If you’re an artist who creates digital illustrations, you have a lot of drawing tools to choose from. With these applications potentially costing hundreds of dollars, it’s important to learn which drawing software best suits your needs before you commit to one. Some apps are better for certain types of art, and different apps are better for raster graphics rather than vector graphics. Read on for a features comparison of eight good Windows sketching apps.
If you prefer to work with words instead of pictures, see our top ten journaling apps for Windows.
Vector vs. Raster Graphics
It’s helpful to know what these two terms mean before browsing through our list of applications. Most of the apps we reviewed are raster graphics programs, while a few have support for vector graphics.
Vector graphics describe images as individual curves and lines, which allows them to be infinitely scalable. If it could speak English, a vector image of a green circle would say something like, “There is a green circle with a radius of 30 pixels at the coordinates of x=0, y=0.”
Raster graphics describe images as a grid of pixels, making it dependent on the resolution and not easily scaled. If a raster image of a green circle were to speak English, it would say, “There is a green pixel at the coordinates of x=0, y=0. There is a green pixel at the coordinates of x=0, y=1. There is a green pixel at the coordinates of x=0, y=2,” and so on. Note how wordy the raster image is! The raster image has to state the color of every single pixel at each coordinate, potentially speaking hundreds of sentences for our simple image.
It usually takes more CPU usage to visualize vector graphics. To render a vector, the computer has to understand a more complicated request: creating a circle. Raster graphics images will always have a larger file size but are easy on the CPU, as computers are really good at repetitive, straightforward tasks like drawing millions of pixels onto a screen. It’s easy to create “cartoony” drawing using vector graphics, while raster graphics is better for producing complex or realistic art.
Good to Know: if you’re a Mac user, read on to learn how to work with vector graphics in macOS.
If you have an idea and want to sketch it quickly before you forget it, Paint is perfect for the job. Due to its simplicity, you can open Paint and draw a brush stroke in less than a second – speed that is unheard of in other applications. However, you can’t do much beyond simple sketches. For instance, it’s impossible to freely rotate a shape. Also, there is no concept of layers, and you can only export to an image file, which makes working on complex projects impossible.
- Free and preinstalled on Windows
- Opens quickly
- Easy to paste images from clipboard
- Extremely limited features
GIMP has all the standard features present in the popular paid image editors: layers, brush settings, color manipulation, and gradients. And there are plenty of examples of artists creating complex and realistic illustrations entirely with GIMP. But what makes this program unique is the dedication to what users actually want. This reviewer was delighted by the option to change tool icons from monochrome into GIMP’s original full color icons, an option that more corporate image editors would definitely not support.
- Powerful image editing tools
- Unique design ideas
- Forever free and community driven
- Interface does not look good on high-res displays
Tip: Learn how to make GIMP work and look like Photoshop in Linux.
Price: Free, In-app purchases
Unlike many traditional Windows drawing programs, Sketchable is designed from the ground up to be touched. You can pinch to zoom and drag to increase brush size, for example. Additionally, Sketchable uses a journal-based organization system, which is not only fun but also highly convenient for touch-based devices. However, the main usage of Sketchable is casual sketching, so you may have to switch to another app to refine your drawings.
- Interface designed for touchscreens
- Layers not available for free
- Losing work is risky due to app instability and lack of cloud saving
- Lacks standard features from traditional image-editing apps
Krita packs a surprising amount of functionality in a free, open-source package. It can create vector drawings and supports brush engine plugins (including Gimp’s brush file format, .gbr). What makes Krita unique is that it can create 2D animations with an interface similar to Adobe Animate CC, removing the need to use a separate program. You really can do almost everything with just Krita.
- Can create animations
- Available on Chrome OS and Android
- Performance is not very optimized
Price: Free trial, then $20.99 / month – $54.99 / month
Photoshop is the biggest name in image editing and drawing tools. It’s an industry standard, so you can find plenty of tutorials to learn from and people to collaborate with. Photoshop contains all the tools needed to start with a basic sketch and refine it to become a full-color drawing. But what makes Photoshop stand out is its incredible AI-based features, like Content-Aware Fill and Sky Replacement, opening the possibility of creating completely new kinds of art.
- Powerful layering and selection features
- Saves to the cloud
- Integration with other Adobe products
- Large install size
- Slow to open
- Only available at an expensive monthly fee
If you have a lot of images to work with, learn how to batch-process files in Photoshop.
6. Paintstorm Studio
Price: Free trial, then $19
Paintstorm Studio is a sleek and powerful drawing application. The user interface is very polished and arguably the best among other options. One of the coolest features is the Mixer panel that allows you to mix colors together like they were real paint. It feels physical and very fun. Another unique ability of Painstorm Studio is the ability to create patterned, symmetrical designs using Kaleidoscope.
- Detailed customization for brush settings
- Optimized performance
- Available on iOS
- Steep learning curve
Inkscape is different from other sketching tools in that it is exclusively a vector graphics editor. It’s great for accomplishing a particular style of art: clean, well-defined curves and colors. It has strong community support – there will always be a tutorial to learn what you need to do. Because it can simply import and export Scalable Vector Graphics (.SVG) files, it’s versatile and compatible with the creations of other vector graphics software.
- 3D features
- Plenty of extensions from the community
- Lacks support for the CMYK color model
Tip: If you want to know more about this app, learn how to get started with Inkscape.
8. Clip Studio Paint
Price: Free trial, then $49.99 – $219
Originally built to draw manga, this software can do so much more now.
Clip Studio Paint is incredibly versatile, allowing you to go from drawing in a painterly style to inking and coloring a comic page. One surprising feature is that it can use AI to scan a person in a photo, then apply the pose to a 3D model. This model can then be rotated and positioned in a 3D space. It’s a groundbreaking feature that lets you create any pose reference you want, viewed at any angle you want.
- Best features for drawing comics
- 3D modeling features
- Highly customizable brushes and vector lines
- Confusing and expensive choice of versions to purchase
Frequently Asked Questions
Which drawing programs are capable of creating animations?
Krita has the best animation features of the drawing tools. Some of the other programs also have animation support, albeit not necessarily as mature as Krita’s.
GIMP can create a GIF animation from its layers. Photoshop has a Timeline panel to create animations using frames, and Clip Studio Paint has a proper animation workflow like Krita but is only available on the far more expensive $219 EX version.
Technically, you can use any drawing or image editing tool to create animations, as an animation is just a sequence of different images. You can manually draw different images, with slight changes to each one, and combine them to form a GIF or video.
What other tools do I need to start drawing on Windows?
If you’re trying to get started as an artist using Windows, you’ll need the hardware to actually draw with a stylus or pen. Using a trackpad or a mouse won’t give you the best experience!
Using the Surface Pen with anything in the Microsoft Surface line of products is a good option. Alternatively, you can buy something like a Wacom drawing tablet that connects to your Windows PC via cable.
Which free programs can replace Adobe Photoshop?
GIMP and Krita are both free programs that we found to be good potential Photoshop replacements. These programs have extensive image editing features and functionality add-ons provided by the community.
Image credit: Pexels. All screenshots by Brandon Li.
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