Lush jungle scenes with painterly animation, photo collages that montage into smooth dreamscapes, VR-activated digital painting on the street: We’ve all seen what the best digital art software is capable of. It equips you with the tools to harness your computer’s power to create.
The works you can create with digital art software are endless. With so many creation tools out there it’s an exciting and borderless time to be a creator. Whether you’re illustrating an anime, touching up your photos, learning to draw, or building 3D models, the best digital art software package will give you the toolbox you need to finish the project.
How We Picked the Best Digital Art Software
Planning this article I wanted to make sure I hit a wide range of software packages that could be useful to lots of different digital artists. I’m a trained artist with years of experience in digital art, so I highlighted the software suites that I personally find to be the most useful. However, I made sure to recommend a few software packages that I’ve been following over the years that are alternatives to my personal software picks, or cover different areas of digital art.
While there are lots of digital art suites out there, most of them have different specialties. Two-dimensional art software usually focuses on raster or vector art, with raster art giving you tools to edit images on the pixel level, while vector editors are useful for illustrations or re-sizing graphic shapes. Photo editors like Photoshop are raster editors, and most digital painting software also uses raster. Vectors, on the other hand, empower you to create designs and shapes that can be scaled to any size, or create clean lined comics and animations that are easy to color and manipulate. 3D suites can offer lots of different approaches as well, with varying specialties that range from basic wire mesh, to industrial design, to clay-like sculpting, animation, and more. This list mostly focuses on still artwork, and less on video editing and animation (though I did include a couple cover-alls that address these disciplines). Below, I broke down the qualities that distinguish software packages across disciplines.
The right tools get the job done. Great software packages come with really dialed tool sets that help you achieve what you need from the package. Painter software for a tablet might come with excellent fluidity that pairs your hand and pen for complete tactile control. Great photo software will give you the tools you need to totally tweak the moments you capture. A great dialed toolset is the fundamental point that makes any software package special.
Versatility can make or break a software package. Most creative people I know are forever moving between disciplines, or at least methods. Strong versatility in a software package allows you to pivot your technique, and perhaps even your medium, and can make one suite outshine another.
Price and payment structure can be the breaking point in a digital art suite. Some digital art software might charge a modest one-time fee, while other software might charge you a costly monthly subscription. Some might be cheap but require that you own a specific brand of tablet. Others might cost so much money as to be prohibitive to anyone who isn’t saddled to a professional media job. Others, like Inkscape, or Gimp, are completely free. I factored each software package’s price point into my decision of whether to include it on this list.
The Best Digital Art Software: Reviews and Recommendations
Best Overall: Adobe Photoshop
Why It Made The Cut: With a pantheon of tools, powerful image processing, and infinite versatility when it’s linked in with the rest of the Adobe Suite, Photoshop and the wider Adobe software package is a deeply powerful creator’s toolkit.
— Type: Raster editor
— Platform: Mac/PC & tablet ok
— Price Structure: Subscription
— Can be supplemented with a gigantic library of tools
— Powerful for photo-editing, painting, drawing, and even animation
— Expensive subscription
Adobe is the standard for professional digital art, and much of the reason for that is Adobe’s seamless integration across its whole suite, which includes a host of creative tools for everything from print setup to design to video editing. Adobe Photoshop is the company’s most famous software, and that’s for good reason. The raster editor is a deeply powerful software package with incredibly precise tools for photography, painting, and even .gif making built into its core. Photoshop also has a vast library of downloadable content; its ubiquity and limitless downloadable toolset make it a critical tool for digital artists to learn.
Photoshop alone has such a large pool of tools and different workflows built into it, that a true mastery of the software could take years (unless you get some help). However, when Photoshop is paired with other Adobe programs through the Adobe Suite, it becomes limitless. A digital designer who wants to apply a branding style to a hotel key card might simply download a customizable template that allows them to work between Photoshop and InDesign, and quickly customize all parts of the keycard and ready it for print. An anime artist might draw a comic in Illustrator, and then bounce it into Photoshop to add complex light and painterly washes with a digital watercolor brush. A photographer might quickly delete blemishes in Photoshop with the clone stamp tool, then send it to Lightroom for final atmospheric touches. A designer who might want to tweak text on a laptop, and then send the file to their iPad for some fancy pen work can use the free iPad app. Whatever your workflow, the Adobe Suite has a toolset.
However, Adobe Photoshop and the Creative Suite aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every digital artist, if simply because we might not be able to afford it. The Adobe suite uses a rolling subscription-based payment plan that can be very expensive. Because of this, many artists find that the Adobe Suite is only affordable if it is a cost of business for a project that’s currently making them money. The Adobe Suite is worth it, but if you’re worried about the price, there are other options that are still amazingly powerful, and can work just as well.
Best for Drawing: Procreate
Why It Made The Cut: This iPad based art software is magic, with perfect Apple Pencil control, intuitive controls, and an extraordinary deep painting and drawing toolset.
— Type: Raster editor
— Platform: iPad only
— Price Structure: Inexpensive, one-time fee
— Great pen and finger control
— Excellent brushes
— Wealth of user created material and community
— iPad only
— Might not run well on an older iPad or one of the cheapest
With an intuitive interface that gives you tactile control over everything you do, an unending supply of user-made brushes, and a wealth of videos to help you learn it, Procreate is simply incredible. And it’s also cheap… so long as you own an iPad. Created in Australia and released in 2011, Procreate has been around for more than ten years. However, I didn’t start hearing about the software until about 2015 when the powerful iPad Pro began to make a splash among my art friends for its powerful processor and Apple Pencil compatibility. I’ve used Procreate since 2020, and I absolutely love it.
Procreate shines for painting and drawing. It comes with handy tools, like brush customization, adjustable touch commands, built-in perspective guides that can help you outline a composition in three-point perspective, handy layer control, and lots of ways to blend. I use a small palette of brushes to draw and paint compositions, then add texture and color with special effect brushes that allow you to print leaf patterns that will fill in scenes, or highlight reflective surfaces. You can easily mask and spray specific objects, or cut out characters with smart filters.
The software does have a few shortcomings though. I find it clunky for text editing or detailed controlled design. However, for digital painting and illustrations, Procreate is a dream. For digital artists focused on painting, drawing, or illustrating, or for anyone looking for the best digital art software for comics, I think there’s no better tool out there, so long as you can afford the required iPad and Apple Pencil.
Best Budget Adobe Alternative: Affinity
Why It Made The Cut: With three main programs aimed at vector art and design, raster art, and pre-press, Affinity offers a powerful suite that won’t charge you an ever-escalating monthly fee.
— Type: Raster, vector, prepress
— Platform: Windows / Mac and iPad
— Price Structure: One time fee
— Won’t charge you subscription fees that stack up over time
— Works on your tablet or computer
— Powerful tools
— Lacks some of the advanced capabilities of Photoshop
— Issues with interface and file management
Finally, a powerful design suite that can stand up to Photoshop and doesn’t charge a monthly fee. At a total price just under the cost of three months of Photoshop, Affinity might be all you need to get into digital art. The suite includes Affinity Designer, which gives you many of the tools you’d find in Adobe Illustrator but supplements them with a raster workspace and makes a strong case to be a perfect designer’s one-stop shop: Affinity Photo for photo editing and raster art, and Affinity Publisher for periodicals and print.
I especially love that Affinity took the time to build an answer to Photoshop’s InDesign. While Photoshop alone is expensive, Adobe’s multi-app plans get seriously pricey. Not so here. With the Affinity suite’s “StudioLink,” you’ll be able to quickly use the suite’s photo editor, vector editor, and then work them into your pre-press print files or website design. That said, the suite would be the best digital art software for beginners but for its slightly odd interface and file system, which will have you learning somewhat non-standard workflows as compared to how most other art software operates. Affinity also doesn’t have some of the premium features you’ll find in Adobe Suite. Still, if you’re looking for a powerful digital art suite that won’t charge you hundreds every year you use it, then Affinity is an excellent option.
Best 3D: Blender
Why It Made The Cut: Part video editor, animation studio, VFX editor, wireframe modeler, and part sculpting software, Blender crams a lot into an open sourced package.
— Type: 3D modeling, video
— Platform: Windows / Mac / Linux
— Price Structure: Free
— Lots of uses in 3D and 4D
— Lots of free help on the internet
— Very steep learning curve
It doesn’t get much cheaper than free, and chances are free will never get more featur- packed than Blender. The Blender Project is an open-source 3D suite that promises to stay free in perpetuity. It delivers a truly powerful set of tools to anyone with the computer to run it, making Blender is the best free digital art software out there.
Blender software can be used many different ways, and because of this, the program has a very steep learning curve. New users will find themselves tweaking a standard wireframe monkey head that comes pre-programmed in, and warping it into anything they can imagine (or couldn’t previously). The suite includes wire frame modeling, ZBrush style shape molding, VFX, animation, and so much more. With so many features, Blender might take you years to master, but the task will be well worth it. The software is used across digital arts industries.
If you’ve been dreaming of detailing 3D characters for game art, designing objects for your 3D printer, or animating ethereal dreamscapes, Blender has the tools to do it. While the software package is complex, Blender provides tutorials, and it’s also a great place to get your feet wet in 3D or 4D art.
Best for Anime: Clip Studio Paint
Why It Made The Cut: This powerful digital painting suite is built for illustrators, comic artists, and anime, and features a comic focused combination of vector and raster tools that work together seamlessly.
— Type: Raster and vector
— Platform: Windows / Mac / iPad / mobile
— Price Structure: One time fee as well as a monthly fee on tablet
— Raster and vector tools in the same place
— Different modes for different uses including concept art, character, design, and animation
— Character models in perspective
— Basic version only allows you to work on one comic page at a time
— You’ll need to invest in a stylus to use it well on computer or an Apple Pencil on iPad
For manga, comics, concept art, and industrial sketching there’s a little secret called Clip Studio Paint. This powerful tool for drawing, painting, and inking takes all the best parts of Photoshop and Illustrator for the pen and brush and lumps them into one stellar suite. That means vector editing tools in the same place as raster brushes, allowing you to paint a character then outline it in buttery smooth vector lines, or draw in vector and paint behind it. The suite is focused on drawing through and through and even comes with poseable armatures to use as reference inside of the perspectival space you’re composing a scene in.
For those with a Wacom Tablet already, Clip Studio Paint comes at an affordable one-time fee. The higher priced Clip Studio Paint EX, on the other hand, unlocks many of the powerful features contained in the app but costs about four times as much. Still, it’s just a little more than one year of Photoshop. However the iPad app version requires a subscription that charges you a monthly rate that’s commensurate to the total price of Procreate. All in all, Clip Studio is one of the most affordable and rich software suites out there if you’re invested in drawing and comics.
Things To Consider Before Buying Digital Art Software
Before you invest money and hardware space into digital art software, it’s important to consider a few things.
The first factor to consider when you shop for the best digital art software for you is what type of digital art you’re intending to make with it. The dedicated cartoonist, the hyper-realist digital painter working on an iPad, and the sculptor of wireframe game assets will all have different ideas about the digital art software they need, and you should too. The first step to figuring out what the best art software for you is, is figuring out what you’ll be making (in a ballpark at least).
Budgeting for Platform Costs
iPads cost money, and so do Wacom Tablets and laptops. There are many factors that contribute to the cost of digital art software and it’s important to be realistic about these before you stack up a particular piece of software against the budget you want to spend. If you have a computer already, you might find that it’s more cost effective to buy $200 dollar digital art software for the system that you already have, rather than $10 dollar digital art software for a system that you must now buy. Consider the stylus, pen, or tablet costs that might be required for you to make use of your software before you factor that software’s total cost.
Some software packages come with wide sets of extra features. For example, the Adobe suite might be quite expensive long term, but it does give you tons of benefits, such as access to the incredible Adobe font libraries for free, the Adobe Color palette generator, as well as other bonus features like limited Adobe Stock photos. Some users might fail to factor all these offerings into the value of a Photoshop subscription. Other companies offer similar libraries of bonus content as well, so be sure you’re briefed on the perks.
Another all important factor to look for when you’re evaluating if a software package is right for you, is the depth of the community help and content that exists around that software. Open source software like Blender, Inkscape, or Gimp usually have deep old communities of users that will be happy to help you troubleshoot issues, or find add ons for your software. Most software will have communities around it that can help you get the ball rolling.
Q: What software do most digital artists use?
Photoshop and the Adobe Suite are still the most ubiquitous digital software, so much so that Photoshop has come to be a verb rather than just a company name. That said, millions of digital artists use other software too, the right software for you is the one that gives you the tools you need and fits your budget.
Q: Which software is best for illustration?
With its combination of vector layers and raster layers, deep brush libraries, and different toolsets catered to specific illustration genres, Clip Studio Paint is the best software for many illustrators, especially those working in comics. Still, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Procreate, are all also excellent choices for illustrators.
Q: What do you need for digital art?
Generally you need a computer or tablet that’s equipped with a pen or stylus as well as the digital art software you’ll be using to create the art. 3D artists might use a mouse, and some advanced functionality in complex 3D suites will require a keyboard with a numpad for complex hotkeys.
Q: What is the best way to draw digitally?
Some users work in a hybrid mode, combining pencil drawings and digital color for example, however most digital artists draw with their stylus directly onto a digital tablet.
Q: Can we do digital art on a laptop?
Absolutely, most of the digital art software reviewed in this article will work on a laptop. Some laptops even come with touch screens and a digital stylus.
Q: Is digital art hard to learn?
Digital art can be very easy to learn. Many programs are quite intuitive and allow you to move a magnetic pen to make marks. Others might take years of practice. Different programs vary in difficulty.
Digital art software gives creators fantastic tool sets that have revolutionized media. These software packages vary considerably, some having steep learning curves, and others being about as intuitive as learning to paint with watercolors. I use multiple art programs. I love Procreate on my iPad Air for its exceptionally intuitive painting interface that just feels right and constantly surprises me with more and more features — I have the most fun with Procreate. I also use open source software like Blender and Inkscape, keeping Inkscape installed mostly as an easy tool for tracing raster compositions into vectors. However, I couldn’t get by on big projects without Adobe Photoshop and the rest of the Adobe suite, and that’s because of its unparalleled capacity for deep precision, print setup tools, and vast font library access. Whatever you pick, remember that most digital artists try a few software packages before they lock into one, and it might be worth exploring a few free trials before you buy.
This post was created by a non-news editorial team at Recurrent Media, Futurism’s owner. Futurism may receive a portion of sales on products linked within this post.
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