Is Good Software Enough? Visiting Corel To Find Out How Digital Artists Are Born [Feature]

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corel digital art“One of the most magical things is, you’ve got a nice, crisp piece of paper, you put a benzene marker on it, it just looks gorgeous,” says Corel Painter Master Greg Banning. “But the thing is, those things are toxic. So you’re working overnight trying to get something done, and in the morning you’re just stoned.”

That’s what drove Greg to start using Corel Painter more than thirteen years ago.

corel digital art

I met Greg during a recent visit to Corel’s headquarters in Ottawa, where I went to find out more about Corel’s dream of replacing easel, canvas, and paintbrush with laptop, pen tablet, and Painter.

What Is Corel Painter

Painter is a large, expensive, and complicated natural media painting application. But here is a better explanation:

corel artists

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This is a detail out of Greg’s work, a copy of a painting by Sinibaldi which Greg saw in Paris. Note the textures, the way colors softly blend and layer, the visible brush strokes, and the general tone of the piece, which is anything but computerized.  This work could easily pass as a traditional oil painting, which is precisely Painter’s point. Greg started it in a Paris apartment, a time-honored locale for creating art. But because it was done entirely within Painter, he was able to complete it in a less conventional setting – on board an airliner while making his way back home.

Now, here’s a crop of another work, this one by Painter Master Dwayne Vance, also done entirely in Painter:

corel artists

It looks like a render, reflections and all, but it’s a painting. In fact, it is a part of a series of works featuring spaceships, all created in Comic Con 2012. If you’re curious to see a little bit of what it takes to create a piece like that and check out Painter’s interface, watch this video by Dwayne:

To round out this little showcase, here is an amazing portrait of Nick Fury by Painter Master Mike Thompson:

corel artists

Mike has also created a video, originally as part of a Wacom seminar, showing how he painted this portrait:

Painter is not exactly a mainstream application, so hopefully now you have a better idea of what it can do. But what does it take to create works like these?

The Man-Machine Interface

digital artists

Above, you can see me with Steve Bolt, Painter’s User Experience Designer, in Corel’s new Persona room. Rather than use an artificial lab for usability testing, Steve and other members of the team regularly travel to meet with their users in person and watch them at work. They look at their physical setups, at the peripherals they use, and at the computers they use to create art day in, day out. In the field, artists tend to customize Painter to extreme levels, crafting their own unique setups of toolbars and panes.

This room features images and artwork by those users, providing a constant reminder showing the team who they’re creating the software for.

digital artists

Wacom is Corel’s closest hardware partner, and it shows. The office is strewn with numerous Wacom tablets, including quite a few gigantic Cintiq Pen Displays — devices that combine a pressure-sensitive pen tablet with a high-resolution screen, letting you approximate the experience of drawing on a physical canvas. Hardware plays an important part in the creation process – according to Greg, using a pen tablet is absolutely essential. A mouse wasn’t really meant for painting. That tablet doesn’t have to be a $3,700 Cintiq, but the point is that ergonomics are key in the creation process:

corel digital art

Above you can see Steve demonstrating Corel Cinco, an iPad “remote control” for Painter. Both the iPad and the MacBook are connected to the same network, and the iPad shows five buttons, each mapped out to a function in Painter. The layout is calibrated to the user’s hand, so Steve can just rest his hand naturally on the touchscreen. As soon as he lifts one of his fingers, that button is triggered. So, for example, you can switch to a different brush just by lifting a finger. You don’t have to take your eyes off of the screen, or your other hand off the pen. The process is seamless.

Painter offers a dizzying array of tools and customization options: Oil brushes that drip and flow in believable ways based on physics models, water colors that fade and dry into the canvas, pencils, charcoal, and just about any other brush or canvas type you could think of, all completely customizable. Take this $430 state-of-the-art piece of software, add a $229 Wacom Intuos5 tablet (like the one we reviewed and gave away), and bam, you’re an artist. Right? Wrong.

Tools Are Tools

In a nutshell, Painter is like an endless toolbox of art supplies. If you don’t know how to paint, you’re not going to get anything out of it. This is what both Greg and Steve told me, and it lines up well with what I’ve experienced myself. I found Painter inspiring, even thrilling, to use – but for the life of me, I couldn’t make anything even approximating the dazzling artworks you see above. No matter how hard I worked with my Intuos5 tablet, my efforts ended up as childish-looking scribbles, kindergarten-level doodles my mother would have proudly featured on the family fridge had I drawn them a few decades earlier.

This is an interesting insight, because much of the graphics software I know, like CorelDRAW and other vector applications, goes out of its way to let me do things I can’t naturally do: Draw perfectly straight lines and round circles, or edit and change the lines I’ve already drawn. Painter, by comparison, is simply a big toolbox. It’s there; the rest is up to me. You could theoretically replicate Painter with a visit to the art store and a large budget — only you would eventually run out of supplies, whereas Painter just keeps on going.

If you are just thinking of becoming an artist, you probably shouldn’t just go out and get Painter and a Wacom tablet, just like you shouldn’t go and drop $660 on art supplies only to figure out if it’s working out for you. But if you are already painting with traditional media and have some artistic background, your knowledge can easily transfer to working with Painter – and that’s when it starts making sense as an investment. But one thing’s for sure – the gap between paintbrush and digital stylus is rapidly closing, if not altogether gone.

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