Corel finally seems to have figured out what it wants to do with Painter Essentials. It was originally just a less expensive version of Painter, designed to provide home users with natural media painting tools. However, there aren’t many home users with the necessary artistic talent to create decent artwork all on their own, so Corel switched the program’s emphasis to concentrate on the far larger number of people who own digital cameras.

The emphasis in Essentials 3.0 was on making photos look like hand-painted artwork, rather than creating original artwork from scratch. Unfortunately, the interface was still rather complex, and the Auto-paint option that attempted to automatically turn photos into paintings wasn’t very easy to use.

But with Essentials 4.0, Corel finally seems to have nailed it. It has redesigned the interface to make it easier to work with digital photos, and also added plenty of new brushes and other features for people who do want to create their own original artwork.

Two workspaces

The program’s interface now offers two different workspaces – one designed for working with digital photos, and another for creating original artwork on a blank canvas. You can switch between the two workspaces at any time simply by clicking on the tabs in the top-right corner of the screen.

When you import a photo into Essentials, it creates a blank canvas in the Paint workspace, with a smaller version of the photo tucked into a palette on the right-hand side of the screen to provide a reference you can work from. Below this is the redesigned Auto-paint palette, and you can tell Essentials to start painting over your photo automatically simply by selecting a style – such as Oil Painting or Watercolour – and clicking the Start button.

You could do this in Essentials 3.0 but the results weren’t particularly good. However, a new feature called Smart Strokes helps the program to paint brush strokes that more closely follow the outlines and contours of objects in your photo. This allows you to get a decent outline sketch quickly, and you can then refine the new painting by hand if you want.

Over on the left-hand side of the screen is a toolbar with a button that opens up the redesigned Brush palette. This provides a good visual display of all the brush styles you can choose, organised into categories such as pencils, pens and watercolours.

There’s also a Restore Detail brush that lets you pull out some of the detail from the original photo. This is handy for working on facial features and other delicate areas. Admittedly, most of these features were present in Essentials 3.0, but the redesigned interface does make it a lot easier for untrained home users to get good results.

To create your own original artwork, just hit the Drawing And Painting tab. The workspace then changes modes, replacing the auto-painting palette with new colour palettes where you can select and mix colours together before applying brush strokes. There’s a wide range of new brush styles here, too, including oriental sumi-e brushes, charcoals and pen styles designed for comic book art.

Creative work

The sheer range of features can be a little confusing at times, but the redesigned interface is a lot easier to use, while the new tutorials do a better job of explaining how the features work. So, whether you’re an accomplished amateur or a beginner, this is well worth taking a look at – especially now that the price has been cut from £69 to just £39.