Recent Painter revisions have successfully concentrated on making its traditionally inscrutable interface more welcoming. Its latest look now borrows in equal measure
from Adobe Photoshop and its own stablemate CorelDraw.

The developer clearly researched how artists used the program. Instead of the old schizophrenic floating windows, access to most controls is now divided between a simple tool palette and a property bar – whose contents vary depending on which tool is active.

With its appearance issues resolved, Painter IX is now free to concentrate on its real task: simulating the paint medium as closely as possible. And this version does so more successfully than ever.

Painter already had an almost limitless range of brush options, from felt-tip to charcoal. Version 8.0 added realism with its Mixer palette, which allows users to blend paints as they would on a real artist’s palette. Its successor takes this idea one step further with the Artist’s Oils painting system. This option lets you load and paint Mixer-created blends.

The resulting paint’s opacity diminishes as the brush is drawn across the canvas – just as in real life it would run out of paint.

You can adjust most elements of the Artist’s Oils system, including viscosity, blend and wetness. Artist’s Oils even comes with its own selection of special brush tips. Best of all, you can use a special ‘dirty’ mode where any paint left on the brush after a stroke affects the paint loaded for the next one. The results are eerily true to life.

While many digital artists use Painter to create artwork from scratch, some of the most impressive examples of the program’s quality come when existing photos are used as a template. You can add effects to a bitmap image by opening and ‘cloning’ it then painting over it using definable brushes.

Snap to Path is a clever feature that lets you constrain a brushstroke along an existing vector path or shape. When it’s enabled, painting in the vicinity of a path forces the stroke to follow its shape – whether you draw the path within Painter or the document was imported with existing guides. This means you can paint accurately while concentrating on the expressive elements of the stroke, such as pressure or tilt.

Although bitmap and vector elements aren’t linked in the same way as they are in programs such as Microsoft’s Expression, the brushstroke follows the underlying path. In effect, this allows you to treat bitmap elements as if they were true vector shapes.

Painter is rarely the only tool in a digital artist’s arsenal, so updated support for native Adobe Photoshop files, including those with layer masks and alpha channels, is welcome. In particular, it’s good to see version IX at last correcting one annoying quirk of the Layers palette.

In past versions, new layers appeared in the palette below the current one; behaviour at odds with just about every other image-editing program. Coexistence with Adobe products isn’t pervasive, though – we spent a good couple of hours trying to comprehend arcane error messages when importing Illustrator CS artwork. Eventually we stumbled across a note buried in Painter’s Readme file. This explained that files saved natively in the latest version of Illustrator aren’t supported.

But there can be few complaints about other Painter enhancements. We particularly liked the subtle but important improvements to Painter’s digital watercolour feature. Not only does paint stay wet between sessions, but you can also dynamically adjust the wet fringe of all existing brushstrokes using the Wet Fringe slider in the property bar.

This isn’t the only example of dynamic adjustment in Painter IX. In fact, Corel has made a point of adding timesaving touches to make the program easier to use. Changing brush settings, for example, is no longer the clunky multistep procedure it used to be. You can quickly alter things such as brush speed and expression from a single brush control palette.

The Tracker palette records information about every brushstroke variant used during a session. It has also been enhanced so you can recall variants you’ve previously used
and either lock or save them using a drop-down menu.

The development that brings all these timesavers together, however, is the option to freely map keyboard shortcuts to application or palette menus and save them to multiple sets. A neat touch is the ability to export these settings to an HTML file for a handy quick-reference guide.

Amid the generally positive feature increments in Painter IX is the more tenuous addition of a series of Kai Power Tools (KPT) plug-ins. The inclusion of this range of weird effects is incomprehensible. Take, for example, Pyramid Paint, the main purpose of which is to make source bitmap images look more like paintings – duplicating what can be achieved more effectively elsewhere in Painter.

A couple of the seven plug-ins do offer unique options. The Gel filter uses brushes and knives to create 3D objects such as buttons and borders. The Goo filter, which simulates gel smears and twirls, generates animations far more intuitively than you can using Painter’s existing animation tools.

Corel Painter’s new features are more practical than frivolous, there’s no doubt that this version is easier to use, more powerful and produces better results than ever. Corel really has produced a work of art in Painter IX.

  • £293 inc VAT; upgrade £116 inc VAT

  • Ease of use: 9/10
  • Features: 9/10
  • Value for money: 9/10
  • Overall: 9/10