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is there a polygonal marquee (sp?) like in photoshop? or if not, can i use the pen tool to make selections? I ask because i do not have a tablet and would like to be able to make smoother selections. any thoughts?
Nope, Painter doesn't have a polygonal marquee tool.
Yes, you can define the area for your selection using the Pen tool (which is one of Painter's Shape tools) to make a closed Shape. Then, in the Shapes menu, choose Convert to Selection.
To save the selection, in the Select menu, choose Save Selection and accept New. This is Alpha 1 and it appears in the Channels palette list (Painter 8) or New Mask 1 and it appears in the Objects palette's Mask section list (Painter 7 and earlier versions).