Software round-up: 16 digital painting applications
An overview of the best software for creating digital drawings, sketches and paintings, from the standard image editing applications for Windows and Mac to the new free online tools and the recent mobile apps for the iPhone/iPod Touch.
(cover image: Alfa Romeo Coelus Concept, sketch by Jan Bujnak)
Car sketch by Andrew Meehan
In this article we present an overview of the main features of the most important digital painting software.
The list is divided into three categories:
- 8 digital painting applications
- 3 digital painting web applications
- 5 mobile digital painting applications for iPhone / iPod Touch
Given the general requirements of image editing software, the use of standard installed applications rather than online services is still a much more preferable solution.
Car sketch in Alias SketchBook Pro by David Bentley
In all cases, the use of a graphic tablet is an almost mandatory requirement to achieve high quality results.
All the applications listed below are available as free trial downloads.
Testing a software before the purchase is always highly recommendable, since evey user has its own tastes and working style.
Adobe Photoshop CS4
Photoshop is the de-facto industry standard in the image editing software field.
Even if not specifically targeted to digital sketching and painting, the complete set of features found in Photoshop makes it a excellent solution also as a drawing and painting software.
The brushes are highly customizable and it is possible to find a massive amount of free downloadable presets on the internet.
Although the brush engine has not been subjected to remarkable changes since Version 7, the latest CS4 update provides – among others – two significat new features, extremely useful in digital painting: the possibility of adjusting the brush size with the mouse/pen and the “rotate canvas” function.
The Extended version includes for the first time a 3D painting feature, which allows to work with imported 3D models within the application.
- supported OS: Windows, Mac OS (only 1 license is included)
- price: $699 (full), $999 (Extended), upgrades from $199
- website: adobe.com
Corel Painter is the most advanced software in terms of simulation of traditional media.
The latest version (11) was released by Corel on March 2009 and includes new hard media variants, customizable rendering markers and new color and mixing palettes, in addition
to the extensive number of tools already included in the previous versions.
The high price tag makes Corel Painter a solution primarily targeted to professional artists and designers.
- supported OS – Windows and Mac OS (both versions are included)
- price: $399.99 (full), $199.99 (upgrade)
- website: corel.com
First developed by Alias before its acquisition by Autodesk in 2005, SketchBook Pro has come to its 3rd revision – named 2010 – on last April 2009.
SketchBook Pro is specifically designed to be used together with a graphic tablet, and has a very user-friendly User Interface that allows to concentrate on drawing without the need of launching commands with dropdown menus or the keyboard.
The 2010 version includes the Simmetry sketching function.
- supported OS – Windows and Mac OS (only 1 license is included)
- price: $100.00 / €110.00
- website: autodesk.com
Ambient Design ArtRage 2.5
Developed by a team which includes members from MetaCreations, ArtRage is a new software specifically designed to simulate traditional media and characterized by an affordable price tag.
Among the main features are a UI created for graphic-tablets, multiple layers, metallic paints, multiple stencils and rulers, inclusing a set of friskets (french curves) and custom shapes.
ArtRage’s tools are oriented towards fine artists rather than industrial designers, but – as with many applications – it can be easily adapted to one’s needs.
ArtRage 2.5 is also available as a free Starter Edition, which has a reduced set of 8 painting tools and no layers, but it doesn’t put any time or size limits.
- supported OS – Windows and Mac OS
- price: $25.00 (full), free (Started Edition)
- website: artrage.com
Among the applications presented in this list, GIMP is the only free solution and also the only available for the Linux platform.
Developed and supported by a wide community, GIMP is an affordable and interesting solution as an all-in-one image editing package.
- supported OS: GNU/Linux (i386, PPC), Windows (XP, Vista), Mac OS, Sun OpenSolaris, FreeBSD
- price: free
- web: www.gimp.org
Corel Painter Essentials is a ‘lite’ version of the full Painter application. It offers a selection of brushes, paints, pens and paper textures.
Compared to the full Painter release, it offers less possibility of customization of the user interface and brushes.
- supported OS – Windows and Mac OS
- price: $99.99 (full), $69.99 (upgrade)
- website: corel.com
Corel Sketch Pad
Corel Sketch Pad provides a clean, focused sketching environment with essential tools and is designed to leverage the natural flow of a drawing tablet.
- supported OS – Windows and Mac OS
- price: $119.00 (full)
- website: http://www.corel.com/servlet/Satellite/us/en/Product/1231253537915
openCanvas is a Japanese image editing program for Windows specifically designed to be used with drawing tablets and well known among Manga comic artists.
Among the features of openCanvas is event file, which replays the steps taken to create the work. On July 2009 Portal Graphics ended the sales of the openCanvas English versions.
- supported OS: Windows
- price: n.a.
- web: http://www.portalgraphics.net/oc/
Autodesk Alias Automotive / Alias Design
A quick mention is due for two high-end products – Autodesk Alias Automotive (formerly AutoStudio) and Autodesk Alias Design, which belong to the Autodesk Alias 2010 products family – formerly known as AliasStudio.
Both the modules integrate sketches and illustrations modules and are targeted to professional industrial designers and large design studios. The high price tag – $3,995 for Alias Design – differentiate them from most of the software presented here
For design students more affordable educational versions are available. See Autodesk’s website for details.
With the recent introduction of web applications, some interesting online image editing tools have been released. All of them are free for use and require a registration, which enables to save and share the drawings in a social community.
Apart from the free nature, the main advantage of these solutions is that they can be easily accessed when using a computer with no drawing software installed on it.
Aviary Tools Phoenix
A pro version is available at $24.99 per year, which offers unlimited storage, private folders, premium tutorials and other features.
Phoenix features an environment very similar to Photoshop and can be used as a basic image editor and drawing software. The drawback – at the moment – is the lack of support for the tablet pen pressure.
- website: aviary.com
Interesting features include Simmetry drawing, while the support for pen pressure sensitivity is still missing.
The online art community has over a 4 million unique users and over 100 000 registered members from 200+ countries.
- website: www.sumopaint.com
It provides an interesting solution for creating quick sketches and drawings. While it doesn’t support the pen pressure control, it is possible to control the brush size by varying the pen speed (thanks to Semyon for the tip).
- website: sketch.odopod.com
The success of the iPhone has led to the development of an incredible number of applications, marketed through Apple’s App Store. These include a group of well-made digital drawing apps, which enable to create drawings and sketches on the fly.
All the apps are controlled with the fingers or – optionally – with special stylus pens that work with the device’s display. There is no support for pressure sensitivity.
Brushes was one of the first digital painting applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch.
It features natural media brushes, a color picker, extreme zooming, and a simple interface.
The latest version (2.0) includes multiple layers
Colors! is another well-known digital painting application that combines an intuitive interface with an interesting set of drawing tools.
It is also available for Nintendo DS and in a free Lite version.
Autodesk SketchBook Mobile
Autodesk is the first among the major software companies to release a digital painting application for the iPhone.
SketchBook Mobile has an interface based on its desktop counterpart and it is offered at a very interesting price tag.
Layers is an advanced natural media painting application which offers realistic brushes, multiple layers, multiple canvas sizes and PSD export format.
Inspire is the only iPhone app which aims at simulating real oil paints, by reproducing the behaviour of wet paint on a canvas.
In this article we tried to include all the noteworthy applications in the digital drawing category, and to give a brief overview of the basic features.
If you think we missed to mention an interesting software, please send us a suggestion.