Corel Painter Review: The Ultimate Digital Painting Software for Mac Creative Pros

As a creative professional, having the right tools can make all the difference in bringing your artistic vision to life. When it comes to digital painting on the Mac, no software has a longer pedigree or more powerful feature set than Corel Painter. With its unparalleled natural media brush engine, customizable workspace, and high-end performance, Painter has earned its reputation as the gold standard for professional digital artists.

I‘ve been using Painter as my primary digital painting application for over a decade, and it never ceases to impress me with how closely it replicates the behavior of real-world art supplies. Let‘s dive into what makes Painter an indispensable tool for professional illustrators, concept artists, and fine artists.

History and Pedigree

First released in 1991, Painter (originally Fractal Design Painter) was the first software to simulate natural media in a digital format. Over the past 32 years and 25 versions, Painter has continuously evolved its brush technology and user experience to set the standard for digital painting realism.

This long development history has made Painter the most mature digital painting software on the market. It‘s trusted by major film and game studios like Disney, Pixar, Marvel, DC, EA, Ubisoft, and many more for creating production-quality concept art, character designs, storyboards, and illustrations. Thousands of freelance artists rely on Painter to create marketable artworks for clients.

Painter has cultivated a vibrant community of "Painter Masters" – professional artists who push the software to its limits and teach their techniques. These masters showcase the incredible artistic possibilities of the software and provide inspiration to hobbyists and up-and-coming artists alike.

Standout Features

Painter‘s key differentiator is its massive library of over 900 highly customizable brushes across every natural media category you could want: oils, acrylics, watercolors, pencils, inks, pastels, charcoal, markers, airbrushes, and much more. Each brush leverages a powerful physics engine that meticulously simulates how real art media interacts with canvas textures, paint wetness, and paper grain to produce amazingly lifelike strokes.

In my experience, no other digital painting software comes close to matching the depth, realism, and expressiveness of Painter‘s brush engine. Yes, Photoshop has a good assortment of brushes, but they feel static and artificial in comparison. Procreate and Clip Studio Paint offer larger brush libraries, but lack Painter‘s extensive customization and fine-tuned "feel."

Some of my favorite Painter brushes include:

  • Real Watercolor brushes that blossom, bleed, and reactivate in response to virtual paper wetness
  • Thick Painting Knife brushes that produce visible texture and peaks as if you were smearing real oils
  • Sargent brush that intelligently loads with multiple colors for impressionistic multi-hued strokes
  • Particle-based brushes that defy physics to create otherworldly organic strokes
  • Impasto and Liquid Ink brushes that respond to canvas height and produce realistic lighting

But Painter isn‘t just for traditional painting looks. The Brush Creator allows you to modify existing brushes or construct entirely new ones from scratch by adjusting dozens of parameters. With some patience, you can craft your own digital brushes that produce signature styles impossible in real media.

Beyond the brush engine, Painter includes many assistive tools to streamline the digital painting process:

  • Perspective guides to quickly mock up scenes with accurate foreshortening
  • Mirror painting and kaleidoscope tools to rapidly create symmetrical patterns
  • Color Harmonies to generate complementary palettes and adjust hues/saturation while preserving luminance
  • Snapshot and Clone Source tools to paint over a reference image
  • Selection brushes to isolate areas and apply effects
  • Impasto and Liquid Metal physics layers for ultra-realistic brush interaction
  • Image Hose nozzles to spray randomized patterns and shapes along a stroke

Painter‘s unmatched brush quality and myriad paint-assisting tools make it the ultimate digital art studio for professionals. It gives you all the options you need to develop a unique artistic voice without fighting the software.

Performance

As a Mac user, I‘m pleased to report that Painter 2023 runs great on modern Mac hardware. Corel has continuously optimized the code to take advantage of the latest GPUs and multi-core processors. On my M1 Max MacBook Pro, even the most complex brushes remain responsive with 8K canvases. And the software flies on the newest M2 Macs.

Native Apple Silicon support has improved performance up to 50% compared to Rosetta 2 emulation on M1 Macs, showing a major commitment from Corel to the Mac platform. This is becoming increasingly important as professional digital artists continue to standardize on Macs (over 60% as of 2022 according to a survey by CGSociety).

Painter also supports key Mac-specific technologies like ColorSync for end-to-end color management when used with wide-gamut displays and Sidecar to use an iPad as a secondary display or tablet input. Touch gestures on a MacBook trackpad or iPad work fluidly for zooming, panning, and rotating the canvas.

Of course, Painter still has some room for optimization when compared to Mac-first creative apps like Pixelmator Pro or Affinity Photo. It could adopt more Mac interface conventions and transition to Apple‘s Metal graphics API for even better hardware utilization. But in general, stability and performance are excellent on supported Macs.

The bottom line is that Painter 2023 is a fast, reliable digital painting workstation when paired with a reasonably specced Mac. For optimum performance, I recommend one of the higher-end 16" MacBook Pros or a Mac Studio with at least 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and the M1 Max or M1 Ultra chip. Thunderbolt connectivity is also important for connecting high-resolution drawing tablets like those from Wacom.

Value

At $429 for a perpetual license, Painter isn‘t an impulse purchase. But considering that it‘s designed for full-time professional artists producing work for hire, I believe the price is more than justified. Just a single paid client project could cover the cost of this essential tool, and the skills you build with it will serve your art career for years.

For comparison, an Adobe Photoshop subscription costs $420/year with no perpetual ownership. Procreate and Affinity Designer are much cheaper up-front at $10 and $55 respectively, but lack Painter‘s natural media pedigree and astronomical brush ceiling. Among true professional-grade, general-purpose digital painting programs, Painter is very competitively priced.

Corel also offers a fully-functional 30-day trial of Painter, which in my opinion is more than enough time to evaluate how well it fits into your creative process. I‘d recommend taking it for a spin with your graphics tablet of choice, explore the brush categories, and try to replicate your favorite traditional art styles. The trial even includes the Brush Pack Plus add-on with 17 additional brushes and stamp textures.

For an even lower cost of entry, consider Painter Essentials ($50), a simplified version of Painter with a pared-down brush library and UI aimed at hobbyists, students, and enthusiasts. It‘s a great way to start learning the software before investing in the full version.

Room for Improvement

As much as I love Painter, there are still some areas where it falls short of modern creative software standards:

  • Non-destructive layer effects and filters are limited compared to Photoshop
  • No vector tools for infinite resolution shapes and text
  • Clunky UI for selecting brushes and adjusting tool properties
  • Some brush previews don‘t accurately reflect the stroke on canvas
  • No native RAW image import or lens correction tools
  • Lacks some beginner-friendly guided learning content compared to competitors

I‘d love to see Corel modernize the UI, expand the non-destructive workflow options, and add more built-in educational resources in future versions. The core functionality is best-in-class, but the user experience could be streamlined to welcome new digital painters.

Conclusion

For professional digital artists who demand the most realistic and expressive natural media tools, nothing beats Corel Painter 2023. Over three decades of development have produced an insanely powerful and customizable brush engine that continues to set the industry standard for digital painting on Mac.

Yes, Painter requires a serious commitment to learn – you won‘t be banging out masterpieces on day one. And it lacks some of the versatility of all-in-one image editors like Photoshop and Affinity Photo. But if your focus is digital painting and illustration, accepting Painter‘s learning curve will empower you with unrivaled artistic possibilities.

With excellent performance on modern Mac hardware, a proven track record of use by top studios, and an active community of professional artists, Painter is a safe long-term bet for any digital painter. It‘s the closest thing you can get to a real art studio on your Mac.

Every artist is different, so I always recommend trying the free trial first to see how well Painter fits your creative flow and hardware setup. But if you‘re looking to take your digital painting craft to the professional level, Corel Painter is an industry-leading tool that deserves your consideration.

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