Although there are ways to try out Adobe Photoshop for free, it’s not cheap to enjoy long-term. Photoshop alone costs $120 per year and Illustrator is even more expensive.
They aren’t your only options though. The following solutions are highly competitive with Illustrator and Photoshop, but don’t break the bank. They are backed by a community of developers who believe you should have the best tools possible through an open-source platform.
For a look at the best free photo editing software, check out our other guide.
Inkscape is likely the more widely used vector-based drawing software since its introduction in 2003. Thirteen years later, it’s still in a “preview” release, but a great free professional-grade alternative to Adobe Illustrator nonetheless. It’s backed by an international community who can get you started, and will help with any problems you may encounter with the open-source software.
Just like Illustrator, Inkscape has everything a digital artist needs to create near-photo quality illustrations. Your basic toolset includes creating straight lines, freehand lines, shapes, 3D boxes, Bezier curves, spirals, and so much more. You can add layers, color fills, and even effects to your drawing such as blurs, bevels, shadows, textures, glows, and so on.
There are plenty of text and video-based tutorials out there, and you also have access to manuals and quick references, including information about keyboard shortcuts and command line instructions. All that — and with no monthly fee required.
This is another vector-based drawing tool you can download or use online for free. It has an extremely clean interface, with the layer stack listed on the left, your artboard seated in the center, and the settings for the objects you select on the artboard appearing on the right. The toolset appears minimalist at first until you click on the “more shapes” button on the toolbar to reveal 28 other designs.
At its heart, Vectr is great for creating business cards, typographic logos, posters, and other designs that don’t involve lots of detail. It’s backed by built-in lessons covering gradients, using paths, layers, filters, and importing images. You can also find tutorials that’ll help you do things like recreate Google’s Android icon, designing a YouTube channel background image, making the Superman and Batman logos, and more. All designs can be exported, printed, and shared on Facebook and/or Twitter.
Microsoft Expression Design 4
Microsoft’s design tool made its debut in 2007 as part of the company’s acquisition of Creature House Expression in 2003. The last version of this vector-based illustration tool arrived in 2012 and is now free to use but is no longer officially supported by Microsoft. Still, you can find support provided by the community through the Microsoft Expression forums.
Feature-wise, Expression Design 4 isn’t as robust as Inkscape. It’s a lightweight tool built for developers creating user interfaces, web-based graphics, and so on. But it is still great for creating any graphic that doesn’t require loads of visual effects. You won’t see tools for blurring and instantly dropping shadows, but plenty of basic options for generating lines and shapes, adding text, creating layers, and more. Consider Expression Design 4 as a great utility for generating logos and banners.
SVG-edit is extremely simplistic in features and design. It provides baseline tools for creating lines and shapes, and an option for inserting bitmap-based images into the scene. You can pile on layers for additional depth in your line-based drawings, but the real selling point with SVG-edit is with its browser-based roots, making it compatible with any PC using modern web browsers like Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Safari, and Firefox. Give this option a try if you don’t want to install software on your PC.
GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)
This free, open-source alternative to Adobe Photoshop has been around since 1995 and packs everything you need to edit your photographs and import your vector-based art for added effects and realism. You can even generate stunning digital paintings from scratch. It’s a tool every digital artist should not live without.
Overall, GIMP provides two main components: Your artboard serving as the central window and a rectangular toolbox that can “float” on the desktop, or stick to the side of the central window. You can create another “floater” packing tools you can cram together such as layers, brushes, color channels, paths, and history. This is extremely handy if you want to streamline your editing/designing process.
But the toolbox is where your artistic arsenal really shines, supplying you with tools for painting, using a pencil, blurring, sharpening, smudging, cloning, erasing, and much more. There is even a Paths tool for basic vector-based line creation if you don’t want to install a secondary vector-based program. Want loads of visual effects? You have a huge library at your disposable. GIMP even supports community-created plugins too.