, the new Thick Paint tool provides a set of brushes and palette knives that create extremely realistic strokes of digital paint, with ridges that look positively three-dimensional as you blend, scrape and push the paint around on your choice of canvas. It's called 'thick' paint because you can build up realistic depths of paint that reflect the texture of the canvas and paint layers underneath, rather than just painting over previous strokes.

The way you use your digital pen on-screen -- tilt, rotation, and pressure -- control the effect of the brush. You can also get a lot of control over the depth of the 3D effects of your brushstrokes by adjusting lighting and shadow effects.

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Corel Painter 2018 is a powerful and complex painting package that makes your digital painting look more realistic than ever.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Slightly confusingly, the new 2.5D Thick Texture Painting brushes are more about applying texture to paint that's already in your image via other tools: you can cross hatch, crackle or emboss the surface of that paint to texture it and add a little more colour. The '2.5D' refers to the fact that you're applying a 2D rendering of a 3D model to that paint surface. The effects vary from the very dramatic 2.5D pen to a much more subtle 2.5D airbrush. Again, you can change the impression of depth by changing the direction at which the light falls onto the picture to alter the shadows on the surface.

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Painting textures in a 3D-like manner allows you to add extra depth to an image.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

There are also new effects for the drip and liquid blending brushes that you use on top of existing paint layers.

The fracture blender lets you scrub and tap onscreen to get different effects. The dab stencil uses the pattern of dots in your source stencil as the texture of the brush to create strokes over the paint surface, while the speckle diffuse blender creates speckles of paint that spread out to make the edges of previously painted strokes rougher and more diffuse, creating a more natural edge.

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If you don't want to change the underlying paint permanently, you can now use the liquid blender brushes on a separate layer, picking up the colour but leaving the layer below intact.

If you want to paint with a brush based on a photograph, the new Texture Synthesis option means you don't need the source to be as large as the area you want to paint; you can now scale it up and randomise it so that doesn't look so obvious. So if you like the effect of a patch of moss on a stone or the lichen on a tree, you can take a photograph and turn a small selection of it into a texture you can paint with, and save it to use later. It's quite performance-intensive, but the resulting texture looks seamless rather than having overly obvious repeats. If you want more of a collage effect, you can now clone textures and patterns that include transparency.

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The new natural media brush library makes the power of Corel Painter simple and accessible: just pick a brush and start painting.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Any brush that's altered by the grain of the canvas you choose to paint on is going to look a little more realistic in this version, thanks to two new options for randomising the paper grain under every brush stroke.

The surface of a real piece of paper or canvas doesn't have a uniform canvas, so this randomisation will stop your digital painting looking quite so uniform. There are already other settings in Painter like stroke jitter and colour variability to help with these, but the nice thing about the Random Grain options is that they work with older brushes that have grain settings -- and that's a lot of brushes.

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Painter 2018 has a lot of brushes, each with their own options.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

Painter was one of the earliest natural-media art packages, and its long heritage shows in a somewhat complex interface, including an enormous list of brushes. In fact, so many brushes have accumulated over the years that you can view those specific to a particular version of the application: if you want to use the Painter 11 version of glazing acrylic for one picture and the Painter 2015 version for the next, you can.

But that's not particularly helpful from someone who's new to the software, so it's nice to see the new Natural Media brush library; this organises enough brushes to be useful into logical categories that anyone familiar with physical painting techniques will understand, rather than overwhelming them with every option in the package.

Something that's always been tricky in natural media painting is selecting, since a rectangular selection, or even a lasso, doesn't make it easy enough to select the paint surface in a realistic way.

The new Fractal Selection lets you paint the area you want to select, and also paint bits in and out of the selection until it's just right. The selected area gets a colour overlay that will be familiar to anyone who's used Photoshop's Quick Mask -- and as with a mask, you can use a selection to protect an area of the painting from a brush you're applying without fiddling with layers.

Corel Painter remains one of the best digital painting tools for anyone with the skill to use traditional painting techniques onscreen, and this version refines some key tools.

The Thick Paint tools are the most realistic oil paints yet, and organising key selections into the Natural Media brush library will help new users get started. The £359.99 (inc. VAT) price -- and the equally hefty £179.99 upgrade price -- reflect the fact that this is a professional tool that takes time to learn. However, skilled artists will continue to find it a superb onscreen painting tool.

Corel Painter 2018 in action

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You can clone textures from images that have transparency, making it easier to get just the colours and texture you want and not the background.

Image: Corel
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Random grain makes paintings look realistic because the paper isn't uniform.

Image: Corel
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Texture synthesis lets you turn a smaller source texture into a larger area of your painting.

Image: Corel

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