Sometimes writers draw/illustrate as well as write. Sometimes they illustrate their texts (picture books, graphic novels, illustrated novels).
While some photo apps can be used as a drawing app (like Photoshop or Affinity photo), not all are good at it (for instance, Photoshop Elements has no bezier tool, which means it doesn’t have a pen tool to draw curved lines). Unfortunately, dedicated drawing apps can be pretty spendy, and the free ones are few and far between.
As with the other posts, I don’t own Apple products, so specific iOS apps like Procreate will not be covered.
But first…tablets, pen tablets and pen displays.
Yes, you can make digital art with a mouse. No, it’s not the same as using a tablet or a pen display. Pressure sensitivity is important, and that’s something you can kinda mimic using a mouse, but not replace.
Regular tablets like an iPad have pens and apps that work well together, and artists create wonderful things with them. Not everyone can afford an iPad, however.
This is where pen tablets come it. Pen tablets are tools that lie on your desk like a mousepad, but instead of a mouse, you use a pen to move the cursor about on your monitor. The pressure of the pen against the tablet allows artists to create thick and thin lines, draw lightly or heavily, etc.
Pen tablets are cheaper than regular tablets and pen displays, and once you are used to moving the pen while staring at your monitor, they’re exceptional tools.
Wacom’s Intuos is a popular pen tablet, but Huion Inspiroy and XP-Pen Deco series are also solid, but cheaper, choices. These pen tablets have pen sensitivity without the price of a regular tablet or pen display, ranging from $25 to just over $100. The larger the size, the more the cost.
I never did get the hang of pen tablets. I felt disconnected from my work, and practice did not make perfect. So I saved up for a pen display. Pen displays are more expensive than pen tablets, but you can draw directly on the screen with a special pen, similar to a regular tablet. Unlike regular tablets, though, these displays are monitors, and have monitor sizes from 13″ to 24″.
Because of screen sensitivity and the need for accurate color, these displays are more expensive than typical monitors. You can save some money on refurbished ones, but you still need a couple hundred bucks for a 13″ pen display (which is still cheaper than an iPad. Still, budget-wise writers/artists will find the pen tablets more attractive because of the lower price tag).
Wacom is considered the industry standard for both pen tablets and pen displays. Huion products are just as good for half the price, and XP-Pen a bit cheaper than that. There are other, even cheaper displays/tablets out there; I caution you to do your research. Not all are created equal.
I use Huion pen displays, and I’m pretty happy with them.
Oh, and if you are wondering about your touch screen laptop–regular touch screens do not have the pressure sensitivity artists need.
On to apps!
Artbreeder is a bit different than the other apps on this list. It’s a browser-based software that uses AI to create portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, etc. It blends pics together and creates something new. The software learns from each pic that is created, to produce better images.
To make an image, you manipulate parameters (for portraits, things like age, hair color, etc, while for landscapes you change sunlight, mountain height, etc). With a few clicks of a mouse, you can create a fantastic-looking image. You can even upload your own portrait, and see how Artbreeder artifies it!
Artbreeder has its frustrations and limitations; for instance, the gender stereotypes it uses to create portraits can be very annoying if you, say, have a male character with long hair. There is also a “look” to the images; even my husband can tell an Artbreeder-created pic on random Instagram posts. You can make a more unique image, but it takes a bit more time messing with parameters than some wish to spend.
Despite the annoyances, what Artbreeder does for the average writer, especially non-artistic ones, is provide a fast, easy way to create a unique image related to their stories. Sometimes, it’s just more economical to use it.
Artbreeder is free to use, though uploads and downloads are severely limited at that tier–but if you only need a couple of images a month, there’s no reason to subscribe. The site has different tiers for a monthly fee, starting at $8.99.
Krita is a free painting app for Mac, Windows and Linux.
Krita is targeted towards painters; it is not a replacement for a program like Photoshop. If your style is more painterly/concept art-y, or you like to create textures and patterns, it’s a good app to try out.
It’s not the smoothest app out there, but for free, it’s a great program. It has a gentle learning curve, but I would still mess around with the program and get familiar with it before beginning any serious artwork.
Clip Studio Paint
Clip Studio Paint is for Windows, Mac, and mobile devices. It has a free trial if you want to check it out. It also has several options for payment, including monthly plans from $0.99, depending on device. If you purchase their product outright, it’s a one-time payment. So Clip Studio Paint is yours forever for under the cost of one Adobe CC monthly bill.
For authors who like to draw and illustrate and lean towards 2D/comic/manga style or digital painting, this program is awesome. It has brushes, pens, and fantastic manipulation of vector lines (an absolute must for comic/manga drawing, IMO). You can access their store to get free extras, like brushes and such.
Purchasing the EX version is much more spendy, but you gain access to animation, page layouts and 3D models. If you are serious about creating comics/manga, you might want to look at the monthly plans for EX, which start at $8.99. Still spendy, but more doable.
I do all my line drawing in Clip Studio Paint. Sketching in Photoshop then transferring to Illustrator was once my go-to workflow, but due to an Illustrator bug, it’s now unusable with my pen displays. I decided to check CSP out because I needed a vector program.
I’m glad I did. Being able to easily erase and manipulate vectors sold me on it. So I now sketch on a raster layer then refine on a vector. You can color your work in CSP too, and they have a great fill feature where the program doesn’t have to have the outlines closed to properly fill in a shape. Awesome.
If you like to digitally paint, they have a lot of painterly brushes, too. They run contests, and seeing what others create using the program is a great source of inspiration.
Sketchbook was discontinued by Autodesk in 2021 and spun off to other developers, Sketchbook Inc. I haven’t used the program since this development, so I’m not certain about updates and changes and if it works the same. It was a decent program under Autodesk, especially for free; as of this writing, the new developers are charging a one-time payment of $19.99.
Sketchbook Inc. is promising loads of new content, and since the price isn’t bad for a drawing app, this is one to keep in mind. It has hundreds of brushes and a predictive smoothing element to keep lines nice and smooth. I enjoyed using it when it was part of the Autodesk lineup, and I hope the new company keeps the quality up.
Affinity Photo / Designer
I’ve covered Affinity before. Their apps are cheaper than Photoshop, and if you wait for a sale, you can get a favorable discount that lets you purchase them individually for under $40.
Affinity Photo is a raster program like Photoshop. It has versatile brush creation and a fantastic zoom feature. Designer is a vector program like Illustrator, and is good for outlining art. Together, you can create some nice pieces.
Affinity software has familiar interfaces for those who have used graphics software before. Getting their product for photo manipulation as well as drawing is a great two-fer–just know, that with Windows 10 and 11, an audio enhancement app called Nahimic can play havoc with it. If menu items start to disappear and other menu options get blurry, you need to disable it. (Nahimic and NVidia aren’t good friends, and can cause problems for other drawing and audio software as well).
ArtRage Lite is $29.90 as of this writing. It is a digital painting program that is meant to be easy to use. The Lite version has most of the same features as their more expensive versions, but it targets users who don’t want to create their own brushes or textures, and prefer to use things as-is.
ArtRage was once the painting app rage, and designed for all ages and experiences. They have Mac, Windows and mobile versions. It’s worth checking out if you want to get started, or already enjoy, digital painting.
There are a lot of other apps out there, especially ones targeting iPad and iPhone users (Apple’s supposed to be the go-to for digital artists, after all). They’re worth a look, but make certain that, if you purchase something, it’s still being developed. There are a lot of dead apps out there you can still download and use, despite the fact they no longer are active.
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