In 2004 the only options for digital painting I had were MS Paint, Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter. Fast forward to 2017 and there is a bewildering choice of software and tablets.
These days getting into digital painting is easier and more affordable.
When I started out, prices of digital painting software were much more expensive, the only decent pressure sensitive drawing tablets available were by Wacom and there was no where near the amount of training support available. I won’t go into hardware, tablets or training here but I can give a general overview of the software available.
I’ll be mentioning software which tries to emulate natural artistic media but with digital painting you can pretty much get any effect you want.
Adobe Photoshop is well known as the industry standard of photo editing software. The term industry standard has no weight in why I choose which software to paint with though, I like to keep open minded and try software based on the features it offers. For this reason I will mention software that is not as well known. I’ll also list some mobile software options I’ve heard of as they are increasing in popularity. It’s up to you to do further research for what will work for you and there are always more options if you dig deep enough.
Open Source and free options
Autodesk Sketchbook (now free)
Here is a list of affordable software from cheapest to highest price:
Over the years I’ve tried Paintstorm Studio, Mischief, Artweaver, Affinity Designer, Black Ink, Expresii, ArtRage, Rebelle, Clipstudio Paint, Krita, Adobe CC and Corel Painter. Here are my thoughts on them so far.
Paintstorm Studio is a recent addition to my collection and I’m impressed by the brush engine. It is easy to use and nice to paint with.
The free version of Artweaver is something I tried years ago and I thought it was ok. It has brushes like Photoshop and blendy brushes like Corel Painter. The only reason I haven’t used it is because I’ve already got Photoshop and Corel Painter. The interface is a mix of Photoshop and Painter and it has similar brushes.
Affinity Designer is good for vector graphic creation and painting. It can mix both raster and vector artwork together which is interesting. There is free online support and tutorials which are great for beginners.
Black Ink impressed me with weird procedural brushes but I found it too technical for my general use. It’s great for someone who is already confident with digital art but I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners.
Expresii is one of a kind for it’s realistic Eastern watercolour painting brush engine. Artwork can be exported as PSD files. This software is very specialised, but if you are familiar with digital painting it is worth a go.
ArtRage 5 is the best I’ve tried for realistic digital oil painting and the interface is easy to learn. The way the paint seems to react to the canvas texture is the best out of all the software I’ve tried so far.
Rebelle 2 is another watercolour painting software and is easy to use. Editing options are limited but formats can be exported for use in other programs. Painting in Rebelle is fun, but I would suggest using it along side something like Photoshop or Krita to give more editing options.
Clipstudio Paint is a good all round alternative to Photoshop or Corel Painter and the inking brushes are fantastic. It also has animation tools.
I used Krita last year and really liked it. I started using it more than Corel Painter because it has nice brushes and the layer support is much better. The latest version of Krita is a big improvement so far and now works with my Ugee 2150 tablet (with the newest Ugee driver).
I tried the Adobe CC last year but I still have Photoshop CS3 so I had no reason to upgrade and the subscription model puts me off.
I’ve used Corel Painter less and less in favor of Photoshop and other programs. There seems to be a paid update every year which is far too expensive for me to maintain and I don’t need more features than it already has. If anything I would like fewer features, more stability and no internal advert nags. Other than that it’s a great program and still has gorgeous and customisable brushes. I find the layer system very frustrating but it is fine if you generally paint on the canvas layer. The version I use is the 2016 release. Layers may have been improved in future editions. What I do to overcome the layer problem is paint in Corel Painter on the Canvas layer only. I then go into Photoshop or Krita with the image if I need to do further work on other layers and editing.
I am trying Affinity Photo because the features rival Photoshop for editing. It supports the more recent file types and I want to try 360 Panoramic painting. I’ve tried out several brushes and they are great to paint with. There is also a mixer brush option for doing blendy painting techniques. So far it looks very promising.
Some features to look for in digital painting software
A crucial rule for painting software is it should run well on your operating system and work with your choice of tablet.
Stability is important. Painting can take a long time to do and file sizes can get large, you don’t want to lose hours of work with crashes or bugs. How far it is in development is also a factor to consider.
The painting engine and what you can do with the brushes as well as photo editing capabilities are factors. Some of the software I’ve mentioned does not have photo editing features. Because of this file compatibility and PSD support is important. Being able to save and export your painting in the top supported formats is essential.
The interface is a consideration as well. The main questions I ask are is it easy to understand, does it look nice and can I customise it? If the interface is hard to use or looks old fashioned it puts me off no matter how good the program might be.
Community, documentation and training support available are also vital to consider as a beginner.
These software’s have their pros and cons, it depends what you want to achieve and what your budget is. Krita is great for a free all round option and it also has 2D animation tools.
For 2.5D painting and audio brushes you can use Corel Painter, but PD Artist also has these features.
For nice oil painting look at ArtRage and Paintstorm Studio. For realistic watercolour Rebelle and Expresii are both worth a look.
Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo look promising for cheaper and non-subscription alternatives to Adobe CC.
The more expensive software options are the Adobe Creative Cloud and Corel Painter. This reflects their brand equity and amount of features. I started with Corel Painter around 2005 and used it for years. (I don’t use it anymore). It is an impressive program for digital painting. However, Corel Painter has a high price and steep learning curve. If you can afford it I would recommend Photoshop over Corel Painter to learn the basics with. Clipstudio Paint is a great cheaper alternative to both when it’s on sale. I cannot fault Krita over these options for continuous improvement, community support and price (free).
My recommendation for beginners to digital painting is Krita because it has digital painting tools, editing tools, great community support, lots of online tutorials and it is free Open Source. It works with lots of tablets and its cross platform for Windows, Linux and Mac.
I hope this article has been useful to you for discussing some options available for digital painting. I advise you look at the software's websites and weigh up the options for yourself depending on what you need.