This week, we look at some of the best drawing software to create illustrations and digital drawings. From Medibang Paint, and ProCreate, to Corel Painter, and even Autodesk SketchBook, there are countless illustration apps available to any would-be illustrator.
But how do you know which one is the best to use for your illustrations?
Our list of drawing and painting software will guide your hand to the best software available. It’s time to forget about your grandmother’s “clip studio paint” software and invest in something that only a real digital illustrator uses.
So, sharpen your pencils, wipe your drawing tablet or iPad clean and let’s take a look at some illustration software, both new and old, that can help make you a digital art ninja.
Vector or Raster Drawing Tools?
Before we jump into the thick of it, a quick note. Our best digital drawing and painting software list includes apps that support raster and vector graphics.
We’re not going to try to tell you which is better. Instead, we want to highlight the differences between these two types of illustration styles.
Trying to compare vector and raster graphics would be like trying to compare an oil painting by Raphael to that shark that Damien Hirst put in a tank of formaldehyde.
What is a vector design or a raster image?
Those used to traditional art are sometimes unaware of these terms. Raster graphics are primarily made up of pixels. You will typically find this in photos. A raster image can only be scaled up to a certain size before it becomes blurry and indistinct, this is referred to as “pixelation.”
Pixelation can make any work of art look like an upturned plate of spaghetti.
Vector graphics, on the other hand, is entirely composed of vectors (or mathematical formulae). While it sounds very complicated and scientific, it’s straightforward.
A vector design can scale infinitely. That’s right: if you plan on wrapping that office building next door with your next creative illustration, then vector might be the way to go. Vector graphics are most often used in the print industry.
You can be the best illustrator with our list of useful tools
We want to help any aspiring illustrator get the best tool with the best support so that they can start drawing from the get-go. No matter if it is raster art or vector art that they love to create.
In this review, we look at features, supported platforms, whether the software supports brushes and if they offer us any free downloads. Who doesn’t like to get some free stuff included, right?
We organize all our favorite tools into three distinct categories, namely Best Overall, Best Value, and Best Budget tool options. This will help to keep things neat and clean. Now, without any more delay, let’s review some of the best illustration tools available to aspiring digital artists and editors.
Best Overall: Adobe Photoshop
Our winner in the Best Overall category is the much-loved Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop CC is part of the Adobe Creative suite and is an app packed with features and tools that allow for great digital painting and illustrations.
Since it’s a photo editing tool, Photoshop focuses on raster graphics. This design package comes with loads of spirited photo-editing features, such as color blending modes, drawing tools, and custom brushes, many of which are free to download.
If you need to extend your illustration skills to vector editing, you’ll be happy to know that the latest version of Adobe Illustrator comes included with the Creative Cloud apps.
Even though the interface can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, Adobe goes a long way to ease newcomers into this full-featured illustration tool.
Beginners will love the one-click workspace setting that comes with the latest version. More advanced users can customize the workspace to suit their particular art style requirements.
There are also an enormous amount of detailed guides and tutorials available for download online. This support makes it one of the most extensively documented apps available to digital artists of all skill levels.
Since it’s part of the phenomenal Adobe Creative Cloud, users can quickly save their work and access it on multiple devices. Any illustrator will love the fact that it supports input from a drawing tablet or iPad for a more natural sketching and creation experience.
Adobe Photoshop is fully compatible with both macOS and Windows operating systems. This awesome tool can even be used on your iPad with your Apple pencil as a lightweight app.
As a professional software suite, this app also comes at a professional price. In our list of best painting apps, Adobe Photoshop CC is the most expensive. This pricing is to be expected, as it also delivers the most tools and comprehensive support available. There’s a 30-day free trial to help ease the pre-purchase anxiety, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
The majority of Adobe Photoshop users are professionals. These professionals use its advanced features to edit photos or create digital art. It also supports a variety of file extensions, meaning your image can be used on a website, or even printed out as a poster.
- Almost limitless custom painting brushes
- Support a variety of file formats
- Offers a free 30-day trial version
- Steeper learning curve
Alternative Best Overall: CorelDRAW
CorelDRAW offers a fantastic graphics editing suite that’s capable of churning out both raster and vector graphics.
CorelDRAW comes with a free version of Corel Painter software bundled to help create your next raster illustration. It’s great for a variety of illustrations, and the latest version even supports the popular Apple Pen.
CorelDRAW allows users to edit vector and raster graphics with a variety of tools and a couple of custom brushes. Although not as powerful and in-depth as Adobe Photoshop, it’s still one of the best illustration tools in the industry.
CorelDRAW is easier to pick up than Adobe Photoshop, but only because it lacks the comprehensive list of image tools found in Adobe apps.
Online support and how-to tutorials are also plentiful and easy to download.
The CorelDRAW Graphics Suite is fully compatible with both macOS and Windows systems. There’s even a remote collaboration version out that can be accessed from anywhere through the company’s website.
Unfortunately, CorelDRAW doesn’t support iPad, but you can use your favorite graphics tablet and pen to draw if you’re looking for a natural sketching experience.
Even though it’s a professional editing tool, CorelDRAW is slightly less expensive than the Adobe Creative Cloud products. CorelDRAW also has a two-week free trial that we recommend you use.
The majority of CorelDRAW users are professionals. These professionals use this graphics suite’s capable features to create logos, signage, publications, and web graphics.
CorelDRAW offers fantastic support for different file formats, and can also export your work of art in an endless variety of formats.
- Raster and vector editing in one suite
- Access to free clip arts, gradients, and pattern downloads
- Easy to master
- Limited tools and brushes
Best Value: Affinity Designer
Our winner for the Best Value illustration software is Affinity Designer. You may not have heard about the new kid on the block, but this vector graphics illustration software has an incredibly bright future ahead of it.
Originally developed for the macOS operating system, it’s now available on Windows and even your iPad Pro. This means you can take your illustrations with you, no matter where you are, and start drawing and painting whenever inspiration strikes you.
Affinity Designer is a vector drawing app. It has all the familiar tools, such as beziers, pens, brushes, and even various polygons that we see in more expensive painting software packages.
This drawing app is much easier to use than some of the more complicated programs on our list. It comes with a less cluttered interface that feels more intuitive, especially if you’re new to this kind of app.
Affinity Designer is also compatible with a variety of platforms. Users can enjoy it on Windows, macOS, and even on an iPad and Apple pencil.
Affinity Comes in at an affordable price. It is easily the best value for money design tool that we could find. As far as pricing goes, Affinity Designer is far less expensive than CorelDRAW or the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite.
The excellent 90-day trial period makes it a worry-free download.
Both hobbyists and professionals use Affinity Designer. Users have created everything from logos to infographics, illustrations, web graphics, drawings, and even social media graphics with its easy-to-use vector tools.
- A 90-day trial version
- Intuitive user interface
- Affordable price
- Lacks high-end tools and brushes
- No auto-tracing feature
Alternative Best Value: openCanvas
If you’re looking for a great alternative value option, and an app packed with plenty of features, openCanvas could be just the tool for you.
At an affordable price, with all the essential tools and brushes, it’s a great option to create your illustrations with. With all the essential features to make drawing quick and easy, this is one of the best illustration apps available on the market.
openCanvas is a raster editing tool, with great support for exporting to various file formats. It doesn’t support exporting to any vector formats, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you just want to pick up one of your favorite brushes and start painting immediately.
openCanvas is extremely easy to use. It comes with an exceptional user interface, amazing tutorials, and all the essential digital tools. Users can quickly pick it up and see why it is included in our list of best drawing apps.
openCanvas is only compatible with Microsoft Windows.
Unfortunately, this eliminates whole communities of budding graphical illustrators who use iPads or other Apple products to create their art. We’d like to see a version of openCanvas that’s compatible with more systems, but we’re not holding our breath.
With its affordable pricing, openCanvas is a great option for budget-aware illustrators. It’s marginally less expensive than some of the other programs on our list and just loses out a tiny bit to the great pricing that Affinity Designer offers.
If you don’t mind fewer features and image editing tools, openCanvas could be just the tool you need to give you creative freedom at a reasonable price.
Artists, especially those that want to create speed painting videos, love openCanvas and are some of its staunchest supporters. If you want to create illustrations with a good selection of natural-looking brushes and pencils, this is the app for you.
- Light on system resources
- Fantastic user interface
- Limited number of image editing tools
- Only available on Windows
Best Budget: Inkscape
Our winner in the Best Budget category is the ever-popular Inkscape software. This excellent app is open-source and free to use.
It may not be the best drawing tool around, but it’s still a capable piece of software in the right hands.
Inkscape is another vector art software. The current version of Inkscape allows artists to create 3D Extruded shapes or texts without too much effort.
The latest version supports various plugins that can help extend its features, and this is why we included it in our list of best drawing apps.
Inkscape lacks the budget of more prominent companies, meaning it can’t publish thousands of tutorials and guides to help any illustrator master this app.
That being said, the always-active community is always more than happy to help you with any problems you might run into. Whether you’re struggling to find the right brush or you don’t know which way to hold a pencil, there’s sure to be someone willing to help you out.
The interface, sadly, isn’t quite as user-friendly as we would have wanted to see. It also only offers a limited set of brushes to use when drawing, but with new plugins and extensions becoming more freely available, we hope this will change in the future.
Inkscape is compatible with Windows, macOS, and even Linux systems. Unfortunately, it’s not mobile-device friendly, and fans of iPad won’t be able to use this tool on the go.
Inkscape is open-source, and it is also free to use forever. Simply download it from the website and you can start drawing.
The open-source nature means that there’s a constant slew of user-created mods and plugins giving it near-limitless flexibility if you are willing to experiment.
Inkscape is used mainly by amateurs and hobbyists to create website graphics and illustrations.
It lacks some of the professional tools and brushes found in more industry-standard applications. Yet, it still has many valuable digital tools with some plugins that you can download to extend its features with.
Simply visit the Inkscape website to download these plugins.
- A fair amount of helpful vector tools
- Active community
- Complicated user-interface
- Few detailed guides and tutorials
Alternative Best Budget: Gimp
Gimp is also another popular, open-source software that’s free to download and start drawing. It has a long, rich history, making it one of the most-loved digital painting apps around.
It’s available to download onto a variety of platforms, making it accessible to almost everyone.
Gimp mainly focuses on raster graphics but is capable of exporting rudimentary SVG (vector) files. This makes it a good editor for web images and graphics.
Gimp’s interface leaves a lot to be desired. The tool icons tend to be very small, and difficult to find. The navigation can also be a bit confusing, as certain functions and tools may not be where you expect to find them.
While Gimp offers its users some handy keyboard shortcuts it takes some time to master all of them. We find that there is also a lack of tutorials and how-to guides. This makes Gimp difficult to learn.
The open-source Gimp is fully compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux-based systems. Gimp does not support an iPad or tablet and has no cloud features.
Gimp is open-source and forever free to use.
Gimp is loved by the hobbyist and DIY community. It lacks the comprehensive tools required by the professional industry and we find that it only has the most basic of brushes as well.
- Standard image editing support
- Active community
- Complicated user-interface
- Not many detailed guides and tutorials are available
How to choose the best drawing software for you
Choosing the best drawing tool is relatively straightforward. Any aspiring illustrator first needs to decide which tool will work best with their art style.
You don’t want to be stuck with a raster editor when you want to create vector graphics or vice versa.
Another important aspect to consider is the export capability of your new design software. If your new app can only export web-standard images, it may not be the best tool to have, as plenty of digital illustrators end up selling prints of their best work to fans.
You would be best to choose a digital design tool that allows for exporting into a variety of different file formats.
With so much to consider, it can feel overwhelming when trying to decide on which illustration software that’s right for you. But you can make your life easier by asking yourself a few questions:
- Do I need to have access to my files on different devices and across different platforms?
- Do I want to design on the go, using an iPad or other mobile tablet?
- What is my current budget for design software?
- Is there a free trial or free version of my preferred app available?
- Will I be using my Apple pencil to edit and illustrate with?
It doesn’t matter if your art is on par with Leonardo da Vinci, or perhaps more like Mister Bean’s. An artist, especially a digital artist, is only ever as good as their drawing app.
Every day new software packages, like ProCreate and Paint Tool SAI, are popping up to provide artists with the ability to create beautiful digital illustrations.
Not all of them are made equally, and prospective illustrators need to consider where they will be investing carefully.
Just like Michelangelo would not have been caught red-handed with the cheapest paint brushes around, illustrators today need to be backed by the best drawing software.
Having the best drawing tool to help you create your concept art, and editing any image will ensure that you can unleash your creativity to its full potential. The world of digital drawing is fun and limitless.
If you still feel a bit lost, don’t worry. We’ve all been there. Let us know your fears and concerns, and we will happily guide you to the best digital illustration tool.
Mike Hostetler is an Entrepreneur & Technologist currently working to help technical teams grow and thrive. Mike formerly founded appendTo, a boutique consultancy born out of the jQuery project. He is an active OSS supporter and currently serves as CEO & Publisher of ModernWeb.com. Mike is passionate about Remote Work, the Future of Work, Leadership and helping others succeed.