Corel Painter X
Corel's painter graphics program has always been about using technology to blur the line between art and reality. Its digital tools simulate real art supplies, from oil paints to felt-tip pens, and it can turn photos into gorgeous paintings. I tried out the shipping version of Painter X, the tenth major edition of the program, and found that this iteration is even cooler than the previous versions, which I liked.
Corel touts Painter's new RealBristle brushes as its most realistic tools yet. That's not hype. They really are remarkably...well, bristly: As you drag your brushes across the canvas, they interact with the paint in a way that's more natural and less predictable than previous Painter brushes were. (As always, a pressure-sensitive tablet is mandatory to get the most out of Painter. RealBristle tools work best with Wacom's Intuos graphics tablet and its optional Art Pen.)
Painter X boasts little tweaks and refinements almost everywhere, but its features for creating artwork based on photographs have received the most sweeping makeover. You can prep snapshots by fixing problems such as bad lighting right in Painter, use the improved AutoPainting feature to do much of the work of turning the photo into art, and then refine the results--to bring out more detail in people's faces, for instance--manually.
Another new feature, the entertainingly quirky Divine Proportion, is based on the centuries-old notion that shapes with a proportion of 1:1.61803398874989 (also known as the Golden Ratio) are inherently pleasing. The tool overlays a pattern of lines and curves on your canvas to help you lay out your creations according to this theory. It would probably be a mistake to take Corel's claims for the option (which mention everyone from Da Vinci to Le Corbusier) too seriously. But used judiciously, the tool can help you create appealing compositions.
For dual-platform users, it's worth noting that the Macintosh version of Painter X, which is being released simultatneously, is the first one that runs as a native application on Intel-based Macs, so owners of those machines will see noticeably snappier performance than with Painter IX. Both Mac and Windows users will appreciate the fact that the package comes with more extensive printed documentation than the previous edition did.
What's not to like about Painter X? If I had designed it, I would have tried to streamline its interface, which hasn't changed much: Dig into its array of tools, settings, and options, and your canvas may get overloaded with palettes and toolbars. Even as is, though, this upgrade is meaty enough to please professional artists and serious amateurs alike.