In my previous articles, I’ve talked a lot about the superpowers of visual content marketing. Depicting real-life objects or imaginations through visual illustrations is a fantastic way to make your content unique, fresh, and likable.
As an illustrator, graphic designer, or a visual content creator, it absolutely helps to have the right tools, to begin with. However, when it comes to the best digital art and illustration software, there are quite a few options to choose from.
What is Digital Illustration?
Digital illustration is the process of using non-traditional means of creating an ART. It takes advantage of the present digital software platforms or tools that are efficient at producing one-of-a-kind visual presentations.
This is usually done with a computer or tablet using software tools. This process simply requires your imagination and a few strokes of your hands using a mouse, stylus, or any digital device that you could choose.
Nowadays, there is an increasing number of demands in the world of illustration design. To help you pick the right ones for you, I’ve rounded up and reviewed the best digital illustration software, tools, or apps available today.
1. Paint Tool Sai
PaintTool SAI is a painting solution by Systemax ideal for various illustrations such as cartoons and animes. The program has a simple interface and comes with easy-to-use tools. It is not complicated like its competition and still manages to keep the advanced features and functionalities other similar tools offer.
I recommend this one for beginners. During my earlier years of doing digital illustration (way back 2011), I started practicing on the older version of Paint Tool Sai since it already provided complete digitized support. Which means I was able to use with my Intuos Pro pen tablet on this software, and it was pretty good. I can make my illustrations even better with the most helpful pressure sensitiveness of the pen.
However, as better tools emerged and with the integration of 3D effects, it somehow left the scene in digital illustration. But guess what, this software is still a good choice when creating good digital imagery.
The best part of this software is its color blend modes. I can easily switch saturation levels for a certain color and it gives me the freedom to choose how “colorful” my artwork will be. By simply making adjustments to a color’s luminescence, I can quickly see the darkness or lightness per color.
This coloring feature gives me the power to come up with jaw-dropping artworks especially when I’m aiming for a more realistic style.
The downside is that it only runs on Windows computers and doesn’t support Macintosh. Also, PaintTool SAI is not free but the software can be downloaded for free. People who are keen to use the tool but aren’t sure about buying it outright can start with a 31-day trial that offers complete access to the tool and all its functions for free.
2. Medibang Paint
MediBang Paint Pro is a free digital painting and comic creation software. It’s available for Windows and Mac. You can also download the mobile version and share the same cloud. That way, you can transport your work from PC to your mobile device. Even though it’s free it comes loaded with a LOT of features. It includes everything you need to illustrate or make comics.
When I got my first iPad, this was the first digital illustration app that I used. Everything about it is great. It comes with auto-save (which is really important for me), a coloring tool that makes it possible for users to toggle between color appearances, and a wide variety of brushes to choose from.
When starting a new project, you can save all of your pages in one file. You can easily edit the pages or change their order. Although, I have experienced frequent crashes that interrupted my work process. But other than that, it’s an awesome and cheaper alternative to other expensive software.
3. Adobe Photoshop CC
Adobe Photoshop is the most popular photo editing software around. It is the industry standard today and is used by professionals and hobbyists alike.
Although Photoshop best know for photo editing and enhancement, this software also has painting capabilities using either your laptop, desktop, or mobile devices (Adobe Sketch).
I’ll admit that when I first got started, I only used Adobe Photoshop for… EVERYTHING. It is the standard in the art and design world and has a full complement of tools and design features that will fulfill all of your illustrating needs.
However, Photoshop is not ideal when it comes to creating logos. It will do nothing but cost you time and money. Creating a logo in Photoshop cannot be enlarged or manipulated in the same manner that an Illustrator based logo can.
All in all, one of the most powerful aspects of Photoshop is its brush and color feature. The program has a number of colors to choose from. You can make use of primary colors or take it a step further with intricate secondary colors. Whenever you pick a color, a wide spectrum of dark and colored hues of that color will be presented.
Most importantly, because it’s part of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite, you can easily share your data and access all of your assets – including brushes, images, colors, and styles – across all of your devices. Sure it’s expensive, but it’s totally worth it!
4. Adobe Illustrator
Another well-known software package in the Adobe Creative Suite is Illustrator. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator have a lot in common but their differences are bigger than their similarities.
Photoshop is based on pixels while Illustrator works using vectors. Vectors are scalable images that can be sized as small or as large are you need them to be, but look the same when it comes to clarity and resolution.
Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for professional graphic design software. It works off vectors, these are points used to create perfectly smooth lines. This program is for creating and editing vector-based work such as graphics, logos, and other design elements.
I personally recommend this if you are looking to create flat images, scalable logos, infographics, and other professional graphic designs. The large selection of the vector tools can be daunting at first, but once you know what all of the tools do, you’ll find that it offers the greatest creative freedom of any vector-based graphic design software.
I absolutely love the way Illustrator also responds to mobile/tablet (Adobe Draw). There are pen tools, vector brushes, the ability to create custom brushes, and plenty of text tools to help make your designs stand out.
There’s also pressure sensitivity in each stroke, which allows artists to control the way the lines look. There are also options to use guides, grids, and rulers to make sure everything lines up for symmetry and balance.
For me, if you are working as a graphic artist or a visual content creator, you can pretty much do everything in this software.
5. Affinity Designer
Affinity Designer is a vector graphics editor designed as an alternative to Adobe Illustrator. It could be easily dismissed as another cheap graphics program aimed at amateurs, but it was created specifically for professional designers accustomed to working in a Mac environment.
With the ability to edit and create pixel layers, Affinity Designer ostensibly functions as an Illustrator hybrid.
Though I have only tried this software a few times, I find the features seriously impressive! If you’re an Illustrator user, you will be treated to an instantly familiar set of tools and options. These include the staple Pen tool plus a useful vector brush that lets you create custom paths. It also has a useful selection of live shapes, which you can use to create common objects instantly.
All in all, if you’re a vector artist who uses iPad and often works on the go, Affinity Designer is a no-brainer purchase. Affinity Designer is suitably simple for beginners to use as a learning tool but sufficiently powerful for freelance graphic artists on a budget. Plus, it is wonderfully optimized to support the Apple iPad Pro and iPad Pencil (which is a Godsend for me).
Another great alternative for Adobe Illustrator on the list is Inkscape. Whether you are an illustrator, designer, web designer or just someone who needs to create some vector imagery, Inkscape is also a great option for you!
Inkscape is a free and open source design software focused on vector illustration. Designs done on Inkscape can be exported in different formats, and the software can be used on Windows, Mac, and Linux.
When I first tried it, I thought that it wasn’t as user-friendly as the Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer. Some of the tools are on each side of the screen and that there isn’t a quick guide. The collapsing of side palettes is a little small and the floating tools palette can’t be reconfigured.
Perhaps, I think that once you discover the tricks, things will go pretty smooth for you. But if you’re used to crafting your work in Adobe Illustrator, it may take some time to learn all the quirks and adjust to this new design platform.
All things considered, I think it’s a pretty decent illustration tool and has comparable functionality to Adobe Illustrator (but it’s free). I think that whatever you can create in Illustrator, you can also make in Inkscape. You can create 3D shapes, create graphics for any specification, and it’s got great flexibility in terms of file formats as well.
Procreate is the most powerful and intuitive digital illustration app available for iPad. Earlier I’ve switched away from the Adobe Draw, to the Procreate when doing my illustrations as it’s been recommended to me by a lot of artists that I admire. And I totally love it and it has become my personal favorite among all the software I know right now.
Although the app is way more expensive than other free programs from Apple Store, I can say that it’s a lot better, and somehow feels a lot more natural and fluid. Using the Apple Pencil, the app worked a treat. Featuring a pressure-sensitivity control, it’s super-easy to set each tool to respond exactly as you want.
Though Procreate is for iPad only, this app packs in most of the capabilities you’d find in a desktop tool, including precise color-picker tools, the ability to work with hundreds of layers, and industry-standard tools such as masks, Blend Modes and groups.
You can choose from over 130 Procreate brushes to mimic different traditional art effects easily and effectively. I’m also a huge fan of the fact that it has a predictive stroke feature for a smoother look on straight lines and basic shapes like circles, rectangles, and triangles.
There’s also full PSD support and recently teased the addition of a text tool, making it an even stronger option for digital artists. Lastly, I think it’s also worth mentioning that it has a time-lapse recording button that allows you to watch/share your entire work process, which I find extremely useful!
8. Autodesk Sketchbook
Autodesk Sketchbook is another of the classic generation of graphics programs and it has found itself overlapping a number of different tools in terms of functionality.
This software is specifically designed for tablets and other mobile devices but can also be used in desktops and laptops. Just like Procreate, you can easily blend colors with its 18 blending modes. It also offers a library of 100+ brushes and you can build your drawings using layers.
I normally use Procreate for most of my artwork, but a friend of mine (who is a professional graphic artist as well) let me borrow his laptop so that I could give Autodesk Sketchbook Pro a try. I have to be honest, I’m blown away by the options and wide array of features.
One of the best features I noticed was the lack of frills. This allows me to get up-to-speed, quickly. It also comes with fully adjustable rulers to guide me for a more precise drawing experience. I have use of perspective guides, I can distort drawings, add gradient fills, and make use of French curves
Overall, I liked the Sketchbook Pro version and its user-friendly features. Even if you’re an Illustrator user on the desktop, or if you’re on the lookout for a mobile work station and own an iPad, Autodesk Sketchbook is a drawing program you can enjoy.
9. Corel Painter
Corel Painter is a raster-based digital art application created to simulate as accurately as possible the appearance and behavior of traditional media associated with drawing, painting, and printmaking. It is intended to be used in real-time by other digital artists as a functional creative tool.
It is quickly becoming the go-to tool for artwork creation. If you’re looking for a natural and traditional feel that’s wrapped up in a digital drawing and painting app, this is it! Painter emulates the visual characteristics of traditional media, such as oil paint, pastel sticks, airbrush, charcoal, felt pens, and other traditional artists’ materials on various textured surfaces.
What I really love about this software is when I used this with Intuos Pro pen tablet. The airbrush tool smoothly responds to pressure as well as tilt, velocity, and rotation. I also find it less complex version than other illustration tools as it is designed for casual users.
All in all, It’s a solid enough program, with good editing tools and a customizable interface, but it also suffers from a few flaws that can make it frustrating to use for large projects. If you’re just interested in exploring what you can accomplish with digital paint, Corel Painter might be a good introduction, but any serious professional artist will want to go for the other software available.
However, Corel Painter is for digital painting for artists. But if you’re more interested in drawing, layout design, infographics, and vector illustration, Corel Draw may be the right software for you.
ArtRage is a popular digital painting and drawing tool from Ambient Design Ltd for both desktop and mobile devices. Originally launched as a hobbyist tool, it’s become increasingly professional over the years. And that trend has continued with the release of ArtRage 5 for Windows and macOS.
The mobile app I tried in my iPad was flawless. It comes with a wide array of possible painting techniques that seem to be limitless for artists, from beginner to expert. Just like the other illustration software I mentioned above, ArtRage is fueled by an enhanced blend of interface, brushes, color palette, and artistic tools.
The interface is organized to maximize the space you have for painting, but it’s no bother to locate an option or menu when you need to. It’s also customizable and can be relocated to more convenient locations.
The best feature I’ve experienced from this app is it creates multiple views to paint different areas of your main image independently. This feature gives you the power to show your real talent and come up with great artwork.
If you are skilled in drawing and painting, you will find that ArtRage is easy and fun right from the outset. Or if you consider yourself a doodler, this app just might improve your drawing abilities and you’ll find yourself having hours of fun.
If you don’t have graphic design experience at all and you are looking for a user-friendly design tool that makes it possible for you to create eye-catching images, there are online design solutions and apps available for you today such as Stencil, Canva, Adobe Spark, Assembly, etc.
Although these are not really considered illustration software, I just thought that it’s worth mentioning since they’re options for graphic designs.
The online design solutions offer you a wide array of features, including drag-and-drop design creation, quality photographs and illustrations, layouts, and fonts. With these tools, you can take your ideas and turn them into a design that can then be printed, downloaded, or shared on social media.
I specifically recommend this app for those who are not tech-savvy or even artistically inclined. The drag-and-drop functionality makes designing eye-catching designs simple and quick for you.
But if you are a professional marketer and want to go the extra mile, I suggest that you use the more professional programs mentioned above, that can give your brand a more creative and unique identity.
I believe that the secret to creating the perfect digital art for your content is to replicate the feeling of working on a sketchpad using a pen or a pencil. The goal should be to forget that you are using a computer or tablet.
So, with the advancement in technology, many digital illustration tools have started to emerge making the digital illustrator’s life much easier.
When you make a decision to buy and try out Illustration software, it’s important not only to see how experts evaluate it in their reviews but also to find out if it actually works for you as an artist. What’s perfect for me might be horrible for you.
From a visual content marketer’s perspective, every business is different. Business-specific requirements and constraints will likely lead you to a particular Illustration software solution.
Last point: make sure you and your team remember what the software is supposed to do for your business and your marketing strategy.
Personally I use Firealpaca and love it to death!
Clip Studio Paint? And I think you should separate the pixel based and vector based app/program.
What would be the best recommendation for an amateur looking to do illustrations for a kids book? I’m pretty novel at anything illustration program wise so any help is appreciated.
Great list! I got my 24″ XP-PEN Artist 24 pro graphic tablet display to work in ArtRage. I’m a big fan of ArtRage personally, but I’ll definitely take a closer look at Medibang Paint very soon .
Adobe Illustrator is used to creating a variety of digital and printed images, including cartoons, charts, diagrams, graphs, logos, and illustrations. Illustrator allows a user to import a photograph and use it as a guide to trace an object in the photograph.
If you want to use the photo it would also be good to check with the artist beforehand in case it is subject to copyright. Best wishes. Aaren Reggis Sela
Thanks for sharing such an amazing article. This really helped me to know the different illustration software to look out in 2021. Keep sharing such great informative articles.