Corel Painter Essentials 5 Software Review

If you’ve ever had the itch to paint—or to turn one of your digital images into a great looking painting without taking up a brush—then Corel Painter Essentials 5 software may be just the ticket.

Available for Windows 7-8-10 and Mac OS X platforms, Painter Essentials 5 is “a painting, cloning and smart photo painting” program that is thoroughly satisfying to use and fun play with. A thinned version of Corel’s professional Painter 2018, which has a hefty MSRP of $429, Painter Essentials 5 is affordable ($49) yet surprisingly powerful.

Painter Essentials 5 has two primary functions. It can automatically render any digital image into a painting or drawing and provides 11 style choices. However, this function is automatic to the extent that other than choosing the style (e.g., Watercolor or Pencil Drawing) the user has no control over the creative process. If you are accustomed to “getting what you want” through creative control instead of happily “wanting what you get” through random alterations, you may be disappointed.

The second function is creation of original art, either by starting with a literally blank canvas or by overlaying your choice of colors and patterns onto a tracing paper copy of a digital image. In this second function, Painter Essentials 5 provides a very broad assortment of brushes and cloners and a powerful color mixing palette. They recommend using a tablet and stylus to lay down the strokes, and that’s great advice. Painter Essentials 5 is compatible with popular Wacom  tablets.

There are a few other bells and whistles, including a kaleidoscope painting function and other one-off special effects that are fun for awhile. Let’s take a walk through the software.

The splash screen summarizes the options: Start a New Drawing & Painting, Start New Photo Art, Continue a Painting or get some help (Share and Learn).

This is the image I use throughout this review. I shot it at a New Jersey nature center with a Sony RX100 which now belongs to my teenage daughter. The original dimensions of the image are 5472 x 3648 pixels. I did no editing whatsoever except resizing for web publication after Painter did its magic. © Jon Sienkiewicz

Workspace features a familiar icon-laden toolbar on the left, image in the center and the Photo Painting (Auto Painting) Menu on the right. Below that menu is the color selection wheel. In this shot, the Windows dropdown menu is open to give you an idea of the various menus that can be made visible. The window tiles can be relocated within the workspace.

The Photo Painting menu, which gives access to the Auto Painting function, includes the Mixer and Color Set tabs which, frankly, I found confusing at first because they are totally unrelated to Auto Paint. It’s impossible to display the Auto Paint controls without seeing the Mixer tab, which is counterintuitive. Auto Paint has 11 options (besides Start and Stop) as shown above in the smaller box on the right.


Click Start and large brush strokes appear. After a few seconds they get smaller, revealing more and more detail. Unfortunately, there are no controls in Auto Paint beyond selecting the style. You can stop the creation before it finishes, and complete the artwork by hand, of course. This gets back to the dilemma I often mention: It’s better to stubbornly “get what you want” than it is to merrily “want what you get.” The creative output in Painter Essentials is random.

Workspace displaying the finished image of the tree after Auto Paint operated under the Detailed Painting menu selection. The vignette around the edges is also automatic, and cannot be turned off or otherwise controlled. Not cool.

Here’s the actual output using the Detailed Painting choice. Final result was the same as the original input resolution (i.e., 5472 x 3648 pixels) but has been resized to 600 pixels wide for web publication here. © Jon Sienkiewicz

In contrast to the image above, this was created by resizing the image of the tree to 600 pixels wide before using Auto Paint. There is a significant difference. © Jon Sienkiewicz

Save As menu showing the various choices and options. The native file format for Painter is a RIFF file, which incorporates the Painter parameters as set during creation. If you save as a PNG or JPEG you will be warned that it’s not being saved as a RIFF file, which gets annoying after the first 30 or 40 times you see it. Sadly, the warning cannot be turned off.

When you use Painter as a tool for painting by hand, you can optionally display a faint copy of the image to use as tracing paper background. The saturation of the tracing paper can be adjusted by an easy-to-use slider. Painter Essentials 5 provides a terrific assortment of brush options, and an excellent color mixing palate. Although hand painting can be done with a mouse, a tablet is highly recommended except for tweaks and touchups.

Image of the tree rendered in Auto Paint using the Watercolor Sketch setting. © Jon Sienkiewicz

Image of the tree rendered in Auto Paint using the Colored Pencil Drawing setting. © Jon Sienkiewicz

Painter Essentials 5 provides other ways to creatively alter digital images. One is Quick Warp, displayed here.

Another creative option, Woodcut, offers a useful parameters and optional settings.

Tree image after both the Quick Warp and Woodcut alterations have been applied. If I were to use this as more than just an example, I’d probably crop it significantly. © Jon Sienkiewicz

One of the Cloning Brushes located under the F-X tab is called Hurricane. In this shot it’s been applied only to the center (orange) part of the tree. Look closely and you can see a cool, nearly fractal-like disruption of the image. Not sure what I’ll use it for, but I like it, and I think it’s as cool as blank. © Jon Sienkiewicz

Corel’s Painter Essentials 5 is well worth the price—which varies from full retail ($49) to online special ($19) depending on how carefully you shop—and has a not-too-bad learning curve. Talented people who use Painter Essentials 5 with a Wacom tablet produce wonderful results. Although my engagement was limited primarily to using the Auto Paint function, I found it totally satisfying and fun to use.

—Jon Sienkiewicz