Create Perfect Photo Composites with the Cutout Lab in Corel PHOTO-PAINT

By Steve Bain

The applications and features described in this tutorial require CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3 or newer to be installed.

The Cutout Lab in Corel PHOTO-PAINT® enables you to extract or copy photo elements from any digital image with precision and relative ease. Much more than just a quick selection tool, the Cutout Lab accurately detects almost any shape and preserves the fine details of an image. It automatically applies transparent edge-feathering, and it enables you to decide whether your cutout will be an object without a background, an object on top of the original image, or a clip mask attached to the original image.

The complex masking functionality of the Cutout Lab enables you to create high-quality photo composites. After a photo element has been cut out, you can manipulate it as you would any floating object. For example, you can mix it with other picture elements to create custom photo compositions. In the image below, the picture of the swimmer was easily isolated and inserted into a different scene, with realistic results.

The Cutout Lab, which consists of a single dialog box, is essentially a plug-in application that has been integrated into Corel PHOTO-PAINT. In fact, if you've used Corel® Knockout 2 with Adobe® Photoshop® or Corel® Painter™, you've already experienced this plug-in application in action. The Cutout Lab features a slimmed-down version of the same tools and options used in Corel Knockout 2. If you're already comfortable with Corel PHOTO-PAINT, you'll find yourself easily adapting to the interface options and editing tools in the Cutout Lab, which is organized into two basic areas, as shown below.

Browsing the available tools

The Cutout Lab in Corel PHOTO-PAINT features an expanded, well-equipped toolset that includes a roomy preview window, zooming and cutout toolbars, and previewing and cutout options. You'll find that zooming and panning tools are featured on the left side of the Cutout Lab, above the preview window (see below). A common toolset enables you to control the view of your selected image.

The Zoom In (F2) and Zoom Out (F3) tools operate in the usual way, allowing incremental changes of the view magnification in the preview window. The versatile Pan Tool (H) also doubles as a zooming tool, and Normal (Ctrl+1) and Fit To Window (F4) buttons let you reset zoom settings to specific levels.

On the right side of the Cutout Lab, you'll find the tools used for highlighting, filling, and erasing the defined edges of the picture element that you want to cut out (see below). These tools are supplemented by detailing tools for refining the edges of your cutout. After you define your picture element, you can click the Preview button (Ctrl+P) to see how the final results will appear.

By using the previewing options (see below), you can toggle a display of the Highlight, Fill, and Original Image areas of the picture you're working on in the preview window. When previewing an area of a cutout, you can view the results against a grayscale, white matte, or black matte background, which enables you to examine, evaluate, or refine the cutout results before you commit to changing your image.

If the picture element you're cutting out is intricately shaped, so that defining its edges requires more than a few careful actions with the pointer, you'll appreciate the Undo, Redo, and Reset buttons in the lower-left corner of the dialog (see below). Clicking the Undo button (Ctrl+Z) or the Redo button (Ctrl+Shift+Z) enables you to navigate forward or backward through your most recent actions. In addition, you can restart the entire operation by clicking the Reset button (Ctrl+R).

When you're satisfied with the edge definition of the cutout, you can use the Cutout Results options to choose how to prepare the cutout area based on the edges that you've defined. You can use Cutout (the default) to create a new floating object of your defined area. For trickier cutout operations, you can choose one of the other two options: Cutout and Original Image, or Cutout as Clip Mask.

Let's first create a typical cutout. You'll see how fast and easy it is to use the tools in the Cutout Lab.

How to cut out a picture element

If you've never used the Cutout Lab before and you're wondering what the fuss is all about, you can join me for a walk through a typical cutout operation. If you want to follow along with your own digital image, choose a quality image that includes a picture element with well-defined edges.

  1. With Corel PHOTO-PAINT launched and your digital photo open, choose Image > Cutout Lab. The Cutout Lab dialog opens and shows a full-window preview of your digital photo.

  2. Choose the Highlight Tool (F5) from the Cutout Toolbar. Notice that a circular pointer appears when you point to the image.

  3. Pointer size diameter is controlled by the nib size and is measured in pixels. To define the edges of your picture element more easily, adjust the pointer diameter by using the Nib Size option (see below). This option also controls the pointer size of the Eraser Tool (X).

  4. To help improve the visibility of your pointer strokes, choose a custom color from the Highlight color picker (see below). The highlight color does not alter the color of your picture element or the picture background.

  5. Dragging the pointer, trace around the picture element that you wish to cut out. Trace the edges so that your nib pointer straddles the edges of your picture element and the end result is an enclosed area. If the picture element you've selected includes negative spaces in which the background shows through, trace these edges also. If needed, you can use the Eraser Tool (X) to tidy up any unintended pointer strokes. In the example below, the edges of the swimmer are highlighted.

  6. Check whether the Fill Tool (F) is available. When you have defined the entire edge of your picture element so that it forms an enclosed area, the Fill Tool in the Cutout Toolbar becomes available. The Fill Tool remains unavailable if the edges you define do not form an enclosed area.

  7. Determine which side of the edge boundary you wish to cut out - the inside or the outside, and do one of the following:

    To choose the enclosed area of your picture element as the cutout area, click the Fill Tool pointer inside the edge boundary (see below).

    To choose the background as the cutout area, click the Fill Tool pointer outside the edge boundary (see below).

  8. Refine the edge or fill areas by reusing the Highlighter, Fill, or Eraser tools. These tools become unavailable when you preview the cutout in the next step.

  9. Click the Preview button (Ctrl+P) to view the cutout progress in the preview window. Use the Zoom and Pan tools to examine the results of the cutout operation. You'll notice that a transparent feathering effect is automatically applied to the defined edges, as shown in the example below.

  10. If an exact boundary edge cannot be detected, use the Add Detail Tool (A) or the Remove Detail Tool (R), or both, to perform minor fine tuning. Inability to detect a boundary edge happens rarely, especially when the defined edges are significantly out of focus, are intensely white, or have very low color-intensity values. Both the Add Detail Tool and the Remove Detail Tool apply transparent feathering in a typical brush-tool fashion.

  11. With your cutout area defined (and refined if necessary), keep the Cutout option enabled in the Cutout Results area, and click OK. You are returned to your document window, where the cutout area appears as a floating object (see below). From there, you can use the cutout picture element however you choose.

Grasping cutout options

Of course, the Cutout Lab enables you to do much more than just create a basic floating object of your picture element or the background surrounding it. You can use the Cutout Result options, shown below, to choose how you would like your cutout to be prepared when you leave the Cutout Lab.

Choosing the Cutout option produces a new floating object of your cutout and deletes the original picture. If you use the Save As command to save your current Corel PHOTO-PAINT document with a different name, the original remains unaltered. Alternatively, you can use the Copy (Ctrl+C) and Paste (Ctrl+V) commands, transfer the floating picture element directly to a destination document, such as a composite photo, and then close the original without saving the changes.

Choosing the Cutout and Original Image option produces a new floating picture element object but preserves the original image (see below). When you return to the document window, the cutout copy is positioned and ordered directly over the area from which it was cut.

If you choose the third option, Cutout as Clip Mask, a new object is created with a clip mask over the hidden area. This option preserves the originally masked area, enabling you to create other complex effects by manipulating or deleting the clip mask. Corel PHOTO-PAINT enables you to alter clip mask properties by using the Object docker or by right-clicking the mask to access commands in a context menu.

In Corel PHOTO-PAINT, you can produce floating picture elements just as you could in previous versions, but with the new tools and options in the Cutout Lab, you have much more control and creative freedom for isolating intricate picture elements and preserving details. You no longer need to struggle through a gamut of selection tools, feathering effects, and transparency options. The Cutout Lab saves you valuable editing time and produces much better results.

Steve Bain is an award-winning illustrator and designer, and an author of nearly a dozen books, including CorelDRAW®: The Official Guide.