It’s almost impossible to complete a variety of design work without having some drawing skills. You may excel at digital image manipulation or putting together elements into a book cover, header or flyer. However, without some basic knowledge and use of drawing programs, you’ll eventually find some tasks impossible.
There are around 290,100 graphic designers in the United States. The job outlook for graphic designers is a bit lower than the national average at 3%. If you want to remain competitive in an aggressive industry, you must hone every unique skill possible. Refining drawing skills gives you an edge in your design work and ramps things up to a new level.
If you’re just getting started in designing or sketching concepts out by hand, finding the right program is challenging. Some software has a sharp learning curve or is cumbersome. We’ve looked through the most popular drawing programs and come up with 11 of the best. We’ll let you know if you need some additional training to use it effectively.
Jump to: Adobe Photoshop | Autodesk SketchBook | Corel Painter | Krita | Adobe Illustrator | Inkscape | Affinity Designer | Rebelle | Procreate | Artweaver | Gravit
1. Adobe Photoshop
No list of drawing programs would be complete without Photoshop in the mix. Since most designers already use this software regularly, the learning curve may not be an issue. However, Photoshop is hard to use for someone who hasn’t tried it before. If you are just seeing it for the first time, you will have to take some additional training, watch online videos and play around with the software to figure it out.
It offers a lot of control over strokes via brush types and sizes. The preset panel helps you organize your favorite brushes and techniques in one location. Adobe Creative Cloud has a variety of options. For $9.99 per month, you gain Lightroom, Photoshop and 20 GB of cloud storage. If you need more storage or apps, there are additional costs.
Cost: $9.99 per month
2. Autodesk SketchBook
While you can certainly draw with a mouse, your designs will look like you drew them with a lot less control. The best drawings come from a combination of a tablet and a digital pen. A mix of tools gives you much more control over the finished look and even smooths out shaky lines. The interface of the program is intuitive without any distracting elements. The program smooths your lines even more, creating a seamless and aesthetically pleasing look.
Create your own brushes or download brushes made by others. It’s a bit more limited than Photoshop without filters, layer masks or the extensive color adjustments of other drawing programs. It is suitable for beginners because of its simplicity.
3. Corel Painter
Corel Painter has been around for decades. It comes with over 900 brush styles and elements to help you take a so-so design to something spectacular. One of the things making Painter good for beginners is the extensive collection of tutorials. If you don’t know how to complete some function with the software, there is likely a video in the library detailing the process. They do offer a free trial if you’d like to give it a test run.
The company bills itself as one of the “tools you need to grow as an artist.” Krita is one of the drawing programs not costing anything. It is also open-source, so the community adds to the knowledge base and offers add-ons for users. Comic designers and concept artists use the software for their illustrations, giving you an idea of its versatility. It comes with brush stabilizers and a resource manager so you can reuse the tools you love.
5. Adobe Illustrator
It’s no surprise another of our selections comes from Adobe. Illustrator gives you a bit more control over your designs than even Photoshop. As with Adobe’s other drawing programs, Illustrator is part of the Creative Cloud. If you only want Illustrator, you can purchase just licensing for the tool and ignore the others. You can also gain it as part of a larger package.
If you plan to work on scalable vectors, this is the software for you. The program comes with all the features of Photoshop but also gives you a lot of additional typography and some freehand drawing options.
Cost: $20.99 per month
If you want something fundamental to start, Inkscape is another free but powerful design tool. It is open-source and comes with features you’ll find in more expensive versions. You can start with object creation or manipulate objects already designed. Change the color, add text and save in any major file format. It is most comparable to Illustrator with fewer features.
Drawing tools include pencil, pen or calligraphy. You can scale, rotate, skew and group and ungroup objects. Use layers similar to Photoshop for transparent effects and combining multiple images.
7. Affinity Designer
Affinity Designer is known for its fast and smooth graphic design and photo editing. Customize your illustrations by controlling curves and creating blends. It has a fantastic zoom feature so you can work on those fine details, making a work of art pop.
Everything previews live so you know if you want to make the change before confirming it. It is unique out of the list of drawing programs and set up quite different than Photoshop or Corel Painter. If you’re just getting started using drawing programs, it is very intuitive.
Drawing programs often focus on the sketching part of the design. Rebelle focuses on creating amazing digital paintings. Go with a look like acrylic, watercolor or oil. You can do some modern art designs such as acrylic pouring or blowing and make the paint run the way it would in real life. You can even tilt and make the colors run in a specific direction. There is a custom brush creation tool so you can truly define your artistic style.
If you’re looking for some tools you can use with an iPad you already own, Procreate fits the bill. Add a digital pen and create gorgeous sketches, electronic paintings and illustrations for almost any purpose. Because it is mobile, you can build images on the fly or with a beautiful landscape in front of you. Most designers use the program to sketch out a drawing and work on filling in color later.
Artweaver is a painting tool great for beginners. Experiment with different realistic brushes or work with a team of other artists to bring something to life. Comes with preconfigured brushes but easy to customize, too. The interface is easy to learn and user-friendly. Save a collection of features to smooth your workflow on subsequent projects. The software records the painting process so that you can repeat it or show others what you did to achieve the look.
Cost: FREE for non-commercial use; 34.00 pounds for license
If you’re looking for free drawing programs, Gravit offers a lot of functionality. Even though there’s no cost, it has full functionality. Design vector graphics on any platform. The user interface (UI) of Gravit is easy. Even beginners pick up this software quickly. Work with layers, geometric drawings, curves and lines. You can crop, mask, blend, resize or add filters of your choice. You’ll also find a library of vectors free to include in your work, speeding up your creation time.
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The Best Drawing Programs for You
There are many free and paid options available for beginning and experienced designers. The key is finding the UI intuitive for you. You may need to combine programs to get the exact effect you’d like. With a little practice and a lot of creativity, you’ll find a drawing program matching your budget and skillset. You’ll become one of the most sought after sketch artists out there.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.
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