Hugh John gets creative with Painter Essentials 4 and ArtRage Plus

Jerry Stinson, PainterDaunted by the price of high-end graphics tools? Don’t despair, there are still some inexpensive programs available and the good news is that their price bears little comparison to their performance (Painter artwork by Jerry Stinson, left and below). Two of the most impressive ‘natural media’ programs are ArtRage Plus and Painter Essentials 4 (From Corel, at BETT 2009), both of which can be bought for less than £50 (you can download a free version of ArtRage).

‘Natural media’ programs simulate the painterly effects created by ‘real’ painters using brushes, chalks, pencils, canvass, paper and the like. The Big Daddy and benchmark of this genre is Painter, much loved by art teachers. ArtRage Plus by Ambient Design is, however, an interesting and significantly cheaper alternative.

ArtRage screenArtRage: unusual user interfaceThe first thing you’ll notice when opening the program is the unusual interface, which has been likened to those pioneered by graphic software guru Kai Krause (Kai’s Power Tools, anyone?) Menus are arranged quadrant-like at the bottom corners of the screen where they can be stashed away to create more workspace. It’s an interesting concept but one that takes some getting used to.

There’s the usual palette of tools, 12 in all, which include pencil, paint tube, eraser, airbrush, paint roller and palette knife. These can be further modified by the user of thinners, pressure levels or, in the case of the Glitter Tool, size and shape.

The Stencil Tool is a knockout. It pops up, when selected, with a clutch of cut-outs that include speech bubbles, letters, symbols, snowflake patterns and festive greetings. It’s incredibly easy to use and would lend itself to any number of art projects.

Painter screenshotPainter work from Jerry StinsonCorel Painter Essentials 4 can be bought for £35. (It’s also available for trial as a free time-limited download from Corel) Is it worth laying out the extra money? Undoubtedly; not least because Essentials 4 offers a wider range of painting tools and controls. As well as the usual collection of brushes, pens, pencils, charcoals and ‘wet’ media the Brush Drawer contains Blender and Effects options, two of the most popular features of the full Painter program. Blender offers the best of both worlds; the facility to blend and manipulate colours as you would on an artist’s palette, coupled with effects that could only be created in digital media. Smear, Smudge, Tinting and Grainy Blender, Palette Knife effects can all be used and it’s also possible to apply, say, an oil paint and blend it as if it were a pastel.

Younger kids will love the Effects selection, particularly Image Hose which allows users to decorate their paintings with a range of prepared images that include butterflies, sea shells, paper lanterns and Koi fish. Pattern pen offers a similar instant spray-on experience with a collection of patterns mostly drawn from the natural world – vines, roses, leaves, bark and lotus petals.

The interface is far more conventional than ArtRage but – for this reviewer at least – more intuitive and easier to use. That could be because the layout is similar to graphics programs such as Photoshop Elements and Corel stablemate PaintShop Pro, with tool icons laid out on the left hand side and modifiers (brush size, opacity level etc. horizontally across the top.)

Essentials 4 operates in two modes, Drawing and Painting and Photo Painting. The former is a straightforward digital brush and blank canvass operation, the latter allows users to modify an existing image in a number of intriguing ways. Auto-Painting, for example, lets you specify a certain painting style, Impressionism or Classical Oil Painting say, select a paper texture and then press the START button, sit back and marvel as the Painter software creates a fair approximation of that style. It’s a very passive activity, admittedly, but it has a number of possibilities as a teaching tool.

At these prices – you’d pay less than £60 for both programs – it needn’t even be an either/or choice, especially as the lite version of ArtRage is free. Both applications would be welcome additions to a primary classroom and Painter Essentials would also be useful in the secondary sector. Both are exceptionally good value for money, support multiple layers and work even better with graphics tablets. A pair well worth investigating.

More information

ArtRage Plus

Painter Essentials 4
Bett stand L18