Going digital: Painter 7 lets artists do away with canvas

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #660  June 18-24,2002 High Tech Office  column

Last week's column looked at the new version of Adobe 's Photoshop, the industry-standard software for, as the name suggests, editing digital photos and scans. Among its new features are painting tools, beefed-up to make digital art look less like digital art and more like paint or charcoal on paper or canvas.

When it comes to creating images on-screen that look like they were done with real-world tools, though, Photoshop's new features don't come close to matching those found in Painter 7 (about $750, $300 for the upgrade), the latest version of a program that has passed through many hands, and is now released under Corel 's new Procreate (get it?) brand name.

From its beginnings, Painter has ignored Photoshop-like tools to enhance photos, in favour of tools that simulate the actions of an ever-increasing range of brushes and other artists' tools applied on to simulated textures of paper and canvas. The new version offers newly realistic watercolour brushes and very nifty Liquid Ink.

Also improved are the text tools and scripting functions, making it possible to automate repeated strokes, simplifying, for example, cross-hatching. The new version also offers increased support for Photoshop-formatted files, and previews .jpg files prior to saving, making it easier to select an optimal amount of compression, balancing small file size against loss of picture quality.

Painting realistically on-screen won't come easy, however. Painter provides a dizzying array of palettes and brushes, each with a lot of options. The previous version streamlined the user-interface, making the wealth of choices look a little less overwhelming. The updated watercolour brushes, for example, give the user options to control how digital "water" spreads, evaporates, and dries. Luckily, you can ignore most of these options and just select a watercolour brush, choose a colour, and start to paint.

Behind the scenes, the software is doing its best to simulate the physics and chemistry that affect what happens when paint hits canvas. The new version makes digital ink spread differently depending on the direction of the grain of the digital paper, for example. As a result of all this calculating, the software needs reasonably hefty hardware. For reasonable performance, double the recommendations on the side of the box (they call for 64 MB of memory and a 200 MHz processor).

Although you can paint with your mouse on screen, Painter, and Photoshop's painting features, really benefit from a graphics tablet and pen.

Most users find it more natural to draw with a tablet's digital pens than with a mouse. As well, like using a paintbrush or felt pen, Painter's brush strokes are pressure-sensitive; pressing down harder with the digital pen spreads more colour on screen.

Wacom' s small but affordable ($150) Graphire 2 graphics tablet or the company's bigger and better Intuos 2 (prices start at $300) both include older versions of Photoshop and Painter to get users up and running.

Like the new Photoshop, the new version of Painter comes in Windows and Mac versions, and like the new Photoshop, the Mac version offers support for both the classic Mac operating system and the new Mac OS X. But unlike Photoshop, Painter's OS X version needs fine-tuning; it runs noticeably slower than the OS 9 version included on the same CD. The OS X version is stable, but it's just too slow for most users to find it worthwhile.

Windows and classic Mac-OS artists and artist-wannabes will find the new versions worthwhile, however.

According to Procreate, artist Warren Manser created designs for costumes for the recently released Spiderman film using Painter 7. You'll still need talent to produce art, but Painter makes it easier than ever for any of us to use a computer to produce digital images that don't look like they were made on a computer.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan