To start out I just want to say that I’m a huge fan of Adobe software and I use it everyday in my digital workflow. With that being said with the new Adobe Cloud subscription service now in effect some artist’s and students find themselves being priced out of the market.
So, I spent the day pondering over how a new artist on a budget can get some great professional results and still be able to afford their Ramen noodles and hot dogs. Being a bit of a digital art software junkie I happen to have just about every program there is on my computer at the moment so lets go through a few and I’ll give you the pros and cons and then end with my picks for the best free and low budget software. (I’m only covering software for raster work for illustrators and digital painters)
Lets start with a few of the Free options:
The Gimp: http://www.gimp.org/downloads/
This program is as close as you’re really going to get to Photoshop without laying down the big bucks. You can customize brushes, use layers and layer modes, and pretty much do very professional looking work with this program. The down side is there seems to be a steep learning curve for this software. I don’t find it an easy software for someone that is just starting out to pick up and just start using it. Also it’s pretty clunky. But for those of you just starting out and have the time to sit and learn the ins and outs this may be what you’re looking for. There’s a great community and the results that can be gotten with it can’t be denied.
Another free program I’ve seen some amazing work done with. It does have layers and some natural media brushes but for me I don’t find it very useful. The brushes don’t scale well, the lack of export options, and lack of other features don’t in my opinion make this a very viable option. But if you’re just looking to play around or do warm up sketches this could be for you.
MY PICK For the best free illustration softeware
Twisted Brush Open Studio: http://www.pixarra.com/download.html
This program has both a paid and free version. (If you’re going to pay for software the paid version of this wouldn’t be in my list just FYI) The free version comes with a limited number of brushes and others can be purchased as you go. This program features layers and layer modes, natural media brushes, and paper texture. It reminds me a sort of a mix between Photoshop and Corel Painter. I was able to pick this little piece of kit right up and within 30 minutes I was working away and able to work in a similar way to that which I work in Photoshop. The main reason this is my number one pick: Export options including exporting as a Photoshop PSD. Now that’s a very useful feature that you won’t find in most free apps. So with a little extra work this program has the features needed to be a viable free option for someone starting out. That being said when you do have a few bucks I’d suggest going with one of the paid options I cover in the next section.
Now the Paid low budget options:
(All these programs have the export to PSD feature, layers, layer modes and are all viable options for someone starting out. You could really pick any of them and be OK)
Excellent digital art app and I do use it from time to time in my digital work flow. Some of the nicer features included: vast assortment of real media brushes, very easy to use with a tablet the app has one of the best designed interfaces in digital art. I almost never have to go to my key board while using it. Also the best water color brushes out of all the paid apps out there including Corel Painter and also great pencil and ink brushes.
Sketchbook Studio Pro: http://www.autodesk.com/products/sketchbook-pro/buy
Another great cheap program that any new digital illustrator can use for all their illustration needs. Some of the nicer features include the symmetry tool, rulers, brush creation, and a really nice pencil and air brush tool.
My Number on Pick. I recommend this tool beyond all others if you’re on a budget and I use it every day.
Manga Studio 5 (Not the EX version) http://manga.smithmicro.com/buy.html
There are two versions of this program the EX has a few nice features included vector export but I find it’s not worth the extra money because the cheaper version does everything I need.
It’s kind of strange for me to like this software so much considering I thought the older versions were steaming piles of app crap.
But the major rewrite and design of the software in version 5 has made it one of my favorite of all time and I do all my illustration line work in it. You’ll find that the interface is very nice and easy to use. It has layers, brush creation, vector layers, rulers, perspective tools, natural media brushes, and many more nice features. I call it Photoshop plus. If you need an app for digital painting and illustration, that’s fairly easy to learn, similar to Photoshop, and are on a tight budget I suggest this program. And when you do have the money for Photoshop you just might end up upgrading your Manga Studio instead of going the Adobe route. Download a trial version and check it out;)