Digital art tools for beginners

by Dawid Michalczyk
Updated: January 2019

Summary: A basic guide for the beginner digital artist to the less expensive but quality 2D and 3D software on the market today.

Every now and then I'm asked what digital art programs I can recommend. I certainly understand how anybody new to the field might have trouble finding the right tools. These days there is a lot of digital art software out there. From tiny tools that will only render you a logo, to large, multi-purpose, expensive and complex programs that can do almost anything. They all look great on the outset and have plenty of cool features, but which is right for you? This article will help you find answers to this question, and hopefully save a lot of time and hassle.

Types of digital art programs

There are two types of digital art tools: 2D and 3D. The 2D (2 dimensions, x and y) tools enable you paint or draw on a flat surface just like painting or drawing on a piece of paper or canvas. The 3D (3 dimensions, x, y and z) tools are different. Here you create in three dimensions. The main difference between 2D and 3D tools is that in 3D you can render what you created from any view point and you can animate it.

For a beginner, it's best to start with a good but inexpensive popular software. That way the process of learning how to use a particular program will be easier and less costly because such programs have a large user base. Thus there are many tutorials, videos, and forums to turn for help. Furthermore such programs are typically less complex than the more expensive ones. Therefore I decided to concentrate on the more common art programs that cost less than 1000 USD. These are quality tools that will provide you with plenty of creative power.

The digital art programs I suggest here are tools that I either use(d) myself extensively or occasionally to test them out. Generally they all do the same thing - enable the user to create digital images. The main difference between them is in usability and how much they cost. I won't cover vector-based programs as I have no experience in that domain.

2D painting programs

Most digital artists specialize in being either a 2D or 3D artist. However, 3D artists typically need to have at least some basic 2D abilities - if only to do minor fixes to 3D renders, or to modify textures. Starting with Gimp is a good idea since it's free and is available for Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. Photoshop and Painter are probably the most popular 2D programs among digital artists.

  • GIMP - free; available for all popular operating systems; some functionality is a bit lacking; many effects and filters; very stable.
  • Painter - popular among digital painters; famous for its rich set of traditional brushes that can be customised; usually slow when working in hi-resolution or using larger brushes; stability issues.
  • Corel DRAW Graphics Suite - easy to learn and use; has web graphics and animation tools; a bit slow on Windows Vista.
  • Photoshop - the most popular image editing software; many brushes available, and new brushes are easy to make; fast and powerful; has limited 3D capability; many free and commercial plugins available; usually quite stable (except the 3D part).

All-round 3D programs

By using an all-round 3D software you will learn how to create and think in 3D. Such software will let you do almost anything: characters, architecture, landscapes, objects, special effects, etc.

  • Blender - free; available for all popular operating systems; shortcuts for almost anything; frequent updates with new features and bugfixes; some functionality is a bit lacking; CPU rendering much faster under Linux compared to Windows; relatively easy to use and learn.
  • Carrara - built-in terrain and plant generation; full support for all DAZ 3D content.
  • LightWave - famous for its high quality rendering; limited character animation; used in production of many Hollywood movies.

These are versatile tools that take time to learn. If you master any of them you probably won't need to learn another tool for years to come.

Special purpose 3D tools

There are many 3D programs which specialize in a particular domain, like character or landscape creation. Because they are highly optimized for doing one thing, the end result can be better, or at least easier and quicker done compared to an all-round 3D program.

They are typically much easier to use and get started with. Frequently providing the user with pre-fabricated, ready to use assets that can be easily manipulated. This allows for a fast development process and saves plenty of time and effort.

There is a down side to this however. The high specialization factor makes these tools output renderings that have very similar look and feel. The wide use of pre-fabricated assets further eliminates originality and degrades artistic creativity. The ease of use makes such tools accessible to anybody - artist or not. As a result many online galleries are literally flooded with endless, similarly looking, poor quality images that get quickly boring to look at.

Having said that, there certainly is a special place for such tools in 3D artist's tool box. If used wisely, they can act as a valuable supplement to your all-round 3D tool(s). I have often used Bryce for landscape creation, rendered the rest in 3DS Max and combined it all in Photoshop. Combining tools, if done properly, will enable you to create unique work that is original and bears no apparent resemblance to the special purpose tools involved.

3D landscape tools

  • Bryce - sleek interface, but not very practical; renders quite fast; very easy to use.
  • Terragen - very realistic rendering; a free version available with limited functionality for non-commercial use; very slow rendering.
  • Vue - quite realistic rendering; advanced lighting and atmosphere features; very capable at generating landscapes with plants.
3D character software
    DAZ | Studio easy to use; somewhat limited; rather slow interface.
  • Poser - easy to use; sleek interface, but not very practical; stability issues.

Final thoughts

Although the art tools I described here are especially suitable for serious beginners, they are by no means limited to the world of hobbyists - far from it. In fact, all programs described here are used professionally around the world by illustrators, artists, video game companies, and movie studios.

Some artists love the versatility that 3D offers, while others find 2D more intuitive. In the beginning it's best to give a serious try to both approaches to find out what works best for you. Once you are comfortable with one or both of these, a special purpose tool may be a good option for supplementing your work, if needed.

Be prepared to spend long hours with the software(s) you choose to learn. Start small and gradually and steadily improve your skills. Concentrate on fundamentals - learn the basics first. Focus on building a solid understanding of how the software works. Buy an introductory book, or simply use the manuals (if well written, it may be all you'll need). If you get stuck look for help on the net: forums, FAQs, usenet, youtube, and tutorial sites .

While trying out different art programs keep in mind that although technically they work in a similar way, the usage can be quite different. Therefore, a program that works great for one person may not work at all for another - it's all a matter of personal preference. So the best strategy is to download a demo and try it for some time. If it doesn't suit you, try another one until you find one that you like. There are of course many other tools out there. Once you become more experienced, you'll know your needs better and will find your way to other tools if needed.

Finally, remember that all programs are merely tools. It's the user of those tools that makes all the difference. A novice, even when given the most powerful art program in the world, will still produce poor results. On the other hand, a talented, experienced and dedicated artist can produce great results using low-end tools. The more experienced you become, the more you can use this to your advantage.

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Dawid Michalczyk is a freelance illustrator and an artist. To see examples of his artwork and writings visit his website at http://www.art.eonworks.com
Copyright © 2007 Dawid Michalczyk. All Rights Reserved. This content may be copied in full, with copyright, contact, creation, information and links intact, without specific permission, when used only in a not-for-profit format.

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