If you’re a struggling artist, “renting” Adobe Photoshop and/or Illustrator can make a huge impact on your wallet. Photoshop alone costs $240 per year, Illustrator is just as expensive, and Adobe no longer sells stand-alone software. Thus, if you want to use the entire Adobe suite, you must “rent” the software for $600 per year. That is where our roundup of the best free drawing software comes in.
For the record, free software doesn’t mean “low quality.” What you will find are solutions that 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. Below you will find four solutions for illustration and four application for painting/photo editing.
If you’re wanting to manually draw on your PC, you need software that focuses on vector graphics. A vector is a single point using ‘X’ and ‘Y’ coordinates, so if you create another point, the software will draw a line connecting those two vectors together. You can manipulate this line, creating curves, changing its width, and more. The more vectors you add to the line, the more flexibility you have in manipulating its shape.
The big selling point here is that you’re not dealing with pixels, so no matter how small or large your illustration eventually becomes, it will remain sharp. Thus, vector-based software is ideal for creating logos, cartoons, sketches, buildings, and other line-based designs. The drawback is that once the vector graphic is “printed” into a JPG or PNG image file, the lines are turned into blocks/pixels, and cannot be easily manipulated.
That said, this could be your starting point: Creating and manipulating all your lines in your drawing. You could even create layers and add basic color fills and gradients. Once completed, you export/print the illustration to a JPG, PNG, BMP, or similar format to add more color options, filters, and effects.
That said, let’s start with these great vector-based programs!
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 this 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.
Text and video-based tutorials can be found here, and you also have access to manuals and quick references right here, including information about keyboard shortcuts and command line instructions. To see the full capabilities of Inkscape, you really need to behold this illustration of Sandra Bullock, this sunset in Rio de Janeiro, and this take on Iron Man. Inkscape can produce incredible results with no monthly fee required.
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 not 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.
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 here, such as re-creating 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.
Now we move on to the image editing programs. In this case, you’re manipulating a large grid comprised of small colored squares, or pixels. Thus, if you create an image that’s 1,024 x 768, you generated a grid of 1,024 dots spread out horizontally and 768 dots in vertical lines. You’re still dealing with X and Y, but you’re now coloring squares instead of drawing a perfect line between two points.
Because of its roots, image editing software is typically better at dumping more colors on your palate, enabling all kinds of effects ranging from delicate shadows to lens flares. The software is meant for editing photos, creating digital paintings, designing textures, and more. If something is “Photoshopped,” then it was manipulated using a photo editor.
The drawback is that you won’t get the proper scaling as seen in vector-based software. You can’t reduce an image’s resolution, save the image, then resize it back up to its former state and expect to see the original clarity. That just won’t happen using grid-based graphics, nor will your image remain perfectly clear when stretched on a monitor sporting a higher resolution.
Here are some of our favorite image editing programs:
This writer uses GIMP for image editing every day and has a 9-year-old daughter who mastered the program with ease (read: envious). That said, we highly recommend this free, open-source alternative to Adobe Photoshop that’s been around since 1995. It packs everything you need to edit your photographs, import your vector-based art for added effects and realism, or 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.
GIMP’s biggest open-source competitor is likely this free solution. Its roots actually began with GIMP, but it didn’t become a full-fledged tool until 1999 when it emerged as part of an open-source office suite called KOffice. Since then, it’s become a stand-alone product focused on digital painting, making it a great tool for cartoonists, texture artists, and so on. It is backed by a large community and the Krita Foundation that provides financial support for contributors.
Unlike GIMP, Krita doesn’t provide floating toolbars. Instead, your toolset is crammed to the left of your artboard while your layers, brush presets, and tool options are listed on the right. What’s neat about Krita is that it comes with templates for creating comics, textures, different text-based designs, animations, and more. There’s a nifty brush stabilizer feature too for smoothing your lines if you’re using a stylus or pen tablet, and a palette to quickly choose a color and brush that pops up after right-clicking on the artboard.
Despite its name, this is a photo-editing tool you download and install on a Windows-based PC. Released in 2004, it was originally designed as an alternative to Microsoft Paint, relying on Microsoft’s .NET framework for Windows-based software (hence the .NET in the name). It has since become one of the most-used Adobe Photoshop alternatives, backed by an online community, free plugins, and plenty of tutorials to get you started.
The only drawback to using Paint.net is the website itself: It’s loaded with “download now” ads that can misdirect you to unwanted software. The latest version can be found here, and once installed, provides everything you need to become a digital artist. Like GIMP, it includes “floaters” that can exist outside the main screen: Your toolbar, the Colors window, the Layers window, and the History window. What makes it different from GIMP and Krita is its overall visual presentation although it’s toolset doesn’t appear to be quite as extensive. Note that if your floaters remain within the working area, they become somewhat transparent so you can focus your attention on the image. Coolness!
Out of the four, Sumo Paint is the sole image editor offering both offline and online-only versions. The drawback is that the online version requires Flash Player, which may or may not be blocked in your browser, or even installed on the PC. Meanwhile, the downloadable version is locked by a paid subscription, as are several of the features in the online version. You also need an account to use the offline and/or online version, but once you get past these roadblocks, Sumo Paint is actually a decent online-based photo editor to use.
As a brief rundown, your toolbar resides to the left of the artboard, providing the basics such as the brush, eraser, pencil, blur, smudge, and more. Along the top, you will find the options for each tool, such as the opacity, flow, diameter, and style for the paintbrush. Just above that, you also have access to a large selection of filters (3D effects, Blur, Distort, Sharper, etc), layer options, color-adjustment tools, and loads more. To the right of the artboard, you see the color picker, swatches, and layer stack.
Sumo Pro costs $4 per month, but you get the added benefits of using the offline version, unlocked features, high-quality images files that can be stored on the Sumo servers, and technical support. Still, the online version is a decent browser-based app if you don’t want to install software on your PC.
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