Corel Painter 2020, hands on: Performance and interface tweaks enhance user experience

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The more realistic digital painting gets, the more demanding it is on your hardware. The latest version of Corel Painter focuses on performance, as well as simplifying the user interface, especially for layers and colour selection. The existing CPU-accelerated brushes (using AVX2) get some improvements, which also speed up manipulating the canvas. But the major improvement is GPU acceleration for half of the most-used brushes in the app -- something Painter hasn't previously taken advantage of.

Although you can skip it, it's worth running the Brush Accelerator performance report that Painter suggests when you first start because it customises the new accelerations for both your hardware and for free system resources. This gives you an idea of how your system will perform (and where to focus any upgrade plans).

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Optimise the new GPU brush acceleration for your specific system.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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There are plenty of GPU-accelerated brushes in Painter 2020, but you do have to search for them.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

A hardware-accelerated brush makes a significant difference to the speed at which a brush lays down strokes on the canvas. The more lag you have, the harder it is to precisely control your painting and get the effect you want -- especially if you're not an experienced painter. If you are an expert painter, the closer you can get to real-time brushes the more it's like using the physical brushes and paints you're used to, and the easier it is to transfer existing skills to the screen. We found that the new acceleration makes a significant difference to lag and latency, especially for large brushes on large canvases.

Not all brushes benefit from acceleration. The new Fast and Simple and Fast and Ornate brush categories have a handful of accelerated brushes, but different brushes across the huge Painter brush library have different levels of acceleration. Once you've picked a brush you can see what optimisations it has in the Advanced Brush controls, but if you want to find which brushes are GPU-accelerated you have to open the separate search window and type in 'GPU' to get a list. We'd like to see this unified with the Brush Selector -- either by exposing search there, or by letting you filter or highlight accelerated brushes, so you don't have to make a custom palette or search over and over again.

Easier to find things

You don't only pick brushes by performance, of course, and the list in the Brush Selector now shows previews for dabs and strokes instead of just the brush name, to help you see the effects each brush will give you. There's a quick button to go back to the previous brush, which is a time saver. If you change brushes frequently, you can open a floating version of the Brush Selector that doesn't go away as soon as you click into other tools; this offers either a compact list of brushes or the full Brush Selector user interface.

Painter is a powerful and complex package: the Hints panel in Painter 2019 tried to help artists get the most from it, but it showed all the hints for all the tools all the time. Now they're contextual. Tools on the property bars in the interface have been organised into more logical groups and now have lots of labels and tool-tips to make it clearer what the different tools are. There are also more flyouts on the main Properties bar, which is much less fiddly than having to click in exactly the right place on the toolbar to pick a sub-tool. There are new panels for the perspective guide and mirror painting tools so you can get at them without having to change away from the brush tool, while the eraser tool can be customised so you can pick the size and opacity you need.

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The vector shape tools are now in the Properties bar, with a flyout and panel for working with shape attributes that makes them easier to find and use. There are also changes to the colour selector, some of them subtle -- like the ability to double-click a swatch in a dialog to open the colour wheel, or seeing the previously selected colour next to the colour you just chose in the picker. You can also customise the Ctrl-Alt-1/Cmd-Opt-1 shortcut to open the floating colour selector so you can see it next to the colours in your painting, and left-handed Cintiq users can flip the colour selector around.

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The new Color Harmonies make it easy to pick a range of colours that work well together for accents or shading.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

The new Color Harmonies are also a great way to build up a selection of colours that work well together. The default harmony shows the complementary colour to the one selected (opposite on the colour wheel), plus three intermediate colours that blend the two. But you can also pick light and dark variations of your colour, analogous colours from that side of the colour wheel and complementary colours from two or three locations on the colour wheel.

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Layers now work much more like layers in other art packages. Previously you couldn't lock the canvas layer to avoid painting on it by accident, but now you can. You could also accidentally paint over hidden content before; now if a layer is hidden, you can't paint on it. Making layer management more like the industry standard definitely makes it easier to use layers for fine control in Painter.

If you were annoyed by the pop-up for special offers that would appear even when you weren't using previous versions of Painter, Corel tells us that those have been removed and won't be interrupting you this time around. However, promotions are turned on by default in the Brush Selector and take up quite a bit of room. It's worth signing up to the mailing list though, because the offers include discounts on upgrade costs. Painter is sticking with a perpetual licence rather than subscription pricing: the full price of £359.99/$429 is significantly reduced to £179.99/$229 if you've got a licence for any previous version -- all the way back to the original product from Fractal Design.

Conclusions

Despite the lack of specifically new features, this is an upgrade that many Painter users will want. There's improved performance on the accelerated brushes, and the many interface improvements mean the general experience is much smoother and easier to work with. For newcomers, it's still a massively powerful tool, but it's now rather less confusing and off-putting to get to grips with.

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