If you’re looking to step away from your paper canvases and switch over to digital drawing, you’re going to need a program worthy of your talent. Of course, you don’t want to waste time pouring over the huge selection out there—that’s time you could spend drawing, after all. So, we picked out nine programs that are worth your time to check out regardless of your skill level with digital art.
It’s important to note: these programs are made with drawing tablets in mind. You can use a mouse to draw in all of these programs, but that can feel awkward and doesn’t offer the same precision as a tablet.
What to Look for in a Digital Drawing Program
There are a few things to consider when selecting the right program for you.
- Design: When you’re drawing, your focus should be on the canvas. A good drawing program won’t divert your attention away from that with a complicated UI. That’s not to say having options and advanced tools isn’t important, but rather it’s important for a program to be intuitive—you shouldn’t have to spend more time navigating menus than actually drawing.
- Toolset: Drawing programs can have a lot of tools available that take advantage of their digital nature. Layered canvases are the most obvious example, as they allow you to draw each part of an image on a separate layer that can be separately moved and adjusted without affecting the rest of the image. Aside from that, other basic tools that almost every program features are in-depth color selection options and a variety of brushes that allow you to draw in different styles and textures. Then there are relatively minor but still important tools, like rulers, stencils, tracing modes, grids, and symmetry modes. These can all speed up certain parts of the drawing process, and in general, just make your life easier.
- Custom Brushes: While many programs include a decent selection of brushes, it’s unlikely for a single program to cover every type of brush you want. That’s where custom brushes come in. These are either modified versions of a program’s existing brushes or entirely new brushes. Programs that have custom brushes allow you to create your own styles or import brushes made by other users—which is extremely useful if you’re after something specific.
- Realistic Styles: Some programs attempt to mimic real-world painting styles very closely. This is usually done through advanced texturing and adjusting how the specific brushes react to touch and pressure. For example, a “thick paint” realistic brush will have uneven texturing and create buildups of paint as if you were painting with a real paintbrush. These can be vital for capturing certain styles, so they’re always nice to see.
- Payment Model: Most programs expect you to pay in some form. Sometimes, this is a simple one-time payment when you first download the program, and other times it’s a subscription you’ll be paying every month or year. Which one you prefer is up to you, but there are plenty of options available in both camps.
All-Rounder: ArtRage 6
If you’re just looking for a general drawing program, ArtRage 6 is the way to go. It features the basics like layers and brushes, while also having a wide range of tools like stencils, rulers, and tracing modes. It fully supports custom brushes, and you can edit the brushes included in the program as well.
With its easy-to-understand radial design, ArtRage 6 is perfect for new digital artists who want a fully featured program that doesn’t bog them down with a complicated UI. There is also ArtRage Lite, which is a toned-down version of ArtRage 6 that aims to assist those new to drawing. It even includes a variety of tutorials for using the program itself along with general art tips. You can see a full comparison of ArtRage 6 and ArtRage Lite on ArtRage’s site.
ArtRage 6 costs a one-time payment of $79, and ArtRage Lite costs $30.
Adobe’s Offering: Adobe Photoshop
You’re probably familiar with Photoshop as a photo-editing tool, but many use it for digital drawing as well. While most of Photoshop’s features are designed with photo editing in mind, everything still works great for drawing. All of the basic tools you’d expect are here, along with great support for realistic painting styles.
But most importantly, Photoshop has fantastic support for custom brushes, and with how many people use Photoshop, there is a near-endless supply of brushes to be found online. There’s also support for third-party plug-ins, which can add in even more tools and features to the program.
Photoshop is subscription-based, costing, at a minimum, $10 a month with Adobe’s photography bundle.
Photoshop Rival: Affinity Photo
Affinity Photo is extremely similar to Photoshop, and that’s not just because it’s another photo editor that works well for digital drawing. It supports custom brushes like Photoshop, and can even use brushes that are in Photoshop’s file formats, so you still have access to that giant community. Affinity Photo was made to rival Photoshop, so it mimics it in features extremely closely. Until you start looking at the very in-depth features, you’d be hard-pressed to find any major differences between the two as far as tools and options go.
But what about the advantages of Affinity Photo? Well, Affinity Photo has a smoother and more modern design that many prefer to Photoshop’s. It’s also only a one-time payment of $50, so if you dislike subscription models but want something similar to Photoshop, Affinity Photo is definitely the program to use.
Online Drawing: Sketchpad
Web-based tools are incredibly useful for those with less powerful hardware, so it’s great to see a fully featured drawing program created for web users. Sketchpad is a simple but effective drawing program that doesn’t skimp out on tools. There is a desktop version of Sketchpad as well, but it costs $5 and offers the same features as the completely free web version.
Sketchpad may not be as deep with its features as many desktop apps, but it still has a decent variety of brushes and tools for you to create with. You can still use a drawing tablet with the web version, and all your projects will be automatically saved to the site. You can also export projects into various file formats when you’re done, or save everything to Google Docs if you’d prefer.
Watercolor Mastery: Rebelle 3
Rebelle 3 is more focused on realistic styles of digital painting than the other programs here; it’s designed to give you the ability to realistically paint with watercolors and acrylics. It applies physics to the paint so that it reacts to touch and pressure the same way the real stuff would. Paint drips down as you draw, you can use the blow tool to spread it out, and everything is adjustable as well, so you can choose how strong these effects are. Because of this dedication and focus, Rebelle 3 is a great tool for those who plan to mainly focus on realistic drawing styles. You can also use custom brushes made by yourself and the community for more options.
Rebelle 3 costs a one-time payment of $90.
Free and Simple: Autodesk Sketchbook
While it’s understandable that professional software costs a pretty penny, there are some great free options around as well for artists with a tight budget. Autodesk Sketchbook is one of these, and it allows you to do all the basics you’d expect with a simple and clean UI. This program allows you to focus on your canvas, without having to deal with any complicated settings.
You can still create and install custom brushes if you want to, and there is an impressive selection included with Sketchbook out of the box. Sketchbook also makes it simple to edit the included brushes, so there’s a lot to work with here without having to download or create custom brushes.
Krita, unlike the rest of the programs here, is open-source. That means it’s free, but it also means anyone with the technical knowledge can dive into the source code and change whatever they want. That opens the door to third-party content, whether it’s new features, UI changes, or custom brushes. That’s not to say Krita is a lackluster application out of the box either. Even without third-party content, this is a fully featured drawing program and a great free option for those looking for something more advanced than Sketchbook.
Advanced Enhancements: Corel Painter 2021
Corel Painter 2021 aims to step things up in comparison to other drawing programs, but that does come at a cost (quite literally). It has all the basic features you’d expect, but there are some unique AI-enhancement tools included in the program that set it apart. There are 12 customizable AI styles that can save you some time shading and texturing your drawings. There’s also the Clone Tinting tool, which can speed up the process of adding color to your paintings.
Corel Painter also features in-depth texture and patterns tools that can be customized, along with over 900 brushes included in the program. (You can easily edit these brushes or create your own.) There are plenty of realistic painting styles available all with their own unique effects and properties.
Corel Painter 2021 costs a one-time payment of $429, or an annual subscription cost of $199 per year.
Comic Creation: Clip Studio Paint
Clip Studio Paint is another general drawing program, but it places a special emphasis on creating comics. There are multiple settings and brushes made to mimic classic comic book or manga styles, and you can easily add panels and speech bubbles in with the dedicated tools. Besides that, it includes all of the standard features for drawing (including custom brushes), and even has the ability to import or create 3D reference models in the program itself.
There’s a couple of versions of this program: Clip Studio Paint Pro and Clip Studio Paint EX. Clip Studio Paint Pro costs a one-time payment of $50, $4.49 a month, or $25 a year. However, that version only comes with the base drawing and painting tools. If you’re interested in the comic-related features (along with some animation tools), you’ll need Clip Studio Paint EX, which costs a one-time payment of $219, $9 a month, or $72 a year.