PE5: Corel’s Wrong Direction

Way back in 1990, a program called Fractal Painter was published by Fractal Design. It offered a “natural media” approach to digital art: mimicking real world art tools and media in the digital environment. You could  – if you had more artistic skills than I – make an image onscreen that looked like it was a photo of a real-media image. Images had texture, oils had highlights. You could mix colours like you do in real life.

It was brilliant, exciting and ground-breaking stuff.

In 1997, after gobbling up several other products (including Poser 3D), the company became Metacreations, but it and extended itself a little too far, and split into fragments that were individually acquired by Microsoft and Corel.*

Corel continued to publish – and enhance – Painter. It turned Painter into the foremost “natural media” digital art program on the market. Its latest incarnation is Painter 2016, a remarkable and powerful art program that sells for $500.

The price, however, deterred many users who wanted a simple art program for non-commercial uses or to just make art-like variations of their digital photographs. So Corel developed Painter Essentials,  at a modest (under $50) price. PE was, essentially, Painter-light, offering a stripped-down subset of Painter tools.

The big draw in Painter Essentials (PE) was its auto-paint feature. It automated the brush and pen strokes. With a few clicks, users could turn a digital image (a photograph, for example) into an art-like rendition. Oil, charcoal, pencil, watercolour, impressionist, modern, pen-and-ink… just a few easy clicks to create an art-like image. Even watching the process work was mesmerizing.

Want a photo to look like a charcoal sketch? A watercolour? A Cezanne or Van Gogh painting? PE 4 had those options. But better yet, it had options to control the brush size, colours, canvas, stroke frequency and so on in each category. That meant users could personalize images in many ways previously unavailable except at much higher cost.

People loved PE. It filled a need for creating beautiful art without the effort, time or cost of Painter, but without the talent required to use all those tools. It offered enough control to make each resulting image unique and give users a feeling they had accomplished something other than just clicking.

It had many powerful tools and features – Painter’s brushes – to make it more than a toy.

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