Fractal Design Painter 4

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Latest version of the artistic paint program adds vector, internet and  mosaic capabilities, but it is still the control over natural media  effects that sets it apart from all competitors.

Fractal Design Painter 4

Fractal Design's Painter 4.0 is a bitmap-based graphics program, but it is very different from the market leaders such as Photoshop and Corel PhotoPaint. Where these programs concentrate on editing existing scanned images ready for output, Painter is more concerned with the origination of new artwork. Rather than with photo-editing applications, Painter has more in common with simple paint programs, such as Windows Paintbrush, where the user creates a blank canvas, selects a brush and starts painting.

That however is where the similarity stops, as Painter takes an entirely different, art-based approach to the creation of an image. In Paintbrush there is only one choice of brush with any colour applied covering all previous colours rather like a child using poster paint. In Painter there are literally hundreds of natural media alternatives. Each major tool type, such as chalk or pencil, is chosen from icons in a drawer available under the Brushes Palette. The final choice is then made from an extensive drop-down list of options, so that, under Brush for example, there are over twenty variations ranging from "camel hair" through to "digital sumi".

Each tool has been created to exactly mimic a real world equivalent. The "big loaded oils" tool for example simulates the look of a bristled brush that has been dipped in more than one colour. The use of the water colour brushes is even more naturalistic with colours flowing and mixing, feathering and even collecting at the edge of the stroke. When applied with a pressure sensitive pen, that can interactively fine tune such effects as the width or intensity of the stroke, the artistic freedom offered is amazing and, more importantly, so are the end results.

Painter doesn't stop with its control of brushes. It has a separate Art Materials Palette which is primarily used for choosing the colour to apply, but can also be used to set up the canvas. Various customisable paper textures are supplied and options are available to manage the grain and apparent lighting source. Once applied, Painter's brushes interact with the surface grain just as they would in real life.

The Art Materials Palette is also used for setting up complex gradations to use as fills or to express in an image. New to version 4 is the ability to set up seamless patterns to be applied in a similar way. This is a very simple process; as you paint off one side of the tile your stroke appears on the opposite. Painter even offers a "virtual loom" where you can set up your own weave patterns. This is a frighteningly mathematical process that depends on its own programming language so it's probably just as well that two libraries of weaves are supplied ready to use.

At this point you might be thinking that this is all sounds very well, but if you don't know your "sable chisel tip" from your "hairy brush", what can Painter offer? It's a fair point and undoubtedly a major criticism of Painter that its power can be intimidating for the inexperienced. There is one capability however which means that even the completely untalented can produce some stunning artistic effects, and this is the ability to clone an image.

A "clone" is an image that is based on another source picture, normally a scanned photo. By selecting one of the clone brushes it is then possible to paint picking up the colours from the underlying source. This can be particularly effective using one of the special brushes, such as the Van Gogh or Seurat, that mimic a particular artist's painting methods. For the terminally unconfident, or simply lazy, there is even an option to autoclone the whole image. Typical effects will be to create chalk or impressionist style versions of a photograph, excellent ways of jazzing up otherwise dull images for the glossy annual report.

The combination of natural media and materials together with cloning is the real engine behind Painter and, despite attempts by other bitmap programs to copy some of its effects, it remains unbeatable in this area. As each brush is customisable down to the number and size of bristles and new ones can be easily created, Painter effectively offers an inexhaustable supply of painting tools and art supplies.

With such a core product it would have been easy for Painter to rest on its laurels, but in every version brought out since its introduction in 1991, it has continued to push back the boundaries. For example it was the first program to offer bitmap objects or, as Fractal Design have rather unfortunately chosen to call them, "floaters". These are multiple floating picture elements that remain "live", meaning that they can be repositioned, or their effect on the underlying canvas edited, to create new compositions.

Version 3 made the move into multimedia with the ability to edit QuickTime and Video for Windows images. While dedicated programs undoubtedly offer more control, it is possible to create simple but artistic cartoon-style videos from scratch. More common will be the use of Painter as a post-processor for adding special effects such as oil painting fades or paper textures. Crucially for video editing, the ability to record scripts means that the same operations can be applied to a number of frames.

Also very useful for multimedia as well as for single images is Painter's "image hose". This is effectively another brush, but which paints with pictures instead of paint, casting a series of images with every stroke. For example to create a realistic tree you could load various sizes and shapes of leaf into the "nozzle". You could then randomly or sequentially draw these onto your current project. To create a forest you could repeat the process, but load various sizes of deciduous and evergreen trees. Using the image hose extraordinary and complex images, that look as if they must have taken months to create, can be knocked out in a couple of seconds.

With such a track record, expectations are naturally high for each update of Painter. So what is new in the latest version? Undoubtedly the feature that will cause the biggest stir is the new "Shapes" technology. Shapes are effectively vector equivalents of the bitmap floaters. Using new tools it is possible to add rectangles, curves, text and freeform lines and shapes that float above the underlying canvas. As in any drawing program these can then be repositioned, resized, formatted, arranged and edited at any time in the future.

The advantage of doing this within the Painter environment is that the vector shapes gain some bitmap-style controls. For example they are anti-aliased which means that edges are automatically smoothed and therefore far more realistic. It also means that the effect on the underlying canvas can be controlled so that text, for example, can half merge with its background or change the hue of underlying colours. For a while I also thought it was possible to paint on the shapes using brushes, which really would have been a breakthrough in bridging the gap between vector and bitmap graphics. Instead, as soon as you try to do this the shape is automatically converted to a floater.

So what will the shapes technology be used for? Painter comes with a recorded script which shows how an image of a flower can be built up by copying and rotating a petal shape, and how realistic shading can then be added to bring it to life using the bitmap-based brushes. This is very impressive, but probably unrealistic as the controls over shapes are too crude to compete with a dedicated drawing package. Much more likely and practical, at least for the moment, is the use of Painter's ability to import Postscript images produced by external applications.

For such a progressive company it comes as no surprise to find that, with the latest version of Painter, Fractal Design have embraced the Internet with a vengeance. The new interlaced GIF format is supported and it is possible to set the background colour to be transparent. Painter also enables the creation of "image maps" where each floater in an image is linked to a Web page, acting as an embedded hot spot.

Slightly more bizarre is the new ability for multiple users to work on an image simultaneously over the Internet or a local network. Presumably this is designed to allow collaboration or for an art director to give real-time feedback, but I can't imagine that this was high on many users wish lists.

The final major new feature that the latest release of Painter offers is its ability to produce mosaics. Again this takes the form of a brush but one that, rather than adding colour, automatically produces a stream of tiles. Each tile is an independent object that knows about every other tile, and fits itself into the existing mosaic. At any future time individual tiles can be deleted or reshaped to create the perfect mosaic design.

Like the image hose, Painter's new mosaic capabilities are capable of producing some stunning effects, especially when used to clone an existing image. Unfortunately though while the image hose can be used for multiple projects and multiple artistic effects, despite the brilliance of its implementation, the Mosaic tool can only produce one trick. In other words, don't be surprised if you see a sudden rush of mosaic-style images and don't be surprised if they soon fizzle out.

In a way the new Mosaic capability is typical of all the improvements made to Painter: extremely clever, nice to have, but easy to live without. The one exception is the new vector shape controls, and even these are more of a marker for the future than an immediate benefit. Rather than adding bells and whistles it would have been better if Fractal Design had put more effort into clarifying the interface, making it more accessible and so more productive. ToolTips and right-click support would have been a simple but effective start.

Having said that, and acknowledging a slight feeling of anti-climax over the latest version, there is still no doubt that Painter's core artistic capabilities are unrivalled. If you are serious about the art on computers, Painter stands head and shoulders above the competition.



Ease Of Use


Value For Money




ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

January 1998

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