PE5: Corel’s Wrong Direction

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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.

PE continue to develop over the years, to add features with each version, and to strengthen the auto-paint tool until PE 4 in 2007. PE 4 was a remarkable, robust program that offered unprecedented user-control over auto-paint features and functions.

Then it all gang aft agley, as Robert Browning might say.

PE spun off “Paint-It” in 2010 which might be described as Painter-light-light. It reduced the feature set and palette of PE to idiotic simplicity. And that seems to have been the guiding light for Corel’s future development of the product line. Paint-It was a watered/dumbed-down version of PE.

PE 5, the latest 64-bit version, took the program in the direction Paint-it had blazoned, but also, curiously, following Painter’s enhanced tools. PE5 simplified and reduced the popular auto-paint functions of PE4 to easy-for-idiots level, while adding a lot of non-automatic functions and tools like brush styles to compensate. It seems a curious trade-off, given the potential audience.

In PE5, all those controls that made PE4’s auto-painting impressive were stripped away, and the number of auto-paint styles was reduced from 18 to 11. And whereas in PE4, you could – if you had a bit of tech savvy – change the auto-paint styles by editing the XML files, in PE5 even that capability has been removed. In PE5 all you can do is choose a pre-set style and click start (and stop).

PE5 became more like Painter-light in adding a more robust toolset, but in doing so closed the door on those users who weren’t looking to get more technical control or brushes (now 126 of them); those who just wanted to make pretty pictures from their digital photos.

As a result, PE5 sank from the auto-paint stack programs to one of the bottom choices. Its target audience is likely those who are expected to upgrade to Painter 2016 and who have more than casual artistic skills. Meanwhile, other, competing programs – Dynamic Autopainter and Snap Art among those at the top of the list – emerged as better and more comprehensive alternatives for auto-painting.

That was an unfortunate choice for Corel. PE no longer fulfills the need for non-artists like me, who feel the urge to create digital art relatively easily. PE has a lot of features for those who want to spend the time to manually tweak a digital photo. That’s both time-consuming and exacting work, especially if you’re using a mouse not a graphic drawing tablet. And it requires more artistic skills than the average user has.

For most professional artists, PE5 makes little sense as a purchase: they might as well go all the way to Painter 2016 and get all the tools. For the rest of us: consider the competition if you’re looking for auto-painting.

PE5 gets a 2 out of 5 in my rating, but if you find a copy, PE4 rates 4.5 out of 5 (and, yes, even though 32-bit, it works with Win 10).

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* I have been a loyal Corel user since the early 1990s. I’ve used Draw since version 3 (it’s now version 17, or X7) and still use it regularly. I have been using PaintShop Pro for at least a decade, and VideoStudio almost as long. I have had many other Corel products, too, and have upgraded to each new version for most programs (Painter only to version X). For the most part, I’ve been impressed with Corel’s product line. PE5 is an exception.

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