Painting is fun, but it’s also messy, expensive, and alarmingly analog. Digital art offers a solution to these problems, but many of the programs commonly used are either impenetrable snarls of feature creep (Photoshop) or so expensive that nobody but graphic designers can afford them (also Photoshop).
Why Photoshop Doesn’t Cut It
Don’t get me wrong! Photoshop is useful, once you know how to use it. The truth is, though, that Photoshop is a one sized fits all tool, and for pure painting, the one size doesn’t fit very well at all.
Sometimes, what you want is a simple tool that does one thing well. Subsequently, there has been a trend in digital art towards developing apps that provide cleaner, lighter interfaces just for drawing; apps that attempt to emulate the look, feel, and texture of traditional painting, but coupled with the awesome power of an ‘undo’ button.
Even Microsoft has gotten in on the action with their Fresh Paint app, which comes bundled with Windows 8.
How To Pick A Great Photoshop Alternative
At MakeUseOf, we’re big fans of free Photoshop alternatives, and some of the dedicated painting applications are quite good.
In order to give all of these a fair shake, after spending some time working out the UIs, I’ve done a two-minute speed sketch using several brushes to see what’s possible. These are likely more limited by artistic skill than the interfaces (and several came out distinctly creepy), but they are a good case study in how quickly you can get started with these programs. All images were created using a $60 Wacom tablet.
If you’ve been looking to get into digital painting, but aren’t sure where to start, look no further. Below, I’ve collected three of the best, and given impressions.
Twisted Brush is the most logically laid out of the apps tried: all the brush editing options are in one place and can be changed without exploring menus, so it’s easy to dive right in and start painting.
Twisted Brush also has the best built-in tutorials for those just getting started. The UI is firmly trapped in the 90’s, but it is very easy to use.
Twisted Brush struggled a bit to keep up with rapid painting, but performed fairly well overall on a mid-range desktop machine.
The free version of the program comes with 11 brushes, which is slightly limiting. That said, the brushes were well chosen, and are customizable, which made this easier than you’d expect. I didn’t have too many complaints about the actual painting itself, which felt tangible and produced good results.
Beyond the basics, Twisted Brush has a huge number of minor tweaks and options buried in its interface, that look appealing to power users. I suspect that using Twisted Brush every day would allow you to get pretty fast at creating content using it.
Twisted Brush is available as a free, 18 MB download.
Krita, an open-source digital painting application, was a considerably larger download than any of the others (116 MB), and this is reflected in the variety of stuff available in it. Krita clearly intends to provide a complete solution for digital art creation for professional artists, and, as such, comes bundled with templates and tools for everything from concept art to manga.
It also comes with a staggering variety of brushes (136 in all), and they cover pretty much every use case imaginable. You can smear, splatter, drip, drag, and generally mistreat paint into all kinds of shapes, and it’s a joy to use. Though this is subjective, I feel that the stuff made with Krita looked better than my other efforts.
Now for the bad: the app didn’t run particularly well. Especially when using large brushes to paint in the background, the motion of the brush could lag several seconds behind the motion of the mouse.
Furthermore, while the app’s interface was much more modern than that of Twisted Brush, it was also less organized, with brush-editing tools scattered more or less at random around the edges of the screen. It took a surprisingly long moment just to find the brush-size slider at the top of the screen.
That said, for professional artists with high-end machines, Krita is by far the most fully-featured software that I tried, and it produces beautiful work.
MyPaint, a tiny 8MB download for windows, takes a strategy that’s very different from Krita’s. It’s interface is clean and minimalist, and you can begin painting instantly.
It does come with 39 brushes, which can emulate everything from oil paint to charcoal to pointilism, but it keeps all the details hidden away behind eight menus in the control bar. The interface is clearly designed to stay out of your way and let you get on with the business of drawing. It’s also very responsive, making it perfect for fast, messy sketching.
MyPaint’s cleanness can be inconvenient, when rapidly switching from brush to brush to do detail work, having to repeatedly open the same few menus feels a little cumbersome – a floating tool box wouldn’t have gone amiss.
That said, for fast sketching, it’s hard to beat the speed and convenience that MyPaint specializes in. MyPaint doesn’t have a patch on Krita in terms of number of features, but the features it does have are well implemented, and it’s effortless to sit down and start creating things, which has a lot of value for casual users.
Power Users, Doodlers, and Professionals
Between the three, these apps cover pretty much every conceivable digital-painting use case. For power users who need an efficient interface, Twisted Brush is as good as it gets. For professionals who need a rich painting interface and whose machines can keep up, Krita is an excellent solution – and for everyone else, who just wants to sit down and paint something, MyPaint is fast, light, clean, and more than good enough.
Which one do you like best? Did we miss a great digital painting app? Let us know in the comments.