Corel Painter 2015 review: Digital art studio betters its best features

At a Glance
  • Corel Painter 2015

    PCWorld Rating

    It's not a revolutionary update for the world's leading natural-media painting application, but key improvements keep Painter 2015 at the top of its class.

Corel Painter faces an interesting problem: When you're the best natural-media painting program out there, how do you innovate? What more could you possibly add to get people to buy the new version, Painter 2015?

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Painter 2015 improves on a proven formula.

Fortunately, rather than trying to fix something that isn't broken or add a "groundbreaking" new interface (Ribbon, anyone?), Corel went with incremental improvements. They don't make for a riveting feature list, but they keep what's good about Painter and actually do make it better.

Painter is like an unlimited artist's toolbox—at the heart of the app are its numerous and sophisticated brushes, which convincingly emulate natural media. Previous versions saw the introduction of Real Watercolor and Real Oil brushes, which actually let you watch paint dry (more exciting than most will have you believe). Painter 2015 introduces Particle Brushes.

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You'll find the new particle brushes in a number of categories.

Unlike Painter's usual fare, Particle Brushes do not emulate analog tools. Instead, they give you quick ways to draw wisps of smoke or realistic fur and hair and add swirls of color to your creations. In other words, if you're a purist and you love your paintings to look as if they were drawn by hand, you may struggle to find uses for some of the new Particle Brushes. But for artists who enjoy melding old with new, they open up new possibilities. If you want a hyper-realistic beard for your fantasy dwarf, these are the brushes to use.

Another area that's been improved is speed: Corel says Painter 2015 is about 40 percent faster than its predecessor, Painter X3. Even so, some of the brushes are processor-hungry—especially the aforementioned Real Watercolor. I was still able to slow Painter 2015 to a crawl on a powerful computer by quickly drawing many strokes with a Real Watercolor brush. Once the paint finished drying, Painter was back to its usual zippy self.

Next up in the improved features department, jitter smoothing. This technical-sounding name hides a simple reality: When we draw by hand, no two strokes are exactly the same. A computer's digital uniformity is a dead giveaway when you're trying to emulate natural media. While jitter, or introducing some randomness into the strokes, isn't new to Painter 2015, it has been improved. Newly-introduced jitter smoothing allows finer control over jitter, so you can tune your brush strokes to look just like you want them to.

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Jitter smoothing (right) vs. jitter without smoothing (left).

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Painter 2015 ships with five layouts, but you can also make your own.

If Painter is like an unlimited artist's toolbox, that can be both a blessing and a curse. You can use any tool your heart desires... if you can just find it. With dozens of tool panes filled to the brim with sliders, checkboxes, and tabs, finding what you need can be confusing. Painter 2015 helps by introducing new palette arrangements.

An illustrator doesn't use the same tools as a photo artist, and a novice user would find either one of these layouts intimidating. So when you start up Painter, you can now opt for a Simple interface with just a handful of large buttons or for the Illustrator or Photo Artist one. Another included layout highlights just the brushes new to Painter 2015 for when you want to try out just the latest and the greatest.

While brushes are at the heart of Painter, sometimes you may want to tweak (or radically change) the look of your entire image. This is where effects come in, and Painter 2015 makes those easier to use, too. While previous versions included image-wide effects, they limited preview to a small thumbnail in the effect dialog. Painter 2015 applies the effect to the full image, letting you see exactly what you're going to get and modify effect settings as needed.

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Full-canvas preview makes it easier to tweak effects.

If you're a happy user of Corel Painter X3, I'm not sure any of the new features or improvements should compel you to upgrade. On the other hand, if you've never used Painter, this latest version is better than what came before—not a given when it comes to a mature product like this. Painter was, and remains, a solid and versatile tool for creating digital art.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    It's not a revolutionary update for the world's leading natural-media painting application, but key improvements keep Painter 2015 at the top of its class.

    Pros

    • Good natural media emulation
    • A mature product
    • Customizable interface

    Cons

    • Real watercolor brushes can still slow things down
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