The quest to use a computer to emulate natural artistic media is not a new one. The allure of painting with something "just like water color" has tempted both developers and users for years, and Corel Painter 12 ($429, 30-day free trial) brings this dream closer than ever before.
Before I take you on a whirlwind tour of Corel Painter 12, I must admit I am by no means a painter. I've been using Corel products for many years, but mostly stuck with CorelDraw, which is my favorite vector drawing application.
To review Painter, I dug out my trusty old Wacom tablet (a Graphire 2 model aimed at consumers). The first thing that struck me about Painter 12 is the new Real Watercolor brushes. I picked out a brush and started clumsily scratching away at my Wacom. Paint showed up on the screen; so far, nothing new. But when I stopped drawing, the strokes I made suddenly blended into the paper, diffused, and actually "dried" right in front of my eyes, becoming slightly faded. That was a truly eye-opening moment--it is just like water color.
Corel Painter's new Real brushes also include Real Wet Oil, which is similar to Real Watercolor but for oil brushstrokes that are virtually infused with solvents to create artistic effects. Out of the box, Painter offers seven hundred different brushes, but you can endlessly tweak and modify each brush to create your own unique style. You can also select a paper type for your image out of a rich paper textures library, and even create new textures on your own. By combining paper and brush types you can get a specific feel like "felt pen on watercolor paper" or "chalk on cotton paper."
Corel says Painter 12 is up to five times faster than Painter 11. Even though the new brush types seem computationally intensive, Painter was quite speedy to use (and my test computer is no monster workstation). It did slow down a bit when I used the Real Wet Oil brush with gleeful abandon, but I did not experience such a slowdown with the Real Watercolor brushes.
Another feature new to Corel Painter 12 is the ability to change brush parameters on the fly, without using a menu or a toolbox. You simply hold down Alt and Ctrl, and tap your pen onto the tablet (or click your mouse, if you're not using a digitizer). You can then change the brush size by dragging your pen or moving the mouse. Tap Ctrl again, and you get to change brush opacity. You can cycle through several brush parameters in this way, and modify your brushes without breaking your creative flow.
Speaking of flow, another new feature is an easily accessible list of the ten last used brushes. Again, this has been optimized for stylus-based use: The last ten brushes are shown as easy-to-hit buttons, rather than menu items.
Painter 12's new Mirror Painting mode is another way to speed up a typical workflow. Artists often draw symmetrical objects, such as a face. With Mirror Painting, any stroke you make on one side of the "mirror" is reflected on the other side. You can either use a one-plane or two-plane mirror, and you can freely rotate the mirror for some surprising effects.
For a truly funky look, check out Painter's new Kaleidoscope mode. It lets you split the canvas into 3 to 12 mirror planes arranged in a star-like pattern. Every stroke you make is reflected in all other slices, which can yield some impressive abstract backgrounds.
All in all, Painter 12 is one of the most inspiring and striking applications I've come across in recent memory. Plain and simple: It rocks. If you've ever wanted to draw with "natural" media using your computer, Corel Painter will blow you away.