REVIEW: Corel Painter 11 Produces Beautiful Work, Makes Small Improvements

painter11box

Corel Painter is one of the few applications that is a gold standard in the design industry but is not produced by Adobe, which is refreshing to me. The new Corel Painter 11, produced two years after its previous version, arrives in a small environmentally-friendly package and comes with a batch of new features, both large and small, that together make Painter 11 an interesting upgrade.

New hard media variants

painter-markers

Painter has always boasted a huge number of brushes and media, but Painter 11 adds to the heap with 40 more hard media variants in a variety of media including acrylic, chalk, colored pencil, watercolor, pastels and pencils. Ten of these variants are in the new Markers category, which is worth exploring; I particularly enjoyed the Leaky Marker and Dry Chisel Tip Marker, and the Fine Tip Marker made some cool effects at larger sizes. The Markers are designed to emulate rendering markers.

painter-hardmedia

A Hard Media palette has also been added to the gob of Brush Control palettes, offering control over tip shape and behavior when given varying degrees of tilt and velocity. The palette performs perfectly and gives more control than most users will ever need; the one thing I wish it had is a reset function. I also wonder if 20 Brush Control palettes is too many. Corel should consider the usability difficulties inherent in such a large palette interface and perhaps streamline the group.

One more thing: I am so excited to see Painter 11 now organizes its brush category menu in alphabetical order!

Selecting and transforming

Painter 11 Transform tool
Painter 11’s Transform tool gives users the same transform functions found in Photoshop and other image editing apps.

The other two major features added to Painter are the Polygonal Selection and Transform tools. Painter is arriving late to the Polygonal Selection party: Photoshop and other graphics applications has had such a tool for years. Painter has traditionally focused on recreating the painting experience, but I think Corel has realized users also need the selection and transform features found in other applications. Thus, the Polygonal Selection tool makes its debut—along with the Transform tool, which functions a little differently than Photoshop’s Free Transform function but does all the same things. Here’s a tip: hold Option when you select the Transform tool from the toolbar, and Painter will create a copy of your selection or layer and transform that, leaving the original untouched.

A variety of productivity and compatibility enhancements

My reviews of Adobe’s CS4 applications grappled with the dilemma of whether an upgrade succeeds by its new killer features or its small improvements in efficiency. I have always expected upgrades to wow users with great new features, but CS4 focused more on productivity and Adobe has been promoting this as “the new killer feature.” Painter is a mature application and, if Painter 11 is any indication, Corel may be pursuing the same productivity goals. Many of Painter 11’s new and enhanced features are small tweaks designed to make things easier:

  • The Colors palette now includes the controls previously found in the Color Info palette, and it can be enlarged up to 800 pixels wide for easier color selection. I’m very glad they made this change, because the small color triangle made it hard to select an exact color. I’m also glad to see one palette do the job of two. However, Painter 11 also has new Color Variability and Color Expression palettes that creates a net gain for color palettes.
  • The Mixer palette has been similarly enhanced so it can be enlarged like the Colors palette. The Painter documentation also says users can add mixer swatches to the lineup of swatches on the Mixer palette, but I was only able to add mixer swatches to the Color Sets palette.
  • The keyboard has become a more useful tool in Painter 11. The arrow keys adjust the saturation of hues selected in the Colors palette.
  • The messy Color Managment dialog box from Painter X has been redesigned into something much simpler and effective. Painter 11 requires just an RGB and CMYK profile (Painter X managed five profiles for a variety of hardware and colorspaces) and the profile handling options are in plain view (in Painter X, users had to click an unmarked icon). Painter 11’s color management options are still no match for Photoshop’s, and there is no method to create custom settings, but it is an improvement. One more improvement: unlike Painter X, Painter 11 allows access to the Color Management dialog box without an active document open.

Color Management box comparison image
Comparing the Color Management dialog boxes from Painter X (top) and Painter 11 (bottom) shows a major change—from confusion to relative clarity.

Painter 11 is also compatible with more third-party technology and image formats:

  • Painter 11 understands color profiles in a variety of image formats, including PSD, TIFF and JPEG. It also open PNG files, which Painter X could not do.
  • Tablet pen tilt is better understood by Painter 11, adding realism to digital brushstrokes.
  • Painter 11 is optimized to run on Intel Mac, PowerPC Mac and Windows Vista PC computers.
  • According to the documentation, Painter 11 has improved its handling of Photoshop (PSD) files, with support for layer masks, alpha channels, layer merge modes and layer sets/groups. I tested this with a PSD file I used for a retractable banner project, and it seems both Painter X and Painter 11 understood the file perfectly except for layer styles, Smart Objects and text layers (which are rasterized).

Conclusion

Painter 11 is a solid upgrade, with a couple major new features and several smaller improvements designed to enhance efficiency and third-party compatibility. Those using Painter IX or older should consider the upgrade: for US$199, you’ll get a good assortment of new tools and compatibility improvements. Painter X users have a tougher choice because I don’t believe there is a big difference between Painter X and Painter 11, and in any case a $200 upgrade in today’s economic climate may be a harder sell for any user. A free trial of Painter 11 is available at www.corel.com so I would suggest you try before you buy.

If you have never used Painter before and are considering Painter 11, I would heartily recommend it if you enjoy painting and drawing. Painter has always offered the best painterly experience found on a computer, and Painter 11 is an improvement over its predecessor.

Painter 11
Corel
US$399/$199
Rating: 8/10