Virtual Painter 4

Reviewed by: Mario Georgiou, June 2005
Published by: P.& A. America, Inc.
Requires: Windows 95/98/Me/NT4 (SP6)/2000 or XP, Pentium CPU or equivalent, 64MB RAM, 20MB free hard drive space, Photoshop 3.0 or higher for plug-in compatibility
MSRP: US$55.00 (download), US$59.00 (CD), upgrade pricing available

Some of the things I enjoy about the software I use daily are the versatility and innovation that software creators show when coming up with digital tools for applying effect to photos and other images. A few years back I remember using the Gallery Effects filters that were originally available as a separate suite of plug-ins for Photoshop. Although the effects were cool, they didn't quite achieve the artistic goals I was looking for. And so began my quest for tools which could achieve painterly and artistic renderings of my photos. I could of course have painted them, but that would be time consuming and I was being lazy. After many years of playing and experimenting, I came across two tools which could help me achieve much of what I wanted. One of them was an early version of Virtual Painter.

Now here we are a few years later and Virtual Painter is at Version 4. The program is available in three different versions: Standalone, Plug-in, and Deluxe. The ease of use and flexibility of this program and plug-in is evident from the first time you use it. For this review, I'll be focusing on the plug-in.

Virtual Painter is capable of applying 16 distinct artistic styles to your images through a plug-in interface which facilitates several levels of control over the process. While some of the artistic styles are eminently usable there are a few which produce some cute but fun-only effects.

When you open the plug-in, you are presented with a simple interface which gives you access to 3 functions for modifying your selected image: filter, material and adjust. The first area of definition allows you to select the artistic style you want to use: air brush, collage, color pencil, drawing, embroidery, fauvist oil painting, gothic oil painting, gouache, impasto, oil painting, pastel, pointillism, rectangles, silk screen, triangles, and watercolor. The rendering styles are very cool and some of them, like the drawing style, remind me of the type of art you would find in the city parks, streets and tourist areas of most major cities . . . again very cool and quite enjoyable. There is no pencil sketch tool, but the effect can be emulated by using grayscale conversion in your host application.

The second modifier allows you to define the resolution and the surface material to be emulated in the rendering process. There are 12 materials from which to select and while they do allow for more variations in the rendering process they are not necessarily accurate representations of how the media or renderings would really work in the real world. An improvement here would be to allow the user to select whether or not the material will be rendered as part of the image or to a separate layer so that you could apply your own layer styles. I found the placement of the resolution setting to be the only part of the process I fundamentally disagreed with. I feel that resolution setting should be front and center, maybe as a drop down on the main panel or as a list box.

The third modifier, Adjust Technique, allows you to alter 5 variables to change the rendering of the style. The 5 variables are: Material, Rendering, Coloration, Deformation and Focus. The modifications can be applied via 2 modes—easy or expert. The Easy mode has 3 settings for each parameter whereas Expert mode allows up to 100 degrees of intensity. I played with all modes and prefer to use as little Deformation, Focus and Material as possible. I also played with Coloration and Rendering to give me the look I am searching for and have been happy with the results.

In this third area, you can also create user definable areas of focus which help to greatly improve the effect of the rendering. You can use several of these areas to create sections of interest and also to control the application of the filter. All in all, some very nice capabilities, and should you like a particular look you can also save and retrieve these settings from within the plug-in.

The silkscreen style could do with anti-aliasing in the dark lines it uses to demarcate areas of color. The drawing and ink tools could also benefit from a few more modifiers, but silkscreen still does a great job. I suppose that what I'm asking for in the way of features most people wouldn't really miss. This area also includes a preview of the effect and although it isn't a completely accurate representation of the finished result, it is close enough to get the idea.

As Virtual Painter is a plug-in for Photoshop, Paintshop Pro and compatible applications, it means your work doesn't necessarily have to end with Virtual Painter alone. Virtual Painter can also be used in concert with the host application's various capabilities. You can experiment with applying several styles on the same image either on separate layers, in sequence or as a combination of both. Once you start playing, the possibilities are endless.

As far as support is concerned for this cool tool it doesn't really need much because it is so simple. Just playing with it will teach you all you really need. But should you have any questions, the web site is the best source and you'll get an answer within the day from the software creators themselves. The manual needs expanding, but I read and downloaded the reviewer guide which gave me more information. To be perfectly honest I didn't really look at the manual until after I played with the plug-in for a while. It was only while writing this review that I looked into the documentation and support as part of the review process. I guess it’s a bad habit but I always play with applications first before reading any documentation. I think it helps to figure out the logic.

Cons: The interface needs some minor improvements in the placement of the resolution settings. The brushes could do with a setting which allows you define the randomization of brush direction and brush style. Some of the filters appear to need smoothing via anti-aliasing as some of the effects look stepped.

Pros: Simple User Interface. Expert mode. A Great selection of artistic styles. The save & load settings capability is very useful for creating style libraries. Inexpensive and fast. The standalone version is also available either separately or as a deluxe bundle packaged with this plug-in.

Virtual Painter is a wonderful plug-in and despite its apparent simplicity, is capable of so much. If you want your photos to look even more like art by all means use this tool, but then make an small additional investment and buy some decent art paper for your inkjet printer. As a designer, I enjoy using tools like this and find the results to be very effective. For the home users unskilled in using art tools to draw or paint, Virtual Painter offers the opportunity to create original art from your photos. The results generated with Virtual Painter are so well conceived that even fairly poor images can be resurrected and given new life as Art. Highly Recommended.

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