Corel Painter Essentials 4, available for both Windows and Mac, combines the resources of a Photoshop with the carte blanche of a art studio program, but without the attitude of either. The end result is something that's more appropriate for people looking to either paint or artistically tweak their photos and to have fun doing it.

Corel Painter Essentials 4 is a slimmed-down version of Painter geared for home use, but don't let that fool you into thinking that the average home user will be disappointed. There's a deep toolbox under its intuitive layout. Too many programs these days design icons that aren't iconographic: They're hard to parse. In Painter Essentials, though, the icons are easy to understand and large. Not large enough to drive a truck through, but big enough so that you can tell what things are without squinting or losing screen real estate.

The photo painting palette allows users to get creative with their digital images. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc., photo by Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006.)

The left sidebar anchors the main editing tools and hides an expanded brush palette behind a convenient button, with the most important functions--Undo, Redo, Freehand, Straight Line, Brush size and Line opacity living on the top nav and controllable via a convenient and ever-present slider.

On the right sits a palette that changes depending on whether you're working in the Drawing and Painting or the Photo Painting function. Drawing and Painting contains minimizable palettes for Colors, a one-click color Mixer, the Color Wheel, and Layers. Photo Painting shows the Source Image, Auto-Painting and the Restore Detail tab.

Photo Painting is a function that seems unique in this execution to Painter Essentials. You start by loading an image. From there, the permutations seem nearly limitless. You can select a paintbrush, a type of paint and begin "painting." The image you uploaded will begin to appear, but altered by the medium and all the other selections you made. You can alter the texture of the of image by changing the paper, you can muck with the brush type and width, and even use different kinds of paints to recreate your staid photo into an Impressionist work of art.

Painter Essentials 4 has a wealth of brushes in its palette. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

You can also set the image to appear in the background, as an unseen layer, to help you guide your hand. There's also an auto-painting feature that alters the image along whatever parameters you've chosen for it. So, for example, if you've been painting with watercolors, but you think it might look better as a pencil drawing, simply change it in the drop-down box.

It can also auto-paint, which records the last brushstroke you made and performs it repeatedly over the canvas until either you hit stop or the image is all one tone. The Photo Painting tab also has drop-down palettes for changing color, line edge, paper, and brush.

Painter Essentials 4 can turn anybody into an artist worthy of more attention...even your humble editors. (Credit: CNET Networks, Inc.)

Other features not available from the tool palettes reside on the Menubar. Tonal Control offers Contrast, Brightness and equalization, Surface Control offers Lighting, Textures, Sketchification and Woodcutification, Focus and Esoterica makes your image van Goghified live under Effects.

If you're hoping to just do simple crops, red-eye tweaks and the like, this program isn't for you. The price tag of $100 may sound high, but a lot of functionality is being offered in a package that, so far, has been devoid of stability problems. For those users who're looking for a program that's an uncomplicated mix between Photoshop and Illustrator, Corel Painter Essentials is one app you probably can't do without.

Do you have a favorite photo editor or digital art studio? Tell us below in TalkBack or in the new forums!