Paid tools for digital painting have set the industry standard for what is possible with these programs, right? Not necessary. There is so much great free drawing software available today. Tired of subscription slavery and the epidemic of bloatware, professional artists are even switching from the paid apps they’ve been using for years.
The question is – where can we find these tools? Travel no further. We have handpicked the best free drawing programs that you can use to create compelling artworks without paying a single penny.
Platforms: Linux, Windows, macOS
Download link: krita.org
Krita is an open source painting program made by artists for artists. The tool is completely free and the only way you can support its creator is by donating. Its main focus is on the artistic painting for cartoons, anime or canvas art, meaning that some features that you may need for photo editing or image manipulation were not prioritized in development.
One of the main strengths of Krita is its brush engine. You can tweak and create brushes for ages, and Krita comes with more than nine brush engines. The customization process is versatile and one can create an almost infinite amount of brushes specific to the task. However, the default set of brushes is more than enough to start creating art – and you can always find more packs on the internet, free of charge.
Another advantage that Krita offers is its layers mechanics. The layering system resembles that of Photoshop and allows all standard operations: merging, blending, grouping etc. There is a variety of layer types that you can create: paint layers, vector layers, fill & file layers.
Krita supports layered PSD files, so you can open Photoshop files or export your work using that format.
- Profound brush engine
- Strong focus on digital painting
- PSD export
- Open-source community with constant updates and new features
- Users (rarely) report performance issues on some platforms
- Some photo-editing tools are lacking
- Working with text (exported as bitmap)
- Not all features are extensively documented
Platform: Linux, macOS, Windows
Download link: gimp.org
Gimp is one of the oldest raster graphic editors that’s free to use since it’s early release in 1996. It has a wide and devoted user base with many tutorials and documentation available online.
Up until the last year many new users were skeptical towards adopting the program, since for years it has had issues such as outdated UI, jagged brush work and poor performance on new PC’s. However, the recent big April update addressed all of these, being the result of six years of work (the previous version of Gimp was released in 2012).
Gimp was always more of an image editing program than a drawing one. With all the latest updates, its functionality is almost on par with Photoshop’s. Gimp has filters, adjustments modes, color management, and all the tools professional photo editors (photographers, designers etc.) might use in their daily work. Developers also polished PSD import, and added new image formats (OpenEXR, RGBE, WebP, HGT).
However, Gimp has a lot to offer digital painters as well. The newest version includes long-awaited updates for the brush work (symmetry painting, hardware pixel processing) and canvas management (rotating, flipping, previewing).
One particular advantage of Gimp is the highly customizable UI. With all the features it offers, Gimp is the closest alternative to Photoshop in terms of the number of things you are able to do with it, and the latest update brought it even closer.
- Multi-functional image editing
- Highly customizable (You can even make it look and work like Photoshop)
- Offers extended functionality with custom plugins
- Linux’s first development may rarely cause some performance issues on Windows
- UI can be a bit overwhelming when first starting
- Pen pressure might need to be reconfigured, especially on Windows
Platforms: macOS, Windows
Download link: firealpaca.com
Despite the simple looking interface, FireAlpaca is a surprisingly workable free tool beloved by many artists. It supports all the core features digital artists need: brushes, layers, multiple image tabs and editing tools.
A simple UI allows you to focus on the primary goal: painting, and it makes this program very intuitive from the start. The brush control is no worse than paid software analogues; FireAlpaca supports multiple pressure levels and has an adjustable smoothing feature that aids the line work.
Unexpectedly elaborated are FireAlpaca’s perspective tools. Snap feature allows you to easily create perspective grids with multiple vanishing points, both linear and radial. This is especially useful for creating comics and storyboards with often uncommon perspective angles.
It’s also worth mentioning that FireAlpaca has a built-in basic animation toolset (though you might want to find a tutorial for that) and supports PSD file format.
- Simple & intuitive UI
- Smooth brush flow
- Excellent comic perspective features
- Basic animation tools
- Overly simplistic, not suitable for complex editing tasks
MediBang Paint Pro
Platforms: Windows, macOS, iPad, iPhone, Android
Download link: medibangpaint.com
The key advantage of MediBang Paint Pro is its ubiquity – the program has a counterpart for almost every device you might have. With cloud storage you can effortlessly transfer your art between different devices. For example, you might start drawing something on your Kindle, and then later finish the drawing on your Mac.
The trick is, MediBang Paint and FireAlpaca are made by the same company. That explains why many features between these programs are quite similar, and why the brush workflow is great in both of them. It’s hard to point out differences between them, except for Medi’s cross-platformity and cloud tools. This, in turn, leads to MediBang Pro being compatible with a larger number of tablets, while FireAlpaca is mostly optimized for brand names like Wacom.
Some specific features (e.g. materials) that are available in desktop versions may not be available on mobile versions, but then again, cloud sharing addresses that.
Overall, MediBang Paint Pro is one of these good free drawing programs that are surprisingly resourceful.
- Supports multiple platforms and tablets
- Amazing brush presets
- Requires a MediBang account
- A large number of tutorials are in the Japanese language (however, there are English articles)
Download link: getpaint.net
Paint.Net is a simple alternative to GIMP. It is a perfect match for those looking for quick photo and image editing, without skimming through pages of tutorials and additional menus.
But don’t let its simplicity fool you – the tool supports all the features one may need for all-around editing of images: layers, adjustment modes, and special effects. You can get rid of red eyes, blend images or adjust color as effectively as with any other feature-loaded analogue. Paint.NET also supports extensions, if you want to expand its capabilities.
The user interface resembles that of a Photoshop, so if you have had any experience with the program, using Paint.NET will feel even more intuitive. The app also features automatic updates, including bug fixes and new features.
- Easy to use, working image-editing solution
- Simple and neat UI
- Extensions & updates
- Simplicity is a double-edged sword – advanced features may be missing
- No macOS version
Just a decade ago we didn’t really have a choice: There was one paid program and one free. Nowadays there are so many great apps, it’s hard to pick one even among the free ones available.
There are no clear winners, and the only question that can really narrow down the choice is whether you are planning to use these programs for digital painting (Krita, FireAlpaca, MebiBang Paint Pro), or for photo & image editing (GIMP, Paint.NET).
Fascinating art can be created with any of these programs (yes, even with Paint.NET). So the question is how comfortable you are with the tools you are using, and there’s only one person who can answer that question.
Read useful tips on how to become a graphic designer and check 6 temptations of a graphic designer creating icons.
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