Artrage 5 or Rebelle 3? Software Review

Artrage by Ambient Design, and Rebelle, by Escape Motions, are similar. They are both excellent, lower-priced digital art software which replicate real-world media and painting techniques. With both, you can pick up your pen and start drawing right away. If you have to choose, which should you buy? In my case, would I get much use out of Rebelle when I’ve been an Artrage fan since 2011?

The short answer is yes, I’ll definitely buy Rebelle. Nothing matches Rebelle 3 for digital watercolour simulation.

MAIN DIFFERENCES OVERVIEW

  • If you already know one of these programs you’ll easily learn the other, because they are very similar in many ways. The Rebelle team seem to have made careful study of what’s out there. They utilise the best  UI features from Artrage, Paintstorm Studio and Adobe products. But this is no copycat mashup — Rebelle does its own thing, too.
  • Artrage features some interesting lighting effects which allows for metallic textures and glitter.
  • Artrage does a bit more (e.g. text, some layer effects, plug-ins), but Rebelle does fewer things better.
  • Rebelle does more with the paper. There is a genuine, physics based interaction between paper and media.
  • Rebelle is therefore better for watercolour, a medium which is heavily influenced by the thickness, wetness and tooth of the paper. You could do any watercolour course and apply the realworld techniques digitally, without spending a fortune on paints and papers. I’m pretty confident the skills you learn in Rebelle would transfer back into the real world, where you’re painting on real watercolour paper. That’s how good it is.
  • While both programs aim to emulate the experience of painting in real life, the developers have made slightly different decisions about when to emulate real media and when to utilise the advantages of digital.
  • Colour selection and mixing  is more complex and powerful in Rebelle.
  • If your computer is more than a few years old it won’t cope with Rebelle 3, in which case go with Artrage (which will run slowly, but it does run).
  • Although Rebelle shines in realistic watercolour, take one look at their forum and you’ll see Rebelle used to create all sorts of different types of art — from washy and bleedy to hyperrealistic.
  • I think Rebelle is particularly well-suited to children’s illustration, which is what I’ll be using it for.
  • If you want a whole lot of image based brushes which you create yourself from scratch, I think Artrage is for you. But I haven’t tried out Rebelle’s brush engine yet. It may be just as powerful, for all I know. To be continued.

 

ARTRAGE 5

First up, Artrage also has watercolour functionality. For a while they were probably leading in this field. Artrage Andy has said in a Reddit AMA that he does know how to make brilliant and naturalistic watercolour, but he’s waiting for everyone’s computer processor to catch up. (I’ll believe him, thousands wouldn’t, haha.) Artrage has a foot in the mobile computing camp, so they’re probably held back by the need to support that, at the moment. Rebelle, on the other hand, is avoiding the mobile market for now, in favour of producing powerful desktop software which will work best with — wait for it — 16GB of RAM(Is it just me, or does that make you feel like you’re living in the distant future?)

Rebelle Minimum: Intel i5 or equivalent AMD, 4GB RAM, 200MB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 1GB RAM, Windows 7 (64-bit or 32-bit) or Mac OS X 10.11. Recommended: Intel i7 or equivalent AMD, 16GB RAM,1GB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 4GB RAM, 64-bit system Windows 8, 10 or Mac OS X 10.12 and newer, Wacom or Surface compatible tablet.

In contrast, here’s what Artrage says about compatibility: You can install ArtRage 5 on any desktop, laptop, or touchscreen device that runs a supported operating system. Please try the demo before purchasing if you have any concerns about performance or compatibility.

We all have our own idiosyncratic favourites, partly based on what we’re used to. Artrage was one of the first art programs to offer naturalistic squidgy paint blending, which is what made me settle on Artrage as my main software. Apart from that, Artrage has a simple, intuitive interface which lets you get straight to art without a huge software learning curve a la Photoshop. Advanced settings are behind the scenes, which means you might not ever find them, to be honest. Artrage was ahead of its time for a while. At $79, Artrage has always punched above its weight. I won’t hear a bad word about it.

Now for a bad word about it. Andy, who codes it (a Kiwi compatriot), has an idiosyncratic, creative approach to programming which I recognise as a ‘number 8 wire’ attitude. Self-taught, passionate and able to solve very complex problems, I have a heap of respect for that guy. However. That same attitude comes with: ‘I don’t look at what other developers are doing, here’s what I’m doing”.

To give an example, if you know how to make your own brushes in Adobe, you’ll have a brand new learning curve in Artrage because custom brushes are crated quite differently. They’re not even called brushes in Artrage. They’re called stickers. There’s no masking in the traditional (digital) sense, just weird-ass workarounds which involve selecting paint on a layer and making a ‘stencil’ with it (which actually looks like the stencils I used in the eighties — but do kids still use those?). With the aim of hewing as closely as possible to real-world media, Andy and his small team say nah to a bunch of REALLY USEFUL things which aren’t really all that difficult to grasp, conceptually.

As a result, each time Andy issues a big new update I wonder if he’s FINALLY going to give us a few ‘industry standard’ digital art basics. When Artrage 5 came out and he  still didn’t give us eraser functionality on every kind of brush, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But you know what? Andy’s individuality is starting to look a lot like plain ole contrarianism. Can you buy erasers shaped like any kind of brush in an art supplies shop? NUP. Therefore we ain’t making any. Okay, he hasn’t actually said that exact thing, but that’s the general philosophy if you’ve been hanging about on the Artrage forums.

(You can actually get putty-like erasers which can be moulded into many different shapes. They’re called ‘kneaded erasers‘. Good for working out your frustrations.)

 

kneadable eraser

Artrage 5 did come with some cool updates, which made the paid upgrade worth it. Mostly it felt like performance improvements, which actually makes upgrading mandatory, even if you have no interest in the new custom brush, which is like stickers… but with blending. Which is awesome. The huge downside of the Artrage stickers was always the inability to blend them. Now, it’s possible to make some truly awesome brushes in Artrage. I have noticed in general that some artists are into that kind of thing — brush-making as an art in its own right — while others are more interested in using software as a means to an end. I’m in the latter camp, so I haven’t spent a solid week mucking around with custom brushes. You could. Oh, you could.

The forums are pretty quiet these days. I do wish more people used (and paid for) Artrage, because then more stuff might get done more quickly. It’s a very powerful piece of software. Artrage 5 doesn’t come with a PDF user manual, probably because I’m one of the five people who likes to read those things from cover to cover. (I asked for one and they said it’s coming.) For now there’s an increasing amount of documentation on their website, designed to be read on a need-to-know basis. The documentation is written in very good, plain English. I was impressed by that. In one solid weekend you can get a good handle on what’s under the Artrage hood.

WHAT DOES ARTRAGE 5 HAVE THAT REBELLE 3 DOES NOT?
  • Artrage ships with a greater selection of readymade options for each tool, with more difference between each one, though this advantage diminishes as you create your own collection of brushes with the brush engines.
  • A weird tool specific to Artrage is the gloop pen. Other artists have said on the Artrage forum that they never use such a thing and it should be taken off the main tool panel and added to the custom brush panel, but I do use it. I use it because it is so specific to Artrage, and creates an effect most digital artists don’t have access to.
  • Bump blend modes. The bumpiness of layers can be added to each other to create quite a high level of bumpiness, as if you’ve glued a whole heap of glitter to the page or used very thick oil. (For even thicker oil, check out Verve, where it can look like someone dropped a lump of putty onto the page.)
  • Speaking of oil, Artrage shines (literally) in its oil painting. (Which could just as easily be called ‘acrylic’.) Rebelle calls their textured brushes acrylic, and that’s pretty good too. Rebelle lets you set ‘impasto depth’ on an acrylic brush. At this stage, if I wanted to create something that looks like oil, I’d go with Artrage. Artrage has a more obvious lighting effect, which you can fiddle around with to create glazed oil versus matte.
  • Related to that, Artrage has a metallic setting which can be applied to any painting/drawing tool. This is affected by the canvas lighting. Metallic media have a ‘crackly’ texture which is really kind of cool. Though it’s a little like the gloop pen — professional artist types don’t seem to use this much. A bit gimmicky, perhaps? My kid loves turning the metallicity up to max, which gives you an idea of who uses it. (Crayolas come with metallic crayons, but professional sets don’t.) She also covers the Artrage canvas in ready-made stickers and ends up with this crappy looking rubbish — I end up kicking her off Artrage and giving her the Crayolas, and this is a kid who’s really quite an accomplished drawer. These extra features of Artrage can be cool, but in practice, will you use them? Kids enjoy Artrage, and I’m guessing they’d tell you they prefer it. But is it better for learning how to paint? That’s a different question.
  • Artrage has a text tool. It’s pretty basic, though. It actually cuts part of the text off if I’m using many of my fancy fonts. I end up doing text in Affinity Designer.
  • To create ultra realistic paintings, your best bet in Artrage is the blending felt pen tool. The marker is not what I’d use in Rebelle — my guess is that you’d be making use of the airbrush for that. I do really enjoy using the felt pen tool, going in afterwards with a blender. The felt pen is my go-to tool in Artrage, so it’ll be interesting to see what I settle on in Rebelle.
  • Artrage is not great with colour palettes. You can’t use an imported palette, so I make my own workaround by creating a png swatch in ColorSchemer and importing as reference image. Also with Rebelle’s colour palette, you can choose to show the names of the colours. This is especially useful if you’re working with an analogous palette. You can also create a colour set from a text file, which looks like a minor pain in the neck, but good to have that option.
  • The pastels in Artrage don’t blend very well. I’ve never warmed to them. (This isn’t an issue if you use a pastel brush in the custom brush functionality of Artrage 5.)
  • Artrage features some layer effects you’ll recognise from Photoshop, like shadows and glow.
  • In Artrage there are so many tools that you can keep your favourites in a ‘tool box’. This tool box resets when you reopen the application, so make sure to export it if you’re working on a big project with more than one document.
  • The workspace can look quite busy, especially since the palettes aren’t dockable in the Adobe sense, so you can hit a key and enter work mode, which gets rid of everything except the canvas and your current tool.
  • I really love the navigation of Artrage. I set my upper Wacom pen button to ‘right click’ so I can hold that and move the canvas. (I don’t like flipping my pen to erase, so my bottom button is set to erase, although my erase button has not clicked off eraser mode in Artrage for a long time, and I’ve been unable to successfully troubleshoot, even with their help.)
  • There’s no navigation panel, but I’ve never found it a problem to zoom in and out. Flipping to check on your perspective skills is really easy — just hit H. The canvas flips right back as soon as you take your finger off the keyboard. This ease of flipping encourages a good habit.

REBELLE 3

For watercolour artists, the latest release of Rebelle  by Escape Motions is hands down the most impressive (and mesmerising) thing I’ve seen on a screen.

Others have made videos so I don’t have to. Aaron Rutten made a comprehensive video focusing on its new features. Rebelle is totally new to me, but this is a good intro nonetheless:

 

You’ll also need an excellent graphics card. Thanks, bitcoiners, for pushing the price up on those damn things. Basically, Rebelle 3 requires a gaming computer. Discussions I’ve had in forums with other digital artists indicate a swing away from Apple (favoured by designers) back to PCs, for graphics card reasons. (My five-year-old desktop Mac runs silently, but has a mobile graphics card in it. Which can’t be upgraded. A moment of silence, please.) But! Now that I have a brand new gaming PC, I plan to get the most out of my RAM and my schmick new graphics card. Rebelle 3 is officially the most hardware intensive software I plan to install. (For now.)

WHAT DOES REBELLE 3 HAVE THAT ARTRAGE 5 DOES NOT?

This is based on my trial version of Rebelle, so this will be an incomplete list.

  • As everyone mentions, super realistic watercolour. I could leave this list at that, but more specifically, the canvas texture of Rebelle 3 means something. It’s not there for aesthetics. Okay, so the canvas texture does mean something in Artrage too. The pencils and pastels adjust their appearance based on the size of the tooth, but it’s done differently. I’m not a coder so I couldn’t be more specific about that. In Rebelle, watercolour paint is heavily influenced by the toothiness of the paper, and this becomes especially evident in drip mode. If you’re a watercolour artist this is huge. You can also randomise the position of the grain relative to the brush mark, which is partly what makes it look more realistic.
  • Part of this is to do with settings like degree of edge darkening. Artrage has been mucking around with this, utilising it in the gloop pen tool, but not in the watercolour toolset, as yet.
  • Ah yes, the amazing drip mode, dependent on the ‘tilt‘ mode. Artrage does not have anything like that. I believe if you’re working on an iPad Pro using Astropad (a subscription service which allows you to mirror your desktop software onto an iPad), Rebelle 3 makes use of the accelerometer, so physically tipping your iPad will mean the drips flow in that direction according to actual gravity. I don’t have an iPad Pro with Astropad myself, so I can’t comment on its compatibility. I’m not sure the extent to which the Rebelle team worked with the Astropad team to get that up and running. You can also blend with your fingers in Rebelle if you’re using a touchpad. So that’s pretty cool. (My art teacher never let us smudge with our fingers. He said it’s for amateurs who fix problems the wrong way. But he never said anything about BLENDERS.)
  • Rebelle features a blow tool, also part of what they call the DropEngine. It blows wet paint. On dry areas it creates dripping effects.
  • Amazing blending. Artrage also has excellent blending (which was truly amazing before even simple apps started offering it, which changed just recently). But in Artrage, as soon as your Wacom pen lifts from the tablet, the paint stays where you have put it. This can be good. It can be just what you want, and you can work like this in Rebelle, too, by turning off the drip mode and setting the paper up to not influence the paint as much. But watercolour artists on the Artrage forum have long complained that watercolour does not work realistically in Artrage. (Their gripes were a little unfair, because computers had yet to keep up.) Basically, if you are a watercolour artist, Rebelle is for you. Hands down.
  • Rebelle has this ‘blue’ mode where you can wet the canvas. In Artrage you can choose to paint (well, blend) using only water, but there’s no option to wet the canvas beforehand. Adding water is something you do after you’ve painted. So you’re really limited in your wet effects in Artrage. Some artists make a background with real media then finish off in Artrage, but with Rebelle they wouldn’t have to do that.
  • Instadry means you don’t have to put paint on separate layers to avoid smooshing them together. I’m so used to making new layers I’ll probably keep doing that out of habit. However, the instadry functionality is essential because of the DropEngine. You want some control over when the droplets stop dripping and dribbling.
  • Rebelle lets you choose either cut and deckled edges on your canvas, which you can turn off and on again, because the deckled edge functions like a mask.
  • In general, the language used within the software hews more closely to the language of watercolour artists. Rebelle talks about hot/cold pressed paper, for instance.
  • Rebelle’s UI is a bit more similar to Adobe’s. There’s the obvious dark colour scheme, but Adobe has other advantages too, like a more intuitive way of making your own brushes. You’ll soon pick up how to change the settings. By comparison, the little circle and grid system of Artrage, with its negative and positive values, feels very specific to Artrage. Learn the ins and outs of that and your skill set won’t transfer. (And you’ll wonder how an entire week went by… .and six months later when you go to make some more brushes, you’ve forgotten…)
  • The filters on Rebelle seem a bit more powerful. It’s mostly there in Artrage too, but I do finish off colour correction in Affinity Photo rather than in Artrage. I’m yet to see if I’ll need that final step after creating in Rebelle.
  • In general, Rebelle is more ‘drag and drop’ than Artrage. Artrage does have a bit of drag and drop functionality but feels all menus, clicking and typing compared to the most modern programs. For instance, you can expand (or shrink) a Rebelle canvas by dragging the corner. In Artrage you have to go into the menu to do that. In Rebelle you can even drag and drop an image into the colour set panel and Rebelle creates a palette from that image. Genius. I am so impressed by that small thing.
  • Speaking of colours, Rebelle’s colour picker is pretty sophisticated. When you hit the eye dropper tool you’ll see not just a single colour but a dual-coloured ring pop up. It allows you to mix colours — the current colour and a new one. It allows you to precisely select how much of the previous colour you want in proportion to the new. This is a decision you’re constantly making in real world media, so it’s interesting what Rebelle has done to emulate colour mixing with a brush and artist palette. I’ve never seen this in other software. I’ve yet to muck around with it and learn how it properly works.
  • Rebelle also lets you pick colour from your screen (on Windows)
  • Rebelle uses Adobe’s concept of primary and secondary colour. Artrage doesn’t use that concept. In Artrage, your colour is your colour and that’s it. This concept is important for reasons explained above, though colour behaves more simply in Artrage, which may be what you’re after.
  • I haven’t tried out the transform tools because the trial version won’t let you, so I’m yet to comment on how well it transforms. Does it lose any quality? Artrage has not been great in this area. You want to avoid transformations in Artrage because each time you move something it gets more pixellated. Artrage 5 improved heavily on that, but it’s still not great.
  • Both Artrage and Rebelle have their own way of masking. You’d think Artrage would have utilised the real world medium of masking fluid, but strangely — given Andy’s philosophy — he went the digital route with ‘lock transparency’, selection tools and ‘select all paint on a layer’. Rebelle has those tools as well, but includes a masking technique which mimics the real world application of masking fluid. That said, masking fluid in Rebelle doesn’t work exactly as it would in real life — in real painting an area of paper is either fully masked by fluid or it’s not. But in Rebelle you can set the opacity of your masking fluid to create subtle and unusual effects.
  • If you’re familiar with Adobe/Affinity, this is important:. In Rebelle white is concealing and black is revealing. That’s the inverse to how Adobe and Affinity products work. Honestly, it makes more sense to me. I’ve always felt intuitively that Adobe have black and white the wrong way around. Probably because I grew up using white out fluid, and subpar erasers which rip a hole in your paper (metaphorically creating a black hole). Let’s not get too existential about that. In any case, this decision should be easy to get used to. Artrage avoids this kind of masking altogether. Artrage also has some weird behaviours which I have brought up on the forum, and which can’t easily be fixed. For instance, when you lock transparency for a layer and paint over an object, the edges of that object end up the colour of the canvas (which is white, unless you change it.) This is actually a real problem if your mode of working is to slap down paint, then lock the transparency to put in the detail. Which is how I learned how to paint digitally, avoiding the main problems which come with using a tablet like an Intuos, which is not great for freehand drawing no matter how adept you become at manipulating the pen.
  • Rebelle 3 has some amazing perspective rulers. I haven’t made use of them yet. They’re built for people who have studied perspective drawing — they won’t be useful unless you’ve done that. Even the simple ruler has an inventive functionality. The ruler in Artrage works like a real world ruler, which you can drag and pin onto the page. This one doesn’t look like a school ruler but a digital equivalent, and it snaps horizontally and vertically without you having to hit control on the keyboard. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but then you understand its usefulness.
  • There’s a navigator panel. (Similar to that in PaintStorm Studio)
  • You can save custom UI layouts, though it looks like you have to import that setting.  Are your previous settings sticky when you open a new document? With the trial version I can’t tell.
  • Artrage refuses to tell us how big the canvas can get, because they don’t want people trying it out and proving them wrong! Rebelle is similar. We’re told the maximum canvas size depends on the power of our computers.
  • The problem with all these digital tools is, you can easily slip over into creating something which looks digital. In the name of skeuomorphism, you can deliberately make wobbly but straightish lines by turning on ‘freehand mode’. This is especially useful for those of us using something like the Wacom Intuos, which is much better for painting strokes than for drawing line art, because you’re drawing down here while looking up there. I’ll definitely be making use of that.
  • Rebelle 3 does have its own PDF instruction manual which comes free with the software, if you’re into that kind of thing. You can check it out before you buy. I read it and it’s easy to understand. It’s a lot shorter than any of Artrage’s earlier PDF manuals, which speaks not only to the extra tools in Artrage but also to the (unnecessary, imo) complexity of Artrage, especially concerning the making of brushes. Sorry, stickers.
  • I’m not sure how easy it is to rotate the canvas in Rebelle because I haven’t found that shortcut yet. There is a rotate button in the navigator panel, but if you often rotate, this is a bit of a pain. The Rebelle navigation is really nice, except that one thing. However, I do have an Intuos touch, so I’ve decided to turn that on and use one of those gloves. Rebelle works really well with the touch functionality of my tablet. I can rotate and zoom by pinch and expand method. Finally I’m getting some good use out of my tablet’s touch functionality. Apparently you can rotate by holding R and left-clicking, but since my Wacom pen is set to right-click, this is a pain. I’d be changing that in preferences.
  • Rebelle’s stencil functionality is very similar to that of Artrage, but with the added benefit of extending a stencil out to prevent accidental painting over the edges.
  • You can also tile the stencil. Now this is pretty cool. It allows you to make patterns (though not seamless patterns — for that I recommend PaintStorm Studio). There’s a reason why you wouldn’t necessarily want to use Rebelle to create seamless patterns — the huge advantage of the tiled stencil is that you can create a wallpaper in which each separate object has a slightly different (or vastly different) watercolour fill.  Artrage also has a pattern fill option attached to its paint bucket, but it’s not useful. All it does is repeat an object, which you could previously achieve by importing a tracing image and selecting a tile fill. I do think both Artrage and Rebelle could benefit from a wraparound function like that in (open source) Krita and PaintStorm Studio. I acknowledge that seamless patterns are not the main point of this stencil tiling option — use it to make a wallpaper when you already know what dimensions you need. Then you can create something amazing, with individuated objects.
  • Rebelle is great for artists who do line work on white paper then scan it in. Rebelle can remove white. At present, I use Affinity Photo to do this step. Being able to do it within Rebelle is convenient.
  • Rebelle saves in the background. This is huge. I can’t tell you. On my Mac, Artrage is extremely slow to do a save. I work with many layers, and when I get over 10 or so layers it can take over a minute. I think it’s worse if you make use of blend and bump modes. It really takes you out of the flow. I hope Artrage Andy does something about that soon.
  • Artrage does do iterative saves, and Rebelle offers this too. (Not sure if it’s by default.) This is something Artrage implemented just recently. (I’ve been burned badly several times — when Artrage crashes, it sometimes saves only your bottom layer, and sometimes saves nothing at all, whith otherwise REPLACES your previous save.) I highly recommend iterative saves. Developers offer it for a good reason… They’ve seen what can happen!
  • Related to crashing and whatnot, Rebelle allows you the option to choose how much of your computer’s memory it uses. I know that for developers, that choice between functionality and memory is a fine balance and a constant frustration.
  • Rebelle are experimenting with a GPU brush engine. I’m looking forward to finding out what that even is. I do know that the latest version of PaintStorm implemented this, and it was a game changer. Online I’ve seen reviewers get super excited about it.
  • I don’t know if you can group layers in Rebelle. I can’t find that option anywhere in the instruction manual. Rebelle is set up so that you’ll require fewer layers in the first place, with its masking layer influencing the one underneath and so on, but I use lots of layers, so that’s important to me. Artrage lets you group, though it’s a bit fiddly taking a layer back out of a group if you’re rearranging layers. (An ungroup layer option in the dropdown menu is on my wishlist.)