CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2017, First Take: AI-assisted sketching is the big draw

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CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2017 is the Windows 10 release of the veteran commercial illustration package -- which does a lot more than just illustration. More than 40 percent of CorelDRAW users are already using Windows 10, and that's increasing among larger businesses, which are also buying new two-in-one PCs. Accordingly, the new release supports touch and pen input, as well as Microsoft's Surface Dial.


CorelDRAW is still part of a full suite of graphics tools.

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For touch, there's a tablet-optimised mode with larger, finger-friendly buttons that moves the menus into the bottom left corner of the screen. This turns on automatically when you put Windows 10 into tablet mode, and you can opt to have it activate automatically when you don't have a keyboard connected. If you turn a tablet PC so the screen is portrait rather than landscape, the tablet mode is optimised for that layout as well. You probably wouldn't drive CorelDRAW by touch alone unless you were using the natural painting tools, for example, but it's very useful when you also use a pen. That way you can change tools using your finger, and make fine adjustments with the pen. We also like the Surface Dial support, which lets you change settings for tools with one hand, without moving the cursor away from your selection.


Tablet mode gives you larger, finger-friendly buttons and menus.

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Pen support is significantly improved, with lots of tools now supporting pressure, tilt, bearing and -- if you have a Wacom pen that supports it -- rotation. Press harder with the pen when you're using the swirl tool, and the swirls become more pronounced. When you smudge colours, the tilt and bearing at which you hold the pen changes the strokes, as well as how hard you press. And when you use the pen with the artistic media tools, CorelDRAW saves the details of your pen strokes; this means you can use the node-editing tools to alter the curve of a stroke without losing the pressure and tilt information that created its characteristics.


Improved pen support lets you use the position and angle of your pen to control strokes, not just how hard you press.

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But the best thing you can do with a pen in CorelDRAW 2017 is draw. Up until now, drawing in vector graphics software has meant creating nodes and manipulating Bézier curves, which is a powerful way of making curves and lines when all you have is a mouse pointer. However, it's a very indirect way of drawing that you have to learn. Most graphic designers still start with a sketch on pen and paper that they scan in, or with a sketch done with a stylus on a mobile device that cuts out the scanning stage. The new LiveSketch feature in CorelDRAW lets you draw lines on-screen with a digital pen and get vectors rather than the usual bitmap. You can start with a guide shape to draw over or a blank page, and you can draw the way you do on paper -- with lots of little lines and sections to form the right curve, with short lines that you draw one after another or any other way you want to lay down strokes with the pen to get the outline you want. You get a preview of the eventual line, and once you stop drawing CorelDRAW cleans up all the messy lines (using a neural network) and gives you a nice clean vector that you can work with as if you'd drawn it with the traditional Bézier tools.


Draw with lots of little lines to approximate the curve you want; LiveSketch then cleans up your input into a vector shape you'd never know was drawn with a pen.

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Controls on the toolbar let you choose how long CorelDRAW waits after you finish drawing before cleaning up the lines; if you find you hesitate between strokes you can give yourself a little longer, or you can set the lines to be committed very quickly so you can draw a curve and then add another on top of it. You can also select the level of smoothing and whether curves are closed off into full shapes if you leave a small gap. And unlike any other vector tool, you can come back to a line you've drawn and extend it with more strokes later in the session, whereupon those new strokes become part of the same vector shape.


You can draw a complex shape with LiveSketch and if it's not quite right, you can edit the nodes of the line to tweak the curves precisely.

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If you're not that good at drawing, LiveSketch doesn't turn you into a great artist, but you can start with a rough sketch and then refine it using the usual vector tools. It's much, much quicker to sketch out a complex shape than to painstakingly create it with nodes and control points, and it feels more like sketching and painting than before. LiveSketch isn't perfect, though: some sharp points tended to get smoothed a little too much when you set the tool to join curves -- but you can turn that setting on and off as you draw different parts of your shape.


If the node handles aren't clear against the image background, you can change the colours and shapes.

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Making nodes more visible should deliver another big productivity boost. Usually, it's hard to see the nodes you're trying to edit against a complex background so you have to keep hiding the background and then bringing it back to check your edits. Node handles are now higher contrast, with different shape handles to distinguish different types of node (which you can customise); and if you can't see the nodes against the background you can pick a custom node colour to make them stand out better.


The Font Manager makes it easy to search for specific styles and weights of typefaces, and you can manage fonts you haven't installed.

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The handy font management tool introduced in the last version of CorelDRAW can now manage fonts that are on your PC but not actually installed. It can also temporarily activate a font you want to use and then turn it off again, so you can work with a wide range of fonts without slowing your system to a crawl by installing them all.


The Interactive Fill tool gives you much more direct controls for fine-tuning how a gradient fill changes across the shape you're filling.

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The new interactive fill tool is a nice way to create gradients: you click and drag across the shape you want to colour, and then pick the shade to use in the fill using the controls that appear on the shape. Drag the slider to set where the colour starts to shade in and out, or drag the node to change the angle of the fill. It's more like working with a Bézier curve than typing into a dialog box, and it works very nicely with a pen. The new Gaussian blur option for drop shadows gives you more realistic shadows because the edges don't look so unnaturally sharp.

PHOTO-PAINT, Corel's Photoshop competitor, gets some upgrades. There's a Healing tool to fix flaws in photos by cloning from elsewhere in the image, a grid-based perspective correction tool to help with lens distortions, and a non-destructive Gaussian blur lens that you can paint over the areas you want to soften (again, that works nicely with a pen).

Some of the smaller improvements will also be very welcome: you can now import workspace layouts that you created in CorelDRAW X6 and X7 (which you couldn't do in the X8 release), and if you use CorelDRAW alongside Photoshop or other Adobe tools, you can switch CorelDRAW to use the Adobe colour management system for consistency.

Schedules and subscriptions


Image: Corel

With this release, CorelDRAW is switching to an annual release schedule (instead of every two years). To go with the faster schedule, there's still the option of paying £30 a month or £200 a year for a subscription, which gets you handy extra tools like a project time tracker, a custom watermark creator and a Pointillizer tool that lets you pick custom dot shapes to vectorize an image with (imagine turning the outline of a country into dots shaped like the country flag or its main export). But if you already have a perpetual licence, instead of paying the usual reduced upgrade cost every time there's a new version (£299 instead of £599), you can pay £109 a year for the Upgrade Program and get the latest release each year. You can keep upgrading, or you can drop in and out of the Upgrade Program, keeping a perpetual licence for the most recent version and using that until you want to start paying again and getting new features again. This flexible approach is a good fit for commercial designers who want to control their software budget -- and if CorelDRAW seems pricey, remember it's intended for commercial artists for whom a little extra productivity means extra income by fitting more jobs into the day.

Annual updates will mean fewer new features in each release, because there isn't as much time to write them. But it also means we didn't have to wait two years for a great new feature like LiveSketch. If you've found working with vector graphics challenging before, LiveSketch is a revelation. This is such a natural way to draw that you're going to find yourself missing it in every other illustration tool.

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