Corel has been putting out yearly updates to its Painter natural media illustration software for some years; with Painter 2021, it's introducing a subscription option for the first time (£159/$199 a year, £14.99/$19.99 a month). Permanent licences (£359.99/$429) are still available for artists who prefer that, and upgrade pricing (£179.99/$229 with a discount for early upgraders) applies if you've bought any previous version -- all the way back to when the software came in an actual paint can.
Now that Corel has a few years of annual releases with features that are worth upgrading for, adding a subscription makes sense. But users who prefer to stick with perpetual licences can still wait until a 'must-have' feature comes along.
The 2021 version also continues the performance improvement work started in previous releases: there are more GPU-accelerated brushes and many new AMD GPUs are now supported for hardware acceleration. Run the performance optimiser with any other applications you expect to have open when using Painter to tune the brush accelerator to your hardware (and to get a score that will show you system performance).
Even with a low CPU score on a first-generation Surface Book, GPU-accelerated brushes were still fast and responsive with little or no lag, and switching from brush to brush feels much faster than on previous versions. You still have to search for accelerated brushes (type in 'GPU', 'AVX2' or 'multicore' to find brushes that take advantage of that hardware). We'd like to see a pre-built brush set to make it easier to choose between just accelerated brushes directly. With macOS Catalina, you can use an iPad as a second screen, using Apple's Sidecar feature, and Apple Pencil users can tilt the stylus at an angle to control the shape of the brushstroke (catching up with the kind of fine control that Wacom pens have long offered).
There are numerous small improvements that will make artists more productive: you can pick the orientation of the canvas, set the type of layer you want to paint directly into and hide the canvas entirely, all from the new image screen. More of the controls you work with frequently, like Layers, which had lagged behind compared to graphics and photo editing tools, are now much easier to work with, with the tools directly on the layers panel. You can add a new layer, shift-select multiple layers to group or collapse them, flip a layer vertically or horizontally, or 'lift' the canvas to work on it. That means you can paint two watercolour layers without one affecting the paint on the other, and then merge them so you can add effects to both at once.
Thick paint -- which really looks like oil, acrylic and other textured paint -- is no longer restricted to a special layer: you can use it on any layer, can set just how thick the thick paint is, and there are 16 new brushes that work with thick paint -- so you can use chalk, pastel and other media types with the texture of thick paint. If you use reference photos you can convert a photo to thick paint to paint on, or you can set the canvas to thick paint. The texturiser lets you apply texture and thickness without applying new paint and colour: when you have the colour you want, that lets you get the right look for your painting without having to repaint it entirely.
Choose to preserve transparency and you can paint over the specific brush strokes on a chosen layer, which lets you target your paint effects very precisely.
It's also much easier to see what brushes work with specific layer types -- and if you pick up a brush that doesn't work on the current layer, Painter will offer to make a new layer. You can have that happen automatically, or get the warning every time so you know exactly what effect you'll get.
Painter 2021 gets a similar 'AI styles' feature to CorelDRAW; the 12 styles give you similar machine-learning-driven effects to popular phone apps that turn a photo into a mosaic or a van Gogh painting. That's not an attempt to automate painting, but it does make it much faster to create a painting from a reference photo so you can then move on to more creative digital artwork.
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Painters get a lot of control over the new AI styles: you can set the level of detail, how closely to match the colour and how much smoothing to use to remove the artefacts created by applying the style. Underpaintings lets you change the brightness and saturation of the effects, and when you get a combination of these settings that delivers the look you want, you can save it as a preset for next time.
The new clone tinting feature also works well for painting by hand based on a photo, or for adding detail to an AI style-treated photo. Cloning a photo source lets you paint areas of the photo into your image; clone tinting lets you tint the image you're cloning with a new colour, so you can add green to brown grass and still get the texture, or make waves a brighter blue as you paint them in.
If the AI style effect has been too dramatic in one area, or if you've painted over too much of the original image as you work, you can clone parts of the photo back into your painting, adjusting the colour as you go. There's a list in the brush palette with 14 new brushes that work well with clone tinting, including pencils, watercolours and oils. The harder you press, the more of the clone colour you get; the lighter your stroke, the more of the selected tint colour is applied, so you can get a very subtle effect in one area and ramp up the colour change in another.
This is a good combination of improvements to the overall painting workflow: performance and artist productivity are improved with some excellent new tools that make it easier for painters to get exactly the effects they want, and to experiment with effects they might not have tried before. And if you're new to digital painting, you can get straight to the fun part without spending nearly as long working out how to get started.
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